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Catch-22 | Context

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Joseph Heller began writing Catch-22 in 1953 and finished in 1961—a period of immense cultural change in the United States. A great example of war literature, Catch-22 is also an example of political literature and a dark comedy.

Politics of the Period

  • The detonation of the first atomic bombs in 1945 brought home the fact that wars were now capable of destroying the planet.
  • The post–World War II Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union created an atmosphere of mutual paranoia and mistrust.
  • Many U.S. politicians and ordinary citizens feared a communist takeover of the United States. Many known American communists lost their jobs, as did some citizens who were only suspected of being communists. When U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy began his famous "witch hunts" to expose communists in the government in the 1950s, it took almost five years before he met any serious opposition.
  • In Catch-22, Captain Black's Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade (Chapter 9) is a direct attack on McCarthyism. Captain Black even invents a doctrine of "Continual Reaffirmation," which is "designed to trap all those men who had become disloyal since the last time they had signed a loyalty oath the day before."

Unpopular War

Heller did not write Catch-22 to criticize World War II per se. He had enjoyed his military service and claimed he had never served under a bad officer. "For me and for most others, going into the army resulted immediately in a vast improvement in my standard of living," Heller wrote in a 1974 letter. He also knew that the Allied goals had been worth fighting for. However, many U.S. pilots feared flying during the war due to the high death rate. Beginning in 1942 until the end of the war, the United States lost an average of 170 planes per day.

But the 1950s saw growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and the Vietnam War was one that Heller and many other Americans deplored. Catch-22 was published the same year as the first deployment of Green Berets (American Special Forces) to South Vietnam. As the war intensified, so did the protests against it. Catch-22's message resonated strongly with young Americans who opposed the war and feared the draft.

In 1968 a New York Times reporter observed what had been new about Catch-22: "It summed up some people's feeling that war was a terrible way to ruin a country, and that it also killed people."

Rage against the Machine

Although computers were hardly used in World War II, Heller purposely inserted a computer reference (Chapter 21) into Catch-22. More specifically, he mentioned the company known as International Business Machines (IBM). The company produced massive mainframe computers in the 1950s, introducing the world's first mass-produced model in 1954.

As computers found their way into more and more businesses and universities, the American public began to pay increasing attention to them. It became clear that one way or another computers would be handling organizational tasks in all kinds of settings. Computers had the power to advance society, but they also had the power to complicate people's lives. As often happens with new technology, they seemed suspect to many people. In Chapter 9 of Catch-22, "an IBM machine with a sense of humor" promotes Major Major; in Chapter 1, another faulty "IBM machine" is responsible for drafting a zoologist into the army medical corps.

Catch-22 in the 21st Century

Decades after Catch-22's publication, wars are still being fought. Computers control people's lives in ways that would have strained the imaginations of 20th-century authors. Yossarian would be right at home here, and modern readers are right at home with him.

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