I suppose it’s the evil liberal in me, or perhaps the former WEA union member, but I know I wouldn’t love Catch-22 nearly as much if Milo Minderbinder wasn’t in it. Minderbinder, Mind-binder, M & M Enterprises, the perfect name for a modern God of Capitalism. It is capitalism, after all, that dominates western civilization and even manages to profit from war. Of course, Milo Minderbinder isn’t merely the God of Capitalism; he is the apotheosis of greed (which is a lot like saying he’s the God of Capitalism, isn’t it).
Milo’s rise from mess officer to God-like status is surprising and is revealed in the last half of the novel, though it’s never really clear how he rose to such elite status:
The weird, implausible reception for Milo began at the airfield, where civilian laborers who recognized him halted in their duties respectfully to gaze at him with full expressions of controlled exuberance and adulation. News of his arrival preceded him into the city, and the outskirts were already crowded with cheering citizens as they sped by in their small uncovered truck. Yossarian and Orr were mystified and mute and pressed close against Milo for security.
I suspect the reader is as shocked by Milo’s reception as Yossarian apparently is. One might even say Milo is the Steve Jobs of M&M Enterprises if it weren’t that he soon appears to be Bill Gates in his complete domination of business. Even Bill Gates may not equal Milo’s success:
He was ready to break Milo’s neck, but Milo was Vice-Shah of Oran and his person was sacred. Milo was not only the Vice-Shah of Oran, as it turned out, but also the Caliph of Baghdad, Imam of Damascus, and the Sheik of Araby. Milo was the corn god, the rain god and the rice god in backward regions where such crude gods were still worshiped by ignorant and superstitious people, and deep inside the jungles of Africa, he intimated with modesty, large graven images of his mustached face could be found overlooking primitive stone altars red with human blood. Everywhere they touched he was acclaimed with honor, and it was one triumphal ovation after another for him in city after city until they finally doubled back through the Middle East and reached Cairo.
It would be wrong to merely conclude that Heller is making fun of American capitalism. He’s not; he’s exposing the basic greed in the world that allows capitalism to thrive everywhere, not just in America. Everyone wants a piece of business.
Unfortunately, some of what happens here seemed all too real. I suspect that Heller was inspired to create Milo Minderbinder by the system used by supply sergeants in the Army. I was amazed that even in Vietnam supply sergeants had an underground organization that would allow them to get parts quicker if they had parts to trade for them. My god, man, this was war and you’d think that the quicker tanks were fixed the safer everyone would be. Apparently not, though, because the “good old boy network” that thrived stateside thrived in Vietnam, too.
Happily, Heller pushes his depiction of Milo right over the top, safely on the side of satire, when he has Milo’s company bomb both the Germans and the Americans:
Milo’s planes were a familiar sight. They had freedom of passage everywhere, and one day Milo contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway bridge at Orvieto and with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge at Orvieto with antiaircraft fire against his own attack. His fee for attacking the bridge for America was the total cost of the operation plus six per cent, and his fee from Germany for defending the bridge was the same cost-plus-six agreement augmented by a merit bonus of a thousand dollars for every American plane he shot down. The consummation of these deals represented an important victory for private enterprise, he pointed out, since the armies of both countries were socialized institutions. Once the contracts were signed, there seemed to be no point in using the resources of the syndicate to bomb and defend the bridges, inasmuch as both governments had ample men and material right there to do so and were perfectly happy to contribute them, and in the end Milo realized a fantastic profit from both halves of his project for doing nothing more than signing his name twice.
Thank goodness the portrayal isn’t meant to be realistic. In fact, this portrayal of free enterprise seems totally absurd, unless we remember that American companies were accused of supplying Iraq with weapons in Desert Storm virtually up to the moment we attacked them. And, of course, we’ve sold weapons to the Israelis and the Arabs for years, even though they seem to be mainly intended for use against each other. I was a bit surprised when I was training at Armor School at Fort Knox to discover that we were training Arab tank officers, though, of course, we had trained Israeli officers in previous classes.
In what appears to be the ultimate betrayal, Milo even has M&M Enterprises bomb his own unit. Even Colonel Cathcart is outraged:
This time Milo had gone too far. Bombing his own men and planes was more than even the most phlegmatic observer could stomach, and it looked like the end for him.
Decent people everywhere were affronted, and Milo was all washed up until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made. He could reimburse the government for all the people and property he had destroyed and still have enough money left over to continue buying Egyptian cotton. Everybody, of course, owned a share. And the sweetest part of the whole deal was that there was really no need to reimburse the government at all.
“In a democracy, the government is the people,” Milo explained. “We’re the people, aren’t we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman.”
Of course, Catch-22 is purely fictional, so there’s obviously no similarity to Sadam Hussein’s Catch-22: Americans gave him weapons of mass destruction to use against the Iranians, you know those dreaded chemical weapons, then we destroyed him because he “had weapons of mass destruction.” We knew he had weapons of mass destruction, and we knew that because we had sold them to him. What more proof could anyone demand?
If you complain that such actions are “crazy,’ and protest too loudly, you, too, may be watched and pronounced “crazy,” just as Yossarian was pronounced crazy by the Army psychiatrist:
“You’re immature. You’ve been unable to adjust to the idea of war.
“You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown off any second.”
“I more than resent it, sir. I’m absolutely incensed.”
“You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”
“Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. “I hate them consciously.”
“You’re antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated, or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re a manic depressive!”
If you don’t feel precisely the way Yossarian does, I’m a little worried about YOU. It seems hard not to get depressed by what’s happening in society if you don’t think that the ultimate goal of society is to consume everything in sight, no matter what the consequences.