“Catch-22” By Neal Murphy

June 4, 2021 - Have you ever been caught in a “catch-22” situation? I think most all of us have at one time or another. Just what is meant by this phrase, and from whence did it come?

The “official” definition of “catch-22” is this – “a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules.” A good example of this definition is the following:  You want to find work.  You find a job that you think you could do well. You ask for the job, but are told you cannot have it. The reason? It’s because you have never done the job before.

This is insane, you think. You cannot get the job because you have never done the work. But, how can you ever do the work if you cannot get the job? And that is the catch – Catch-22- to be exact.

Catch-22 is described as a set of circumstances in which one requirement is dependent upon another, which is in turn dependent upon the first. This was coined by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel Catch-22, which is set during WWII in Italy. In this story, “Catch-22” is a military bureaucratic rule invoked in several places, and is more or less a catch-all rule to justify anything. This sounds typical of the federal government.

This term is introduced by the character Doc Daneeka, an army psychiatrist who invokes “Catch-22” to explain why any pilot requesting mental evaluation for insanity, hoping to be found not sane enough to fly, and thereby escape dangerous missions. This request demonstrated his own sanity in making the request and thus cannot be declared as insane.

In his book, Heller tells the story of Captain John Yossarian, an Air Force flyer in Europe in the closing months of World War II. Yossarian is angry because so many people he never met were trying to kill him. He has to fly day after day to drop bombs on the Nazis who are trying to shoot down his airplane. His commander keeps raising the number of times his men must fly before they can go home.

Yossarian searches for a way to stop flying. He finds an Air Force rule that says a soldier can be removed from flight duty if he is found insane. He decides that any soldier is insane if he is willing to put his life in danger by continuing to make dangerous flights.

He thinks he has found a way to save his life. But he learns there is a “catch” – a tricky condition – to that rule. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy, he is told. Enter the “Catch-22” rule which states a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.

If Yossarian was crazy he could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. He would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to. But, if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

So, the term “Catch-22” is applied to various loopholes and quirks of the military system, always with the implication that rules are inaccessible to and slanted against those lower in the hierarchy. Therefore, Catch-22 ensures that no pilot can ever be grounded for being insane even if he is.

The philosopher Laurence Goldstein argues that the airman’s dilemma is logically not even a condition that is true under no circumstances. It is a “vacuous bi-conditional” that is ultimately meaningless.

The term “catch-22” has filtered into common usage in the English language.  In a 1975 interview, Heller said the term would not translate well into other languages. James E. Combs and Dan D. Nimmo suggest that the idea of a “catch-22” has gained popular currency because so many people in modern society are exposed to frustrating bureaucratic logic. Have you been one of those people?  I have, and the logic itself is insane.