Reading “Catch-22” Reminds Us That Sometimes It’s Noble to Quit

Joseph Heller's satirical war novel takes on new significance as people are forced to work through a pandemic

Yossarian sitting in an airplane ready to take off, giving the finger to the camera
Alan Arkin as Yossarian in the 1970 film adaptation of “Catch-22”
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“It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”

When these words appear in Joseph Heller’s satirical antiwar novel Catch-22, they refer to World War II. But they could just as easily be about today’s “war” against the invisible threat of COVID-19. Winning a war is only beneficial to those who live past the war’s end. And, as U.S. workers are increasingly called to stay at or return to work, growing numbers of them won’t survive to see a post-coronavirus world.

There’s nothing new about the expectation that, in times of crisis, ordinary people must die in order to leave a better world for the rest—but Catch-22 is a rare work of fiction that challenges this notion. In 2020, it provides a valuable window into the American tradition of ignoring the human cost of victory. And reading it now also allows for a deeper appreciation of just how well it pinpointed the absurdity of “noble sacrifice.” 

The book’s protagonist, Capt. John Yossarian, wasn’t willing to die for the war—and this is precisely what makes Catch-22 one of the most enduring and important war novels to date. It’s a vicious satire of the war industry and a piercing reflection on humanity’s deepest secrets, but it stands out most for featuring a wartime protagonist unwilling to sacrifice himself. Published in 1961, among a body of U.S. war literature that glorified patriotic sacrifice, Catch-22 offered an alternative: the idea that wanting to stay alive is a noble cause, too.

The novel’s nonlinear narrative is propelled by the deaths of Yossarian’s friends and acquaintances, which inspire Yossarian to avoid combat in increasingly drastic ways. At first those deaths appear distant and bloodless (Kraft was “dumped unceremoniously into doom,” while Clevinger simply disappeared inside a cloud). As the book progresses, though, the death scenes become increasingly shocking and visceral, culminating in Catch-22’s goriest, and perhaps most famous, scene: the death of Snowden. 

Published among a body of U.S. war literature that glorified patriotic sacrifice, Catch-22 offered an alternative: the idea that wanting to stay alive is a noble cause, too.

Deaths from COVID-19 also appear distant and bloodless at first. Upon closer look, though, they slowly reveal their full horror. We hear that patients are put on ventilators, and imagine a neat, simple oxygen mask. In reality, the ventilators often used in COVID-19 cases involve a tube pushed into the airway to take over the process of breathing for a patient whose lungs no longer work. We hear of cold- and flu-like symptoms, and imagine the mild illnesses we’ve recovered from before. In reality, the coronavirus can wreak havoc on internal organs in ways we’re just beginning to understand, damaging the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, intestines, eyes, and even the brain. 

This is the gory, visceral threat faced by workers now. At first, “essential workers” like janitors, grocery store clerks, and delivery drivers were the only ones risking infection to keep their jobs. But now, states and cities are in a foolish push to reopen mid-pandemic. The people caught up in the reopening sweep are mainly those who can’t work from home, like restaurant and retail workers, hair stylists, tattoo artists, and teachers. However, some offices are choosing to reopen even when the work could be done remotely, so many office workers must now risk infection for their jobs, too.

Most people cannot live without work—even when work threatens their lives. If an employee chooses not to return to work at a reopened business, they’ll lose the job and their unemployment benefits all at once. Without this income, of course, they’ll eventually lose access to necessities like housing and food.

Catch-22’s military leaders didn’t permit opting out; neither does modern capitalism.

From the start of this crisis, workers have been praised for putting their bodies in the virus’s line of fire. But while their sacrifices are brave, this praise narrative is deeply oversimplified. Like Yossarian, they are in a system that makes them feel they have no choice. Catch-22’s military leaders didn’t permit opting out; neither does modern capitalism. And like Yossarian, some workers are opting out anyway. They’re taking time off, organizing for better working conditions, or simply quitting. They’re choosing the risks of financial insecurity, employer retaliation, and public derision, over the risk of death.

While all non-remote workers are now caught in this impossible bind, essential workers have faced it from the pandemic’s start. They’ve been publicly praised, yet rarely given pay, benefits, or safety gear to match the risks of going to work now—much like Yossarian, who was rewarded with a useless medal while asked to fly an ever-increasing number of combat missions. Or, they’re like Yossarian’s roommate Orr, who had “a thousand valuable skills that would keep him in a low income group all his life.”

These employees—often underpaid, unappreciated, and disrespectfully called “unskilled”—were only deemed “essential” when powers-that-be realized that the economy rests on their backs. Without people in industries like cleaning, manufacturing, and transportation, businesses can’t run, and people can’t access the things they need to live. Suddenly, these workers became exemplars of honorable sacrifice who keep the country running in spite of COVID-19. 

Yet many “essential” employees don’t actually do anything required for the survival of others. People like construction workers and Starbucks baristas don’t provide necessary services in a pandemic. They could have been safely at home collecting temporary unemployment all along. Instead, they’ve been risking their lives at work, and they’re now being joined by all the non-essential employees called to return. Most workers are essential to the profits of their industries, not to life itself. 

Those industry profits are not insignificant: Jeff Bezos alone was already $34.6 billion richer by mid-May thanks to the pandemic, while at least eight Amazon warehouse workers have died of coronavirus. (The actual number of COVID-19 deaths at Amazon is almost certainly higher, but the company refuses to disclose the information.) But then again, World War II was profitable for those at the top and deadly for those at the bottom as well. As Yossarian said to Major Major, “Some people are getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun.”

Even though lives are at stake for workers, quitting isn’t easy. Quitting itself is a heroic act.

Still, even though lives are at stake for workers, quitting isn’t easy. It means facing worse economic instability than they already face, not to mention possible employer retaliation and diminished future job prospects. It means accepting an interminable period of unpaid unemployment as the economy crashes into an unprecedented depression. Quitting itself is a heroic act. 

Quitting wasn’t easy for Yossarian, either. In another war novel, wanting to quit the war would have made him a pitiful character at best, a cowardly one at worst. In Catch-22, it made him a hero. Heller painstakingly shares Yossarian’s internal and external struggles as he fights to quit in a system that only wants his sacrifice, so we can see just how heroic quitting is: “He stepped into the briefing room with mixed emotions, uncertain how he was supposed to feel about Kraft and the others, for they had all died in the distance of a mute and secluded agony at a moment when he was up to his own ass in the same vile, excruciating dilemma of duty and damnation.”

On all sides, our protagonist is assailed by threats to his life (“Catastrophes were lurking everywhere, too numerous to count”), but the worst come from people supposedly on his side. The risks of opting out of combat missions are significant—Yossarian’s superiors threaten to court-martial or even shoot him if he does. But the risks of continuing to fly missions also can’t be denied, as Yossarian sees nearly everyone he cares about systematically killed.

Eventually, he realizes running away from combat entirely is the only reasonable choice, a choice which he must defend:

“But you can’t just turn your back on all your responsibilities and run away from them,’ Major Danby insisted. “It’s such a negative move. It’s escapist.”

Yossarian laughed with buoyant scorn and shook his head. “I’m not running away from my responsibilities. I’m running to them. There’s nothing negative about running away to save my life. You know who the escapists are, don’t you, Danby? Not me and Orr.” 

Such a comedic, poignant, deserter-as-hero narrative was virtually unheard of at the time Catch-22 was published. In 1895, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage had set the stage for 20th-century U.S. war literature: its protagonist initially runs from battle, but spends the rest of the book overcoming his shame and fear to return to the fight. The main character in Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 A Farewell to Arms does desert the war, but love rather than self-preservation is the catalyst—and he meets a desolate fate in the end anyway. Norman Mailer’s 1948 The Naked and the Dead depicts war as meaningless and futile, but kills off its most frightened character in an embarrassing scene early on.

Catch-22 broke ranks. In creating a protagonist whose nobility sparks from his desire to live, Heller made one of the most compelling statements of any antiwar movement to date: that an individual life is more important than the ideals of country, honor, or sacrifice.

Heller was a bombardier in the war himself, and personally witnessed death over Avignon and other wartime experiences almost exactly like Yossarian’s. As his book caught on and the term “catch-22” worked its way into the popular lexicon, Heller remained adamant that the term did not apply to just any ironic or paradoxical situation. To him, a true catch-22 had to be dire and life-threatening—precisely like the situation workers face now. They can go to work, where they may die. Or, they can choose not to go to work, thus giving up the resources they need to live. 

Perhaps someday we will have a work of fiction that satirizes the coronavirus era as well as Catch-22 satirized World War II. For now, though, Heller’s war novel remains remarkably relevant to 2020’s cruel absurdities. After all, it really isn’t a satire of a specific war, but of American leaders’ indifference to the price of victory—which is why the Vietnam War initially helped make the book successful. Now, COVID-19 shows once again that its message is timeless. 

We should criticize the systems that ask people to put their lives on the line, not the people who choose to opt out.

Yossarian lives. That’s the most important fact of the book: that he finds his way out of an impossible-seeming situation and saves himself in the end. Not only does he live, but he does so with virtue and grace. He even refuses a soft, safe, unethical deal offered by his superiors, which would get him out of the war in exchange for his silence on atrocities. Instead, he quits in his own way, against all rules and advice.

As COVID-19’s death toll rises, some employees are choosing to quit their jobs and save themselves. It may sound radical to praise them. It may even seem to diminish the sacrifices of those who choose to stay. But it doesn’t. For anyone who isn’t permitted to work from home, work is now a war zone—and Catch-22 reminds us that opting out of this life-threatening situation is noble. Self-preservation deserves praise. We should criticize the systems that ask people to put their lives on the line, not the people who choose to opt out. 

Not all of today’s workers get to be Yossarians, though. Many will be Krafts or Clevingers or Snowdens: casualties placed in the vise of war by careless U.S. leadership. These workers deserve honor and remembrance. But let’s remember the Yossarians of the COVID-19 front lines, the ones who quit in the face of the enemy. They’re heroes, too.

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