Is the answer to this question ‘no’? Yes

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a novel famous for its paradoxes. It’s so iconic that the book’s title has become the technical term for a specific type of paradoxical situation in which we’re trapped by the circular logic of rules and regulations.

Catch-22 was inspired by the inexorable bureaucratic logic of war, where war itself is a paradox.

We don’t need long memories to remember preemptive or, even more absurdly, preventive war: wars fought to prevent wars. The US and UK justification of their invasion of Iraq in 2003 springs to mind.

But how can war prevent war?

The paradox deepens, of course. Less than three months into World War One, HG Wells published a book describing that conflict as The War That Will End War:

[It] is a grim satisfaction in our discomforts that we can at last look across the roar and torment of battlefields to the possibility of an organised peace. For this is now a war for peace.

Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war — it is the last war!

But how can a war end war? How can nations wage war for peace?

History tells that the peace won by Wells’ paradoxical war lasted barely twenty years. Among the ruins of the World War Two, another author stretched the paradox.

After George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, wars are no longer fought for peace. Now, according to the doublethink doctrine, ‘war is peace’. Perpetual conflict abroad is the easiest way for a government disinterested in social progress to foster a distracted sense that all is well at home.

The paradoxical logic of the military-industrial complex

It’s no coincidence that both ‘catch-22’ and ‘doublethink’ have entered the modern lexicon.

We are, all of us, too familiar with the inexorable bureaucratic logic of the military-industrial complex that has become an invisible motor running in the background of our societies.

That motor may be invisible to many of us today, but in 1961 — the year Catch-22 was published — it was evident as a growing threat to liberty and democratic process.

Those are not my words, but the words of President Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War Two and one of the prime architects of D-Day:

[We] must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.

Living inside the paradox

For anyone who doubts the modern relevance of these military-industrial paradoxes, ponder for a moment which side of the paradox you’re living through.

The war or the peace? The security or the liberty? The paradox or the logic?

Are you the crazy Orr, blythly flying deadly missions when you could be grounded? Or are you the sane Yossarian, flying deadly missions in terror that ‘they’re trying to kill you’.

Maybe you can’t feel the edges of the paradox because your reality persists entirely on the side of the happy-go-lucky.

It’s probably easiest to illustrate with an example. You’ll have your favourites, but here’s one that’s often on my mind.

Consider the paradox of the asylum seeker.

Paradox I

On one side of the paradox, refugees arriving in the UK after fleeing conflict or persecution will, in the grandiose name of Great British justice, be granted asylum.

On the other side of the paradox, the new Nationality and Borders Bill will ensure no legal ways for would-be refugees to arrive in the UK. And those arriving under the new ‘illegal’ definition will be deported.

It’ll be the most efficient asylum system in the world: a perfectly empty paradoxical asylum system, where the whole category of ‘refugee’ is frozen out by the inexorable logic of Catch-22.

War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.

Of course, no system can be perfectly perfect. But our paradoxical asylum system solves that problem with a second paradox.

Paradox II

On one side of this paradox, the UK extends a ‘warm welcome’ to refugees, especially highly qualified refugees from countries where our military action has created a national crisis.

Yet, on the other side of the paradox, any unemployed adult is a drain on our national resources and unemployed foreign nationals should be expelled. In the UK, asylum seekers are not allowed to work.

Asylum seekers should be welcomed and immediately expelled.

War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.

We are the catch

Of course, the kicker is that, in Heller’s novel, Yossarian comes to realise that the regulatory trap of Catch-22 is a trap of our own imagination:

Yossarian strode away, cursing Catch-22 vehemently even though he knew there was no such thing. Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon, or burn up.

The paradoxes of seeking asylum are not entirely traps of imagination. Unlike Yossarian, we do have a text we must ridicule, refute, accuse, criticise, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon and / or burn up.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is still being debated by the Lords. If you are a Lord, please choose at least three of Yossarian’s verbs and apply them most vigorously to the infamous text before you.

But, even if you are not a Lord, we are all responsible for the collective imagery of the multiple Catch-22s that appear in stories like ‘some humans are illegal’, ‘the unemployed are a drain on our national resources’ and in any number of doublethink bureaucratic snares whose teeth are invisible to those of us lucky enough to exist entirely in the land of the happy-go-lucky.

I don’t have any big and clever ways out of the paradox. Except to remember that human affairs are perhaps best described by Shakespeare’s Romeo, using, of course, paradox:

Here’s much to do with hate but more with love.

Where you go from here is up to you. Are you crazy enough to be grounded? Are you sane enough to keep flying? Is the answer to this question ‘no’?

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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