Catch-22 is a product of intense private and public concerns. Heller based the novel’s plot on his memories of World War II bombing missions; he derived its ironic tone and thematic substance from such sources as his father’s early death, the grotesque Coney Island neighborhood of his youth, the fast-paced, disjointed world of advertising, and his anxiety over the Korean War and Cold War tensions with China and Russia. Heller translated the intergroup antagonism that prevailed in the United States after the Second World War-the Communist witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the racial hatred that surfaced when southern schools began to be integrated-into the conflict between the common soldiers and the officers of Catch-22.
In Heller’s novel, the military’s Catch-22 states that if a man is crazy, he must be grounded-but a man cannot be grounded if he asks to be, since anyone who wants to avoid combat duty is not really crazy. Catch-22 abounds with paradoxes and inversions, as Heller depicts a topsy-turvy society in which sanity and insanity, order and chaos have become confused. Colonel Korn permits only those people who never ask Questions to ask Questions; Major Major orders Sergeant Tower to allow men to see him only when he is out; the Air Force denies the death of Mudd, who was killed before officially checking in with the squadron but declares Doc Daneeka officially dead despite Doc’s fervent protests; Aarfy commits murder, but the police choose instead to arrest Yossarian for going AWOL. Heller presents a world that seems to lack rationality, justice, or humanity, in which the individual becomes alienated, frustrated, and desperate.