Catch-22 is usually called a comic satirical novel, but the category may be too narrow. Traditionally, literary satire involves a topical work that examines human folly, shortcomings, vices, abuses, or irrational behavior. The author might use exaggeration, distortion, or irony to hold up weaknesses for ridicule, derision, or just plain fun. Sometimes the result is amusing; sometimes it's touching or even horrifying. The seventeenth-century English poet, dramatist, and critic John Dryden distinguished between two major divisions of satire — comic and tragic — basing his categories on the contrasts in the works of Roman satirists Horace (65–8 b.c.) and Juvenal (a.d. 60-c.140). Simply put, Horace's poetry was more likely to invoke laughter in his audience; Juvenal more often moved his audience to outrage or anger. At first glance, Heller's novel seems more in the comic vein; but, as usual with Heller, it is misleading to stereotype his work. Just as we find the stories of the men of the 256th Squadron amusingly filled with outrageous antics, we're suddenly brought up short by the horror of war. Heller's passionate indignation is directed initially at military, political, and institutional targets experienced directly by the men stationed on Pianosa. In the end, however, we come away with the notion that the novel is dealing with universal flaws and truths that also exist beyond the squadron. Our inferences are both comic and profound.
One category of satire is the confusion between appearance and reality, in which the institution declares reality because of appearance and the institution's own limited view. Examples abound, but three are especially informative: the satin-ribbon bombing line, Doc Daneeka's death, and the dead man in Yossarian's tent.
When the squadron is assigned to bomb ammunition dumps at Bologna, the airmen know that the targets have the reputation of being some of the most heavily guarded and dangerous in the area. After the squadron receives its assignment, Yossarian devises a brilliant plan. While others pray for reprieve, he remembers that the intelligence tent displays an easel map of Italy on which a strand of scarlet satin ribbon indicates the farthest advance of Allied troops. Bombs are to be dropped only on targets beyond (north of) that line, which now runs forty-two miles south of Bologna. Reversing cause and effect, Yossarian sneaks to the easel map one night and moves the red satin ribbon to a point north of Bologna, indicating that the city has been taken. The mission must be canceled, at least for the time, because the Allies apparently have "captured" Bologna. Initially, no one bothers to check the reality of the situation; for the establishment, if the map says Bologna is captured, then Bologna is captured. Heller has taken an institutional truism and exaggerated it, distorted it, so that we see the folly of the premise. The institutional point of view is not always right. A little flexibility and healthy doubt might bring the leaders closer to the truth. In this case, the result is not only harmless but helpful. Yossarian has extended some lives by moving the ribbon. He'd like to extend his own life as much as possible, but there are a lot of institutional minds on both sides that seem intent on killing him. As he tells Clevinger, who still believes in the system: "Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead. . . . The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on."
Doc Daneeka's "death" is humorous but even closer to serious events; it also extends the satire beyond the war zone and into civilian life. Among other self-contradictions, Doc is a flight surgeon who hates to fly. For that reason, McWatt usually adds Doc's name to the passenger list, filed with his aviation plan, so Doc can draw his flight pay without having to board a plane. When McWatt flies into a mountain after buzzing the beach and killing Kid Sampson, Daneeka is actually standing on the beach, beside Sergeant Knight, watching. Within the context of military logic, however, he is on the plane, does not parachute out, and therefore must be dead. Forget the fact that he is still walking around, trying to convince people that he is alive. According to military procedure, he is officially dead. Back in the States, his wife receives a War Department telegram stating that her husband has been "killed in action." Heller has a little fun with the idea that she grieves woefully for "almost a full week," hypocrisy being what it is on both sides of the ocean. Despite letters from her husband, Mrs. Daneeka is assured by the government that Doc is dead. Soon, her prospects brighten. The money starts pouring in — more than $200,000 in life-insurance policies alone — and men begin paying attention. When another desperate letter arrives from someone claiming to be her husband, she almost complies with his wishes. But life is looking pretty good to the widow Daneeka. After receiving one of Whitcomb's form letters of condolence, she packs up the kids and heads for Lansing, Michigan, leaving no forwarding address. Here, again, the result is more comic than tragic — unless, of course, you're Doc Daneeka. The comedy plays off the horrible deaths of Kid Sampson and McWatt, but in contrast rather than direct revelation.
The story of the dead man in Yossarian's tent is grimly ironic rather than amusing. The distorted logic of the Army explains its mystery. Upon arrival at the squadron, a replacement pilot named Lieutenant Mudd initially entered the operations tent, looking for the orderly tent where he planned to check in. Because the squadron was temporarily short of men, the lieutenant was immediately sent on a bombing mission. He was killed over Orvieto within two hours of his arrival, his body blown to pieces and never found. Because the lieutenant never officially signed in, the military's position is that he was never there. The dead man's belongings, not the dead man himself, are in Yossarian's tent. They cannot be processed because the young officer — and thus his possessions — never officially arrived. The story is revealing and ironic but not even remotely "funny." It is sobering, a little frightening, and deadly serious.
Heller's satire often is comic. But sometimes it exposes the horror of situations as well as their irony. Clevinger's trial before the Action Board features some very entertaining dialogue; after we finish laughing, though, we're left with the unamusing fact that he is found guilty because he is accused. Yossarian's friends are dying because Colonel Cathcart keeps changing the definition of a tour of duty. The numbers are abstract, but the deaths are real. The author's passionate indignation reveals horror and corruption and sometimes tragedy as well as comedy.