Although set on a US Air force base on a small island in the Mediterranean during World War Two, Catch-22 is a satirical attack on the workings of modern bureaucracy that is still relevant today. It points out very clearly, and with great accuracy, how organizational goals get diverted and perverted by the ferocious competition for power among those at the top. It shows how this competition wastes time, resources, and ultimately human lives, as ambition drives mediocre men to sacrifice those under them in order to win the approval of those above. Anyone who has had to deal with bullying bosses, bureaucrats and administrators in the course of their working life will laugh out loud at the characters and situations that Joseph Heller sketched out back in the 1950s. He had the Cold War and McCarthyism in mind, but his work is far from being out of date at the present time:
Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to his country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again.
Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to.
– Catherine Vigier, Zeteo contributing Writer
Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 50th Anniversary Edition, New York, Simon & Schuster 2011.