One of the main goals of Catch-22 is to satirize the dehumanizing machinery of war by showing the irremovable survival impulse at the heart of every individual. By constantly making fun of wartime situations and by carrying arguments to their extreme, absurd conclusions, the novel shows the conflict that arises when a war’s course is determined by factors alien to the people who are fighting the war. Through a maze of characters and events, Catch-22 explores war and bureaucracy and their effects on ordinary people.
In these early chapters, these effects take the form of an absurd irony that penetrates virtually every facet of the characters’ lives. The greatest irony is, of course, the perceived uselessness of the war—at least as it is carried out by the characters who surround Yossarian. All that matters to the generals controlling the troops is getting a promotion; all that matters to the troops is staying alive long enough to go home. No one is concerned with the larger political or ethical implications of the war. This grand irony is played out in hundreds of small ways, with Yossarian and his companions acting in self-defeating, paradoxical ways simply because their actions have so little meaning. In the hospital, for example, Yossarian and his companions hate the Texan because he is so likable, and Yossarian makes a fool of the chaplain even though he senselessly loves him. Furthermore, wielded with wickedly satirical intent, the banter between characters is full of paradoxes as impossible as Catch-22 itself.
One of the statements that the novel makes is that the rules that govern individuals also tend to shape their thoughts. The early chapters show us how the soldiers, imprisoned by the paradox of Catch-22, take this type of paradox to heart, pursuing irrelevancy, meaninglessness, and nonsense as though they are real values in a world where relevancy, meaning, and sense are impossible. The power of bureaucracy further manifests itself in the first few chapters through Colonel Cathcart’s impersonal raising of the number of required missions and even more through Doc Daneeka’s explanation of Catch-22—Yossarian is forced to confront the revelation that the law governing his life is an irresolvable paradox.
The failure of communication plays an important role in the development of Heller’s paradoxes. Words have little meaning, a truth that becomes clear in the very first chapter as Yossarian capriciously deletes random words from letters simply because he finds the letters boring. Heller often uses miscommunication to create comedy, as when ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen causes General Peckem a great deal of worry by calling him and saying, “T. S. Eliot”—a simple, harmless phrase that Peckem interprets as something complicated and sinister. Part of the irony here is that insubstantial, easily misinterpreted words are what determine the very real, substantial aspects of the soldiers’ lives. The contrast between the actual fighting and the ridiculous bureaucracy that controls it is one of the most horrifying aspects of Catch-22.
Finally, even the notion of time itself is affected by the absurdity governing characters’ lives. The story is told with a jumbled chronology involving recollections, allusions to future events, and statements whose meanings become clear only as the novel progresses. The narrative skips from scene to scene with occasional (but still confusing) mentions of before and after but with no central now to give these terms meaning. However, a number of handholds are offered to enable us to put the events in some kind of order: the growth of Milo’s syndicate, the ranks of certain officers, and, most important, the number of missions the men are expected to fly.