Yossarian (Still) Lives

You've heard the phrase "catch 22", right?

The saying entered American English 50 years ago when Joseph Heller published his irreverent World War II novel by that name. Catch-22 is set in Italy during World War II. The protagonist is the bombardier, Yossarian. Our "hero" is angry because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him as he flies missions.

Actually, his immediate problem is that the officers above him keep increasing the number of missions he has to fly to complete his military service. It's driving him "crazy" and he thinks he needs to be grounded. But Doc Daneeka tells him that a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions. Since Yossarian makes a formal request to be removed from duty, that proves he is sane. Therefore, he is ineligible to be relieved of duty.

That is known as "catch 22."

This wonderful paradox fit right in during the 1960s with a anti-authoritarian generation that came of age during the Vietnam War.

Of course, this no-win trap still holds true today, which is just what a story I heard on said as it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication.

Heller flew missions himself in August 1944 over France in a B-25 bomber and those experiences shaped his novel.

Joseph Heller, pictured above in October 1974,
based Catch-22 on his own experiences
as a bombardier in World War II.
Heller died in 1999 at age 76.
Photo: Jerry Mosey/AP

Yossarian is Heller's everyman soldier who is trying as hard as he can to get out of the war.

The novel was seen as an anti-war novel and when it was released, it wasn't all that well-received.

War novels tended to be serious, tragic works, but Catch 22 was black comedy.

The New York Times called it an "emotional hodgepodge." But The New Republic said "it was the first genuine post-World War II novel" and Robert Brustein said in his review that he was blown away by the book and the way Heller's depictions of war turned the idea of heroism on its head

The Vietnam War expanded in the 1960s and young people who protested the war embraced novels by Heller and Vonnegut as they seemed to be aligned with their own lost respect for authority and refusal to take things at face value.

In 1970, a film version of the novel was released.
"Doc", played by Jack Gilford, explains the Catch-22 paradox to Capt. Yossarian (Alan Arkin)