I was never in the military but I grew up in a military town and knew friends who were directly or indirectly part of it. In the 1970s this was the book of choice for them. They spoke enthusiastically about it, saying it was “so true,” even if they did qualify the statement by labeling it as after all fiction, but a scarily real and funny portrayal of how things are. It’s largely a guy book. One of the last good ones.
War is evil, other novels tell us. Or noble. Or unjust, inevitable and pitiful. Or cruel to the women who lose out because of it. The author and cast of Catch-22 imply that while all of that may be true, we’re not really getting into all that. We’re focusing on the absurdity of war and its horrors and how ridiculously inept and comical the military structure is set up to handle it. Here, the higher ranking officers are the bad guys, the no-good bums who bungle things and are lost in their own vanities. The B-25 flight crews, forced to make an increasing number of combat missions, are the pawns and the victims. Or in some cases accidental heroes.
The book is episodic and relies on an intertwined collection of interactions between various members in the flight squadron. Because these relationships are ultimately one in the face of battling the enemy, Heller repeats and reiterates the factors in these relationships. As pages go by, we learn our level of sympathy or disdain for each character, and there are some gems. Near the end, we see the evil in the high-ranking officers emerge, as the despicable (and morally blind) colonels compromise the hero Yossarian, which pushes him over the edge and sends him packing into the unknown.