The image of Orr, paddling with a tiny oar in a lifeboat, escaping to Sweden has captured the imagination of generations of readers. Orr is not just fleeing the armed services; he is refusing to participate in a system with which he disagrees. This text was published in 1961, when the United States had been out of the Korean War for less than a decade. The Vietnam War was about to begin.
Given all of this, it is not remarkable that the image of turning ones back on “duty” to resist a war that makes no sense was so appealing. It has remained appealing to people who feel trapped in powerful “systems” based on profit or power for others. Orr manipulates the system to simply disappear and row away.
The Man in White
When Yossarian is first in the hospital, there is a man who is completely bandaged up. He is totally dehumanized. Even the most basic human functions, eating and urinating, are no longer human. He has a jar connected to a tube that drips fluid into him and another connected to a tube that eliminates liquid waste. “When the jar on the floor was full, the jar feeding his elbow was empty, and the two were simply switched quickly so that stuff could be dripped back into him” (18). He has no identity and no longer even has normal human functions. Since the only way to know if he is alive is to take his temperature, life has been reduced to whether one has a normal temperature or not. This is very disconcerting for the men, because it indicates that they, too, can be reduced to a mere shell that has its temperature taken every day.
When Yossarian returns to the hospital at the end of the text, there is another man in white. Yossarian and the others insist that this is the same man. “He had lost a few inches and added some weight, but Yossarian remembered him instantly by the two stiff arms and the two stiff, thick, useless legs all drawn upward. and by the frayed black hole in the bandages over his mouth” (376). For all practical purposes, this is the same man. Since the person inside does not matter to the men or the nurses who daily take his temperature, his is simply the man in white. Again, he is a reminder that all the men are interchangeable and can be reduced to their temperatures.
Joseph Heller coined the term “Catch-22” to describe a catch that the army includes in every opportunity that sounds promising. For example, men would have to be crazy to fly more missions, and crazy people can be grounded. All they have to do is request being grounded. But, there is a Catch-22. Once they request being grounded, they are clearly unwilling to fly more missions and are no longer considered crazy. That means they have to fly. This kind of circular logic comes up a lot in the text; each time, it is labeled a Catch-22.
The army uses Catch-22 to cover itself whenever it needs to make things go its way. Yossarian hears the term when the brothel in Rome is broken up. The old woman who remains says the Military Police told her that they have the right to be there because of Catch-22. However, they do not have to show her Catch-22, because Catch-22 states they do not. Yossarian is incredibly frustrated because Catch-22 traps its victims in circular logic and allows the armed forces to get away with whatever they want to do.