“Slaughterhouse Five” and “Catch-22” essay

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The underlying theme of the novels “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut and “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller is largely archetypal. “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Catch-22” both explore the grim realities of the World War II in literally style that makes it easier for the readers to consume the grave and horrifying experiences of the war period easily. “Cacth-22” makes liberal use of satire to portray the assumed irrationality of decisions upon which men went into their senseless deaths in war against their enemies. Heller discusses at length the humorous nature the war came to assume, where attack strategies were based on rigid ideologies rather than practical realities (Nadine 1). In “Slaughterhouse Five”, the setting is very historically accurate, and the places mentioned are just as real, as the writer was in prison in the meat locker discussed in the novel (Kurt 1). The fictional part where Billy takes a mental journey in to another world only helps accentuate the stark differences between free will and the repressive political and military systems of the period. The general theme of the two books is that of the illogical nature of human leadership. Through perpetuation of illogical ideologies of the top leadership and the bureaucratic nature of the military and political leadership, individuals opposed to the standpoints meant the victimization of many soldiers that were involved in the war. Logic, at all levels goes to the background, and nonsensical political dogmas are pursed at the expense of the victim’s personal freedoms.

The thesis of this paper is to explore the illogical nature of human beings as expressed in the World War II. In “Slaughterhouse Five”, the all-round unaccommodating nature of the political and the military systems cause Billy, a major character in the story to end up in prison in enemy territory (Kurt 57). The absurdity occurs because the purported enemies of his military's activity offer more understanding for his opinion, though they offer little hope to his approaching demise. The book “Catch-22” shows how the use of logic by the soldiers in war situations was completely inhibited by unintelligible military dogmas (Heller 24). Soldiers can have any fate handed to them by their leaders without any justification on the part of the enforcing authority. The illogicality of the standpoints is evident, and their consequences result in full suppression of the free will of the soldiers in the end.

The irrationality of the World War II conditions is taken in satirical dimensions, from a historical standpoint. According to Joseph Heller, the author of “Catch-22”, the use of unfounded ideologies was advanced to the extent where they defeated practicality, rationality, and impending realities that characterized the war. For instance, in the aptly named “Catch-22”, the phrase “catch-22” was the epitome of these misleading postulations. The sole purpose of the Catch-22 creed was to beat the use of logic by any officer or soldier in the war (Heller 24). The incongruous idiomatic phrase was meant to ensure that in a situation where the people involved in war were considering whether to go into combat or not, they would always go for the latter, despite the prevalent conditions. The rationality of the phrase was that the use of rational thoughts and decisions to avoid combat were illogical, and the logical thing would be to go into war, the logical thing, therefore was to seize any opportunity to get into war. The Catch-22 principle was self-defeating, and its enforcement ensured that those who went in contravention of the orders of higher ranks of power over what they would consider rational would face discipline without a course for redress (Brustein 1). Yossaria's actions to try to escape from the attacks directed at him by enemy combatants are logical by all practical means, yet as the military principal he has to follow demands that he does the complete opposite (Heller 24). The colonel, always watching his actions, makes sure that the bureaucratic rule is not broken, and leads him in many dangerous attack missions against American enemies. Despite a fictional approach to the war period, the grim and dilapidating realities of the war are not lost in Kurt's fictional novel, “Slaughterhouse Five”. The character of Billy is a clear demonstration of this theme. Billy is forced by the political demands of the time to join the war as a solder. As a poorly trained soldier he is captured by German forces and is locked up as a prisoner of war (Kurt 57). Deep at heart, Billy wants little, if anything to do with the war, and sooner than later, this unwelcome viewpoint becomes apparent to die-hard war proponents, even among his fellow soldiers. Antiwar sentiments are not welcome in either side of the battle line, and the housing structure in which he is locked up, called Slaughterhouse five, German soldiers, unsympathetic to the course of the war take refuge in the dilapidated housing alongside the prisoners of war (Kurt 57). The war conditions have resulted in the government ripping people from their chosen paths in life to go and serve controversial political agendas in the war. People, who try to go against these actions, find themselves at the risk of losing their lives in what is purported to be abandonment of national duty. Irrationality and suppression of free will is apparent and blatant, just as in “Catch-22”, and contrary opinions to the political dynamisms of the time meant isolation, neglect, and violent stigmatization by the political systems.

“Slaughterhouse Five” shows the helplessness of people of lower social statuses. The decision-makers, who constitute a dismally small group of people, literally have the fate of the rest of the population at their mercy. Political systems, and incorrigible bureaucracy, can hardly accommodate the opinions and sentiments of the minority members of the society. After the political situations during the war forced him against his will to serve in the war, the unpromising path Billy’s life took was fully in the hands of his masters, first his own commanders, when he is a soldier, and secondly, his objectionable captors, who keep him in subhuman conditions (Kurt 57). His only free space is his imagination, but even within this uninhibited mental universe, Billy cannot avoid pondering on the theme of free-will, all he can think of is grim and imminent future, which is fully in the hands of the abysmal life his captors have awarded him. In “Catch-22”, the situation is highly comparable to that in “Slaughterhouse Five”. Their senior officers reveal the disturbing, deluding, yet satirical use of Catch-22 dogma in a gripping reality involving the treatment of military police during the war. The brazen mistreatment of military police is justified using the self-contradicting satire phrase. Practically the officer executing the actions with the bizarre Catch-22 principle (Heller 24) could explain any action carried out on a soldier. The explanation of the Catch-22 was that the enforcement of punishment of military police was exempt to any form of evidence on the part of the presiding authority. In the victims' own words, the Catch-22 doctrine gave the enforcing authority the right to do anything the accused officers could not prevent them from enforcing. The bureaucratic war regimes severely marginalized individuals. Such a doctrine was open to abuse and experienced it in considerable measure, as the law was practically what the senior authority decided it would be, in addition to the fact that the doctrine superseded personal decisions even in purely personal conditions. The lack of the power of exercising free will merges this theme in these two books, and further enforces the motif of bureaucratic absurdity and irrationality of human beings.

Though differing in their approaches, both “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse Five” advance the theme of free will in several incidences. Heller's style in “Catch-22” put a spotlight on the weird, grave, and far-reaching consequences of military bureaucracies. “Slaughterhouse Five” portrays, in both physical and mental worlds, how the self-serving interests of the senior political leadership in society imprison the wills and desires of a common person. Individuals get into undesirable conditions, and their individual liberties and their ability to exercise their natural instincts are completely restrained by their leaders and those in authority. Any decision to pursue their personal interests and free will is a certain call for worse living conditions, and quite possibly, death. Yossaria, the main character in the book “Catch-22”, is forced repeatedly by the colonel to go on missions even when every nerve in his body tells him otherwise (Heller 24). The colonel, blind to the realities of his subject cannot understand the conditions under which military assaults occur. While Yossaria tries to adjust to rationality and logicality of a situation, the colonel, who is representative of leadership and authority, follows impractical military rules, which is as ridiculous as it is dangerous (Brustein 1). In the book “Slaughterhouse Five”, Billy portends his situation and the path his miserable life will take, and explores it in his mind. After thinking over the issue in an extraterrestrial delusion, he comes to a similar condition, and he reconciles himself with the bleak future before him (Kurt 57). The military police seem to suffer a similar fate, though in a more practical and historically archetypal setting. The soldiers can either follow their rationality and personal sentiments and face a real risk of facing the martial court, or take their chances with a deathly military doctrine and lose their lives in the battlefield in service of opinions of high-headed military regimes.


The two books, “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Catch-22” explore a common and very practical theme of military bureaucracy during the war period. The books have several similarities in the direction in which their major themes are discussed. Though many themes are notable, the theme of suppression of free will stands out. The writers discuss the theme at length with the use of literally devices of satire and black humor. The systematic inhibition of free will throughout the political and military systems put the soldiers in fatally compromising conditions. Using literally devices of satire, historical fiction, and black humor, the two writers have created literally masterpieces for the twentieth century momentous time in world history. Though modern political and social trends highlight and enhance the individual ability to exercise personal liberties, the military regimes completely ignored these rights, over some unfounded and impractical principals perpetuated by self-serving leadership class. The rigidity and inconsideration of the leadership meant that individuals were made to live in a way that would result in their definite victimization by the situations they were made to walk into. The bureaucracies led to the death of many people during the war, while they were fighting for unclear political agendas using illogical war doctrines forced upon them by their leaders. 

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