Still caught out by Catch-22

The golden jubilee of Joseph Heller’s dystopian novel falls this autumn. Nearly 50 years on from pub

Catch-22, Joseph Heller's funny, sad and powerful novel, was first published on 10 November 1961. That day, an article in the New York Times reported: "Increased efforts by Washington to strengthen another part of the world against communist threats also became known. The US air force has inaugurated a huge supply and training programme in South Vietnam."

These were the hot days of the cold war. The main news event was the Berlin crisis, the stand-off between the USSR and the US that had ended in August with the erection of the Ber­lin Wall. The disastrous US invasion of Cuba through the Bay of Pigs had taken place the previous April. Four days after the novel was published, the New York Times reported: "Saigon - the quiet, tropical capital of South Vietnam - is suddenly teeming with American officers." But, the article continued, "United States spokesmen insist it is only coincidence".

Catch-22 is set on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa in 1944. The island is real but the novel imagines a base there for US bombers during the Second World War. Our hero is Yossarian, a bombardier with the 256th Squadron, which is engaged in bombing southern France and Italy. The story begins with Yossarian in hospital; we follow as he and the other airmen go out on raids, bicker and misbehave. Yet even to attempt a plot summary is fraught with dangers. Yossarian, who runs from the war, is hardly a hero, and the strange, circling motion in which the story unravels is scarcely a plot. It jumps from place to place and from time to time; scenes are repeated and only slowly unfold. The only indication of the passage of time is that, every chapter or two, the squadron's commanding officer raises the number of bombing runs that the men must fly before they can be relieved of duty. The figure is first 25, then 30, then 35, then 40, then 45, then 50, then 60 and then 70 - the end is never at hand.

Heller knew this war. In 1942, when he was 19, he joined the 488th Squadron, 340th Bombardment Group, of the US army air corps. From a base on Corsica in the Mediterranean, he flew 60 missions as a wing bombardier on B-25s and was sent home with a medal. He started writing the novel in 1953, working on it in the evenings after spending his days employed as a copywriter for an advertising agency in New York. As soon as the book was published, he began to take it out of time; in one interview he declared: "I see Catch-22 as not about World War II." He repeated the point to Playboy in 1975: "Catch-22 wasn't really about World War II," he said. "It was about American society during the cold war, during the Korean war, and about the possibility of a Vietnam."

The Second World War novel is a cold war novel. The US spokesmen may insist that it is only coincidence, but Catch-22 posits that there is no such thing. "Who, specifically," one character demands of Yossarian, "do you think is trying to murder you?" His answer is perfectly logical: "Every one of them." He, like all the airmen on the base, is a mess of tics and superstitions, frights and fears.

In the novel, Heller defines the catch three times and each definition is slightly different. The best known is that only an insane airman would be willing to fly such absurdly dangerous raids. "If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to," as insane soldiers were relieved from duty. Yet: "If he didn't want to, he was sane and had to." This is slippery but elegant.

Later, the catch is something simpler. The doctor tells Yossarian his own version of catch-22, which holds: "You've always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to." Finally, an old woman in the ruins of Rome explains: "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." The catch is always what traps us and we are caught less by the precise rule than by our apprehension that such a rule must exist.

This sounds like a lot of weight to place on what is an extravagantly funny book, but it is precisely its jokes that elevate paranoia to a style. One character "turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days, no one could stand him." Another "had a bad start. He came from a good family." This is a screwball, side-of-the-mouth kind of humour, and if you say it fast enough it just might sound wise.

Like so much of the novel, these jokes are an invitation to a desperate laughter, the only response to a world in which all are trapped without understanding why and the only rule is repetition. One character was named Major Major as a joke by his father. When he joins the army, he is quickly promoted to the rank of major "by an IBM machine with a sense of humour almost as keen as his father's". He is ruined from the start and his fate is out of his hands.

Since it was first published, the book has been greeted with high seriousness. Philip Toynbee in the Observer called it "the greatest satirical work in English since Erewhon" - Samuel Butler's late-19th-century dystopian novel - and Julian Mitchell in the Spectator called it "a surrealist Iliad". In 1998, Catch-22 came in at seventh place on the Modern Library list of the greatest novels of the 20th century. All of which suggests that it belongs up on a dusty shelf. This would be a shame. For this novel, in which all is repeated and all is left incomplete, is not quite finished with us yet.

One recurring joke is about army canteen food. For lunch one day, the airmen have roast lamb with "Iranian rice and asparagus tips Parmesan, followed by cherries jubilee for dessert and then steaming cups of fresh coffee with Benedictine and brandy", all served by kidnapped Italian waiters at tables dressed with damask.

The joke is surely that army food is bad. Pause, however, and scroll forward to other wars in later times, to now. During the Iraq war, American soldiers stationed at al-Asad Airbase, west of Baghdad, could choose their dinner from Burger King, Pizza Hut or Kentucky Fried Chicken. The huge Balad Airbase also had a Baskin Robbins and a Subway, and at Camp Anaconda, for Thanksgiving in 2008, chefs carved dozens of watermelons into intricate designs. Now, the joke changes; now, the novel points at us.

The man in charge of food is Milo, the mess officer. He serves chocolate-covered cotton to the men and, we are repeatedly told, "bought his eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sold them to the mess halls in his syndicate for five cents apiece". His inexplicable economics is a side effect of the troubling realisation that it can be profitable to go to war, and if war is profitable, it makes sense to pay also for the other side. "One day, Milo contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway bridge at Orvieto," Heller writes, "and with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge at Orvieto with anti-aircraft fire." Later, he bombs and then strafes his own base for profit.

This is the same logic of a world in which the US state department hires private contractors in Iraq. Guards working for a company called Blackwater were accused of killing Iraqi civilians in 2007 and, in January 2009, its contract was suspended. In February, the firm changed its name - to Xe Services - and the contract was restored. That is catch-22.

This might be one definition of a classic: as much as we read it, it reads us. So classics assume a strange mobility, the effect of always being familiar. It might be another way of saying that wars go on. "If something doesn't happen soon, Germany may surrender," the medic yells in panic. "And then we'll all be sent to the Pacific!" Catch-22, written about one war at the start of another, continues.

Daniel Swift's book "Bomber County: the Lost Airmen of World War II" is newly published in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)