The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade

The following is an excerpt from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Heller’s novel was published sixty years ago, and thus has absolutely nothing to tell us about the modern world. We can’t even figure out why we thought to post it.

Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again.

Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was the greatest piece of music ever composed. The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was; to Captain Black it was as simple as that, and he had Corporal Kolodny sign hundreds with his name each day so that he could always prove he was more loyal than anyone else.

‘The important thing is to keep them pledging,’ he explained to his cohorts. ‘It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what “pledge” and “allegiance” mean.’

To Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren, the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a glorious pain in the ass, since it complicated their task of organizing the crews for each combat mission. Men were tied up all over the squadron signing, pledging and singing, and the missions took hours longer to get under way. Effective emergency action became impossible, but Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren were both too timid to raise any outcry against Captain Black, who scrupulously enforced each day the doctrine of ‘Continual Reaffirmation’ that he had originated, a doctrine designed to trap all those men who had become disloyal since the last time they had signed a loyalty oath the day before. It was Captain Black who came with advice to Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren as they pitched about in their bewildering predicament. He came with a delegation and advised them bluntly to make each man sign a loyalty oath before allowing him to fly on a combat mission.

‘Of course, it’s up to you,’ Captain Black pointed out. ‘Nobody’s trying to pressure you. But everyone else is making them sign loyalty oaths, and it’s going to look mighty funny to the F.B.I. if you two are the only ones who don’t care enough about your country to make them sign loyalty oaths, too. If you want to get a bad reputation, that’s nobody’s business but your own. All we’re trying to do is help.’

Milo was not convinced and absolutely refused to deprive Major Major of food, even if Major Major was a Communist, which Milo secretly doubted. Milo was by nature opposed to any innovation that threatened to disrupt the normal course of affairs. Milo took a firm moral stand and absolutely refused to participate in the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade until Captain Black called upon him with his delegation and requested him to.

‘National defense is everybody’s job,’ Captain Black replied to Milo’s objection. ‘And this whole program is voluntary, Milo – don’t forget that. The men don’t have to sign Piltchard and Wren’s loyalty oath if they don’t want to. But we need you to starve them to death if they don’t. It’s just like Catch-22. Don’t you get it? You’re not against Catch-22, are you?’

Doc Daneeka was adamant.

‘What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?’

‘You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don’t see him signing any of our loyalty oaths.’

‘You aren’t letting him sign any.’

‘Of course not,’ Captain Black explained. ‘That would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade. Look, you don’t have to play ball with us if you don’t want to. But what’s the point of the rest of us working so hard if you’re going to give Major Major medical attention the minute Milo begins starving him to death? I just wonder what they’re going to think up at Group about the man who’s undermining our whole security program. They’ll probably transfer you to the Pacific.’

Doc Daneeka surrendered swiftly. ‘I’ll go tell Gus and Wes to do whatever you want them to.’

Up at Group, Colonel Cathcart had already begun wondering what was going on.

‘It’s that idiot Black off on a patriotism binge,’ Colonel Korn reported with a smile. ‘I think you’d better play ball with him for a while, since you’re the one who promoted Major Major to squadron commander.’

‘That was your idea,’ Colonel Cathcart accused him petulantly. ‘I never should have let you talk me into it.’

‘And a very good idea it was, too,’ retorted Colonel Korn, ‘since it eliminated that superfluous major that’s been giving you such an awful black eye as an administrator. Don’t worry, this will probably run its course soon. The best thing to do now is send Captain Black a letter of total support and hope he drops dead before he does too much damage.’ Colonel Korn was struck with a whimsical thought. ‘I wonder! You don’t suppose that imbecile will try to turn Major Major out of his trailer, do you?’

‘The next thing we’ve got to do is turn that bastard Major Major out of his trailer,’ Captain Black decided. ‘I’d like to turn his wife and kids out into the woods, too. But we can’t. He has no wife and kids. So we’ll just have to make do with what we have and turn him out. Who’s in charge of the tents?’

‘He is.’

‘You see?’ cried Captain Black. ‘They’re taking over everything! Well, I’m not going to stand for it. I’ll take this matter right to Major – de Coverley himself if I have to. I’ll have Milo speak to him about it the minute he gets back from Rome.’

Captain Black had boundless faith in the wisdom, power and justice of Major – de Coverley, even though he had never spoken to him before and still found himself without the courage to do so. He deputized Milo to speak to Major – de Coverley for him and stormed about impatiently as he waited for the tall executive officer to return. Along with everyone else in the squadron, he lived in profound awe and reverence of the majestic, white-haired major with craggy face and Jehovean bearing, who came back from Rome finally with an injured eye inside a new celluloid eye patch and smashed his whole Glorious Crusade to bits with a single stroke.

Milo carefully said nothing when Major – de Coverley stepped into the mess hall with his fierce and austere dignity the day he returned and found his way blocked by a wall of officers waiting in line to sign loyalty oaths. At the far end of the food counter, a group of men who had arrived earlier were pledging allegiance to the flag, with trays of food balanced in one hand, in order to be allowed to take seats at the table. Already at the tables, a group that had arrived still earlier was singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in order that they might use the salt and pepper and ketchup there. The hubbub began to subside slowly as Major – de Coverley paused in the doorway with a frown of puzzled disapproval, as though viewing something bizarre. He started forward in a straight line, and the wall of officers before him parted like the Red Sea. Glancing neither left nor right, he strode indomitably up to the steam counter and, in a clear, full-bodied voice that was gruff with age and resonant with ancient eminence and authority, said:

‘Gimme eat.’

Instead of eat, Corporal Snark gave Major – de Coverley a loyalty oath to sign. Major – de Coverley swept it away with mighty displeasure the moment he recognized what it was, his good eye flaring up blindingly with fiery disdain and his enormous old corrugated face darkening in mountainous wrath.

‘Gimme eat, I said,’ he ordered loudly in harsh tones that rumbled ominously through the silent tent like claps of distant thunder.

Corporal Snark turned pale and began to tremble. He glanced toward Milo pleadingly for guidance. For several terrible seconds there was not a sound. Then Milo nodded.

‘Give him eat,’ he said.

Corporal Snark began giving Major – de Coverley eat. Major – de Coverley turned from the counter with his tray full and came to a stop. His eyes fell on the groups of other officers gazing at him in mute appeal, and, with righteous belligerence, he roared:

‘Give everybody eat!’

‘Give everybody eat!’ Milo echoed with joyful relief, and the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade came to an end. 

7 Replies to “The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade”

  1. That particular passage is a great allegory for a great many things. It’s as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. Squint hard enough and one might even see a vague allegory to what’s happened in education (up to a point, because unfortunately, there’s no Major – de Coverley that might get the snivelling, gutless ‘soldiers’ off the hook).

    I first discovered Catch-22 – independently – back in Yr 9. I’ve re-read it several times since, always finding new layers. It’s amazing that it was Joseph Heller’s first novel.

    On an unrelated note, Joseph Heller was great friends with Kurt Vonnegut. Player Piano was Kurt’s first novel. We can’t even figure out why we thought to share the following random quotes from that novel:

    “Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis.”

    “Almost nobody’s competent, Paul. It’s enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.”

    “The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings,” said Paul, “not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.”

    “I’m doctor of cowshit, pigshit, and chickenshit,” he said. “When you doctors figure out what you want, you’ll find me out in the barn shoveling my thesis.”

        1. I think the VIT might be closer to the Captain Black of education. But it would make a good topic for an essay in the GAT.

          Re: Major Major Major Major (his full name and title):

          “Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.”

          The Peter Principle goes by other names these days, including the ACARA Principle and the [insert appropriate acronym] Principle.

  2. How engrained Catch-22 is in the US-American psyche became obvious to me when I first (to my memory) heard of it in a conversation with an eminent (now deceased) US statistician in 2000. He used it to explain how an optimal convergence rate from theory could never be “really” obtained, due to the need of having to statistically estimate the underlying model to the required accuracy. And the estimation meant that one would have to have more mathematical smoothness than that assumed in the setting for the aforementioned optimal convergence rate.

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