Why ‘Catch-22’ Is the Closest Thing to the Truth About War

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Catch-22 is a satirical war novel published in 1961. It centers on Capt. John Yossarian, an American bombardier during World War II desperately trying to stay alive. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“It was love at first sight.”

I never intended to do a career, be a lifer. In June of 1999, I planned to do the five years I owed in recompense for a $150,000 education “delivered a nickel at a time” courtesy of the Air Force Academy, then punch. But then: 9/11. And I somehow found myself in an honest-to-goodness war, an impressionable first lieutenant, standing outside Combined Joint Task Force 180 on Bagram on the first anniversary of the towers falling, gooseflesh puckering my arm when the realization hit that I couldn’t possibly ever leave this life of service behind.

That was two decades ago. Jesus — is that right?

Love at second sight, then.

Mileage may vary when it comes to Joseph Heller’s Catch‑22, but I rarely find a fellow service member who’s read the book who doesn’t at least find the material recognizable in their own experiences. To me, it’s the only “war book” capable of making the fullest sense out of what I’ve seen over the past 23 years. But it took a minute to get there.

Art Garfunkel And Alan Arkin In 'Catch-22'

Art Garfunkel as Nately and Alan Arkin as Yossarian in a scene from the 1970 film version of Catch-22. Photo by Paramount.

Archive Photos/Getty Images

After 9/11, I read every book on this new war I could get my hands on. They were mostly trash: war-porny commando kill narratives. Somewhere in between Afghanistan and Iraq, I moved on to No-Shit War Literature. Tim O’Brien — because of course it was O’Brien, and I read all the O’Brien, to include the one about the college reunion, and despite proselytizing The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, what I wanted to whisper was July, July. I tried Catch-22, but it was a lot at the time because I was still in the weeds. I kept moving. Decided to write along the way and get an MFA.

More war books on the reading lists, of course.

Vietnam: Herr. Caputo. Wolff.

Desert Storm: Swofford.

My wars, too: Klay and Gallagher and Powers and Turner and Busch and Castner and Fazio and Williams and —

What about World War II? Can you be a war writer if you’ve never read Catch-22?

The story is simple enough: Yossarian is a WWII bombardier in the Army Air Corps who wants to fly his 20 missions and go home. But he can’t because the higher-ups keep raising the number of missions required before he’s released. Looking for a medical way out, Yossarian visits the squadron flight physician, Doc Daneeka. The two talk about Yossarian’s comrade Orr, and Yossarian’s suspicion that Orr is nuts because he is constantly volunteering to fly missions. And it’s here that Yossarian realizes his conundrum.

Fell & Newhart In 'Catch-22'

Norman Fell as 1st Sgt. Towser stands at attention with Bob Newhart as Maj. Major Major Major, sporting a pith helmet and a crooked mustache, in a scene from the 1970 film Catch-22. Photo by Paramount.

Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

“You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and he could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

All those other books about war and the military are true in their own, specific ways. But it is in Catch-22, where men tumble willingly into the repetitive paradoxes and circular logics that stalk their lives and sanity, that I’ve found the closest thing to the “Truth” about wars and the militaries raised to carry them out.

In my career, I’ve played or observed nearly every role — minus Aarfy the war criminal — in Catch-22.

It is not that Catch-22’s hyperbolic scenes play out word for word across a military career. But in the span of a career, you collect your own scenes.

Yossarian, the stupefied pawn: 2012, Helmand province. Afghan soldiers are being wounded in droves, but headquarters will not accept requests for Afghan casualty evacuation. I quiz the nurse and doc who oversee the Regional Command-Southwest medical dispatch. They can’t say yes to picking up wounded Afghans because the Afghanistan government is being weaned off US military support and needs to learn to be self-sufficient, they say with earnest faces full of only the best intentions. Of course, the Afghans are meant to continue fighting the war we started; however, they will never be able to continue fighting said war if they can’t get their wounded off the battlefield.

Colonel Cathcart, the bureaucrat/careerist: 2010, Air Forces Central Command. My colonel tells me in no uncertain terms: You are never to brief the two-star alone. But I forget. The general’s exec finds me, says the old man wants to talk. I’m eager to prove my worth as a staff officer. For 30 minutes he harangues me, a lowly major, for not doing enough in Afghanistan. Dismissed, I wander dazed into the colonel’s office to relay the experience. Without missing a beat: I fucking told you not to go in alone.

Major Major Major Major, the absurdist: 1999-present. I’m told I cannot have a computer without first doing the computer-based training. When I ask where to do the training, I am told to complete the training on my computer.

Doc Daneeka, the rationalist in an irrational world: 2002, Afghanistan. First time outside the wire. Mines everywhere. White rocks are good, red rocks bad. I spot a lone man out in a field with a garden spade, wearing a face shield. When I ask, the driver says the guy is demining the field. With a fucking garden spade. I will never stop wondering: What was the point of the face shield?

CATCH-22 Paramount Television TV mini series with Christopher Abbott

Christopher Abbott as Yossarian in Hulu’s Catch-22 miniseries, 2019. Photo by Pictorial Press Ltd.

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stoc/Alamy Stock Photo

It is not that Catch-22’s hyperbolic scenes play out word for word across a military career. But in the span of a career, you collect your own scenes.

The personnelist who, meant to be filing your paperwork, is looking up lyrics to “Pumped Up Kicks” because their chief heard it playing in someone’s cubicle and thought it advocated school shootings.

The four-star Air Force chief of staff who issues four action orders at the beginning of his tenure, which includes a direction to reduce bureaucracy, who two years later says the bureaucracy is the one kicking his ass.

The war criminal granted clemency who rebrands himself as political pundit.

The SEAL who says he killed Bin Laden spewing nonsense on Twitter.

Catch-22 is everywhere I turn.

Heller’s beating you over the head with the Absurdity Bat page after page can be a bit much. Then again, so is wondering every morning as I plug in my CAC* whether today’s the day that we’ve done such a good job of securing the US military information networks that no one, including the US military, can actually log in. Anyway, the absurdity is the point of the book, which made the recent Hulu adaptation so disappointing, because the showrunners clearly didn’t get the memo.

Alan Arkin In 'Catch-22'

Alan Arkin sits in a plane in a scene from the film Catch-22, 1970. Photo by Paramount.

Archive Photos/Getty Images

I walked away from the book convinced that Heller hated his time at war, but was surprised to learn Heller never spoke ill of his time as a WWII Army Air Corps aviator. It was a good war in his view, his service was honorable, and he said as much. Yet he still chose to subjugate his personal truth to the bigger truth that a wickedly satirical telling achieved. Hulu’s Catch‑22 was recognizable insofar as the plot and characters were familiar. There are funny moments. Unfortunately, it devolves into a trauma narrative with Yossarian as victim. I found I was watching sad, beautiful Christopher Abbott looking for sad, beautiful meaning in yet another sad, beautiful sunset — and I got a glimpse of what might have happened if Heller had gotten an MFA and ended up another sad, run-of-the-mill memoirist just like the rest of us. I couldn’t finish the series.

Twenty-three years. Now as a relatively senior officer in the Alaska Air National Guard, I’m officially the Old Man when I have the good luck to spend any time in the 212th Rescue Squadron’s headquarters, the half office complex, half gear nirvana, universally known as the “PJ section.” On the good days, I tell myself I’ll be done at 30, thinking that it would be nice to retire as a general. On the bad days, I wonder if I’m not a Hellerian Scheisskopf-in-waiting: unqualified for promotion yet promoted nonetheless.

I think a lot about Catch-22 now that I’m in my final years of service, about the absurdity of war and the necessity of the military service connected to it. How, if I take a step back, rational artifice fails; but focusing on the details allows the illusion to persist. Maybe, too, that’s what separates Heller’s masterpiece from all the rest of the war books, and also how you can still write a very good war book that seems to make sense of war. Heller embraces the fact that war makes no sense, which allows him to make sense of war and capture its nature at scale. The rest of us tell only bits and pieces of war’s truth.

It’s a hell of a catch.

* Common Access Card

Read Next: 5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know: ‘Platoon’


This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 print edition of The Forward Observer as “Caught in a Catch-22.”

Matthew Komatsu is putting his Master of Fine Arts to use and writing a memoir. This essay does not reflect any semblance of official War Department policy or position.

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