Catch 22: Theme Analysis

Opportunism vs. Idealism
While some texts criticize idealism and others criticize pragmatism, Catch-22 criticizes both. Neither extreme makes sense. In the war, when everything is a matter of life and death, priorities become clearer. Joseph Heller makes the point that idealists are foolish and opportunists are awful.
Nately is the most foolish of idealists, and he runs into trouble with the opportunists. He believes in things like love and nationalism. His idealistic love for his prostitute costs him quite a bit of money. Similarly, the old man who runs the brothel treats him like a fool. Nately passionately exclaims that America is indestructible. The old man points out that “The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say that America, with all its strength and prosperity . . . will last as long as . . . the frog?” (253). Put this way, Natelys idealism seems foolish. Yet, the old mans opportunism does not save him. When the brothel is cleared out, he cannot take it and dies.
The opportunists are ridiculous, but they hold a great deal of power. Despite the fact that he is cheating everyone, Milo is in charge of a lot, including entire towns. All he cares about is profit, which is why he does so well. Colonel Cathcart is absurd and most people do not like him, yet he holds the power to control all of the men. Because he wants to get ahead, he forces them to fly extra missions, thus putting their lives in danger.
Perhaps the most dangerous combination is the opportunist who uses the language of idealism to get power. These people control others by appealing to their idealism and so gaining prestige or wealth. Milo is the worst example. When Yossarian refuses to fly, Milo admonishes Yossarian that he ought to. While he really just wants the men to fly more missions so he can continue amassing wealth, he tells Yossarian that “The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them” (413). Milo is using the language of democracy to exploit Yossarian for his own needs.
When Captain Black runs the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, he is using an ideal with which no one can safely argue-loyalty-to get back at an adversary. His crusade eventually fails, and he remains a lonely man trying to irritate others. Like so many of the other opportunists who use idealism and idealists who fail to understand opportunism, he is condemned in a text that recognizes both extremes are hazardous.
Military Ineptitude
In this text, the armed forces are run by men more concerned with their own advancement and following the rules than with the lives of the soldiers or the triumph of democracy. The regulations and hierarchy set up by the military harm the war effort and the men involved.
Yossarian is concerned about the dead man in his tent, Mudd, because he represents “the unknown soldier who never had a chance” (118), but the Air Force is concerned about him because he is a logistical problem. They cannot declare him dead because he never officially signed in so he never officially arrived. They cannot ignore him because a man has disappeared. Even though logic explains that a man died in an airplane, Air Force regulations insist that this never happened. When Doc Daneeka does not die, the opposite problem exists. Even though logic explains that a man did not die in an airplane since he is standing on the ground, Air Force regulations insist that this did happen.
The obsession with following a certain hierarchy leads to totally inept leaders. Major Major attains his rank by mistake, but he gets his job because Colonel Cathcart has an extra major after his promotion. “A superfluous major on his rolls meant an untidy table of organization” (98), so Cathcart is delighted when he has the opportunity to promote Major Major to squadron commander. Unfortunately, Major Major has no training or aptitude for the position. The same thing happens when General Peckem transfers out of Special Services. General Scheisskopf is left running things, despite his total ineptitude.
Without qualified leaders, the men have nowhere to turn. Yossarian tries to get help from Major Major, but he is totally avoiding people and responsibility. Because the leaders are so bad, the men are forced to follow silly regulations, like the ones keeping Mudd alive and Daneeka dead.