The Maniacal Purposes of Loyalty Oaths

W.J. Astore

Matt Taibbi and Walter Kirn on “Catch-22” and Bureaucratic Madness

I wanted to share with you a conversation between Matt Taibbi and Walter Kirn on Joseph Heller’s classic satire, “Catch-22,” that focuses on the idea of loyalty oaths but that has much broader implications for our society today. Their entire conversation is well worth reading, but this passage is especially penetrating and important.

Profess your loyalty with a baseball cap for Armed Forces Day. $50 or less. Buy them for everyone in your family. You can’t be too patriotic — or too careful.

Matt Taibbi: That seems like a good place to segue into the story from this week.

On Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” in particular, “The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade.”

Walter Kirn: So we don’t end up being polite and going, no, you do it. No, you do it. It’s Chapter 11 of Catch-22 entitled “Captain Black.” Some people know it as the chapter called “The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade.” It tells a very simple story. There’s an officer on the air base where Catch-22 is set, and he’s been passed over for promotion. His name’s Captain Black, and he lost out when another officer was killed in battle, he thought he would succeed to his post, but he didn’t. Another guy, Major Major, got the job. So how is he going to take his revenge? How is he going to become important on the base? He comes up with the notion that he will start forcing all the troops and all the bombers and the crews of the different aircraft to take a “loyalty oath”, which he has to authorize before they can do anything.

And not just one loyalty oath, because they easily pass that test. They do it, but it’s two, three, four, until the point where the entire air base and its missions are paralyzed by the need to recite these oaths. If you want to get your plane off the ground, if you want to fuel your plane, if you want to eat lunch, you have to recite one of these oaths. And finally, the bureaucratic necessity of reciting oaths completely paralyzes the entire operation such that Heller says they were no longer able to even respond to emergencies. They were no longer able to respond to reality, because almost all they were doing was reciting these oaths over and over and over.

And it was assumed that if you had recited one oath and a minute had passed before you had recited the next one, that you might have become disloyal in the meantime. I guess what this all is a metaphor for is the notion that requiring loyalty of people is a bottomless request, which finally becomes an end in itself. Just as we saw at the hearing yesterday, let’s not get to the substance of what you’re alleging here. Let’s have you recite the oath first and did you recite it correctly and could you recite it again, and do you agree that it’s necessary? So by a Zeno’s arrow thing, you never get to the issue of anything because loyalty must always be the primary question and it is always doubted.

Matt Taibbi: Heller has this great line about the doctrine of “continual reaffirmation” that Captain Black originated. And the quote is,

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.

Nobody has the authority to stop this thing. Even the colonel in the group, Colonel Korn, he’s complaining: “It’s that idiot Black off on a patriotism binge.”

But when they’re deciding what to do about it, he just says:

Well, this will probably run its course soon. I think the best thing now is to send Captain Black a letter of total support and hope he drops dead before he does too much damage.

In other words, even the people who have authority, once one of these things gets going, nobody wants to get in front of this buzz saw. And if they do, they get cut down.

Walter Kirn: You can’t stop it because as is the abiding theme of Catch-22, you can never get off the hook with a bureaucracy that wants everything. You can never pass the loyalty oath because the one you took was a minute ago, are you taking one now? The perfect loyalty oath, in other words from a bureaucratic point of view, is one that no one can ever pass. One that never ends.

The perfect accusation in a witch trial is one that you can never be innocent of. And I wrote, “The more absurd loyalty oath, and the more often it is required, the better.” Anyone can repeat a loyalty oath that’s true and it is offered only once, but only the truly submissive will repeat it over and over until it loses all meaning. Because finally, what bureaucracy wants of you is humiliation and submission. It doesn’t want an answer. It doesn’t want to give you a pass and say, “You are free to go now. You may enter, you may run your mission. You’ve got your credential.” It wants total power. And total power can only be had if you are never declared loyal.

Matt Taibbi: The only people who succeed in this system are complete sociopaths with no shame. I think that’s one of the great things about this chapter is the way he starts off, Heller — one of the great things about this book in general is his ability to make snap characterizations. I mean, it takes even very skilled authors a paragraph to capture the personality of a person, but he’s able to do it in a sentence or two over and over again.

With Captain Black at the very start of this chapter, he gets a phone call that the unit is going to have to attack Bologna, which is heavily guarded and is going to involve a tremendous number of casualties. There’s a scene:

Captain Black brightened immediately. Bologna, he exclaimed with delight. Well, I’ll be damned.” He broke into loud laughter, “Bologna?” He laughed again and shook his head in pleasant amazement. “Boy, I can’t wait to see those bastards’ faces when they find out they’re going to Bologna.”

And then he goes down again and keeps repeating this.

”That’s right, you bastards, Bologna.” He kept repeating to all the bombardier who inquired incredulously if they were really going to Bologna. “Ha, ha, ha! Eat your livers, you bastards.”

He’s a total sadist. The only thing that has any meaning in his life is that as you said, he was passed over for this promotion when somebody else got killed. The person who stepped in his place was Major Major, a hilarious character to whom all kinds of things happen. Among his distinctive qualities is that he looks like Henry Fonda. When the officers are talking about this, this is where the idea for the loyalty oath comes:

Captain Black asserted that Major Major really was Henry Fonda. And when they remarked it Major Major was somewhat odd. Captain Black announced that he was a communist.

“They’re taking over everything.” He would declare rebelliously. “Well, you fellows can stand around and let them if you want to, but I’m not going to. I’m doing something about it. From now on I’m going to make every son of a bitch who comes to my intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath.”

There’s a great line. “He had really hit on something.” That’s when it starts this whole description of how you have to sign an oath to go to the PX to buy anything, to get your hair cut, to get paid, to do anything. This idiotic, insipid character, who has no positive qualities and is a pure careerist, for whom even the death of other people is totally meaningless, he’s exactly the person who succeeds in this bureaucracy, because bureaucracies are designed to elevate such people.

Walter Kirn: This is why literature is a superior form of analysis for the human condition over politics. Politics has us believe that the content of our arguments matter, that the positions and ideas we’re arguing about matter, but literature suggests that rituals are rituals and human passions are human passions. And that sweep aside what people are talking about and what people are saying and focus on what they’re actually doing. And in this case, we have Black proclaiming Major Major a communist, and the suspicion of communism among the troops becomes the basis for the Great Loyalty Oath. But it could just as well be that he could have accused them of being MAGA or fascists, because loyalty oaths are the same no matter what the occasion for their administration. They are rituals of dominance and submission, they are ritualistic affirmations of the bureaucracy’s preeminence. [Emphasis added.]

We constantly are amazed by the fact that the same machinations that the anti-communist McCarthyite put into place in the fifties are now being used by the liberal party against the presumably patriotic side. In other words, we now have not communist-hunting but MAGA-hunting. And we think that something has changed because politics makes us think it’s all about the ideas. It’s not. It’s all about the whatand who sits above, and who sits below; who administers the oath and who has to take it. Who has the power to come up with an oath, and who is so unfortunate that they have to recite them?

What we’re seeing in American politics is a recapitulation in terms of structure and form of an old drama. But the words have changed, and the names for evil have swapped. And in some ways the D or the R on the desk, the Democrat or Republican plaque, has changed sides, but we’re seeing the same thing. What Heller’s showing in this novel is that bureaucracy itself serves its own interests over and above any particular problem that it’s there to solve.

These people are there to win a war. The great irony of Catch-22 is that this intense deadly war that’s going on in the background, is, actually in the background. What people are really concerned about are their promotions, whether they’ve filled out forms correctly, have they won the esteem of their superior? Have they triumphed over their inferior? And meanwhile, people are dying, thousands of people are being bombed and planes are going down. But that hardly matters when there are new stripes to be won for your uniform, or an extra lunch to be had at the commissary, or whatever. So the book’s continuing comedy is the inversion of values in which the institution is all important, and the purposes are forgotten. [Emphasis added]


OK, I’m back. I hope you enjoyed reading that passage. It helps to explain why the Pentagon/MICC continues to grow in power even as it’s lost every major war since World War II (ironically the historical setting for Heller’s brilliant satire).

Believe me, I’ve met my share of officers in the U.S. military who weren’t concerned with the mission or higher ideals like their oath to the Constitution. They were concerned about getting promoted and enlarging their own personal rice bowl (an image used often when I was on active duty).

How to stop a runaway bureaucracy that insists on your loyalty and obedience, repeated ad infinitum, is one of the great issues of this moment. With military propaganda in full swing this weekend (It’s Armed Forces Day!), you had best salute the troops smartly and show your loyalty, as baseball players are, by wearing special olive drab military-themed caps to celebrate “our nation’s finest.” Available for less that $50 each at MLB!

If you miss this weekend (Are you sure you’re a real American?), there’ll be themed caps for Memorial Day and July 4th. And if you’re not a baseball fan, the NFL will get you in the fall at all its “Salute to Service” celebrations.

Just remember to be loyal — very loyal.

3 thoughts on “The Maniacal Purposes of Loyalty Oaths

  1. “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.” — George Orwell, 1984


    1. “As received wisdom admonishes us: “Two is company, and three is a crowd.”

      Speaking of crowds and the dangers inherent in their manipulation for nefarious purposes. From Thought Control in Everyday Life, by
      James Alexander (United States: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1928) pages 233-234:

      [begin quote]

      The word “crowd,” … means a collective body of men and women – people gathered together for some purpose in common.

      For the average man – the man with neither knowledge of Crowd Psychology, nor training in thought control – one of the most difficult things in the world is to control his thoughts when he is a member of a crowd. For the crowd, no matter what its constitution may be, whether made up of men of good birth and education, or men with neither of these advantages, ranks as the lowest form of human association. [emphasis added]

      The crowd is a collective mind with little intelligence, and is largely dominated by its instincts and emotions [emphasis added]. Attend a congress of any body of men and women; observe them carefully, and you will note how large a part the instincts and emotions play, and the far from high quality of the display of intelligence. You will see highly intelligent men and women, whom you have heard about or read of, and you will go home with a quite different conception of them; for you will judge them by their actions and the part they in the discussions. Most observers, in such conditions, will judge wrongly. For crowds are contagious, their speech and acts are contagious, and, for the time being, every man and woman in a crowd is a very different individual from what he or she is in private and in ordinary life [emphasis added]. Any person who doubts this has only to make the experiment. Let him mix with any crowd where feeling runs high and opinions clash, and let him note the effect on his own mentality. One thing is sure to strike [the individual] when a member of such a crowd – the enormous power of suggestion and a weakening of his own power to resist its influence [emphasis added].

      The great thing to grasp is that the crowd mind is antagonistic to the individual mind. The crowd mind demands that you, as a member of the crowd, should think as it thinks [emphasis added]. Never lose sight of that fact; be determined to think for yourself, and panic thoughts will have little power over you. One word more: watch closely your emotions when you are a member of a crowd; never allow them to develop; switch the mind away to the cool, calm, collected attitude of mind [emphasis added].

      [end quote]


  2. Speaking of Loyalty Oafs (not a misspelling), I pretty much covered such easily buffaloed people in verse eighteen years ago. My inspiration came chiefly from the lunatic attacks on Washington Congressman Jim McDermott (back in 2004) for not publicly uttering a noxious little two-word prepositional phrase while leading the Congress in its daily unconstitutional prostrations. Like Congressman McDermott, I remembered our elementary school teachers back then telling us kids that we did not have to say those words if we did not wish to and could, for one example, simply hold our breaths for three beats and then resume the nationalistic chant along with the other kids. Converted into an Orwellian, religio-fascist prayer by the Eisenhower/McCarthy republicans in 1954, I rediscovered (half a century later) the same three syllables still coursing like political poison through the arteries and veins of American political life. I refer, of course, to:

    The Boobie Pledge of Subservience
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-linguistic retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    I offer my obedience
    I pledge undying love
    To any symbol formed to serve
    The needs of those above
    Who rightly feel that I deserve
    The fist inside the glove

    I stand and mumble publicly
    With fear upon my brow
    Lest some mistake my silence for
    An insufficient vow
    Let all who see and hear me know
    How easily I cow

    Authority need never fear
    I swear I know my place
    I pledge to take the gauntlet slapped
    Across my beaten face
    The Seizure Class knows I’ll accept
    Chastisement with good grace

    About such things as freedom, I
    Have not the slightest clue
    By birth and class it’s come to THEM
    I know that it’s THEIR due
    To hand me down instructions as
    To just what I must do

    And so I promise faithfully
    To play my scripted part
    Each day I’ll chant Two Minutes’ Hate
    To finish, from the start
    Until I love BIG BROTHER from
    The bottom of my heart

    I swear to do as I am told
    I will not think too deep
    I’ll huddle in conformity
    Just like the other sheep
    To take my whipping like a slave
    And utter not a peep

    I pledge to stand up every day
    Within my schoolroom class
    And mouth my mantras on demand
    Without backtalk or sass
    Until the program makes me a
    Compliant, docile ass

    I swear upon my loyalty
    To stuff my head with fat
    And place my nation “under” “GAWD!”
    Supinely prone and flat
    With me then going “down” “beneath”
    And “lower” “under” that

    I swear to go to Sunday School
    Upon the public dime
    Each morning in my homeroom class
    I’ll mouth my dreary rhyme
    And if I leave out words
    THEY can Indict me for my crime

    I pledge and vow and promise that
    I’ll swear from dusk to dawn
    And never fail to chant or moan;
    To never blink or yawn
    And with each cry of “GAWD IZ GRATE!”
    My own soul I will pawn

    The Papal bulls and fatwas tell
    Me all I need to know
    Which isn’t much because I see
    I’ve nowhere left to go
    I swear to never set my sails
    Against the winds that blow

    The Popes, Imams, and Rabbis tell
    Me what and where and how
    The master’s overseer tells
    Me which row I must plow;
    To toady, genuflect, and crawl;
    To grovel, scrape and bow

    I’ll train to “hurry up and wait”
    And do the Bulgar drills
    To stand at rapt attention dressed
    In military frills
    Just point me and I’ll drop the bomb
    No matter whom it kills

    I pledge and promise on my word
    To do the things I ought
    To work for lower wages
    So my labor comes to naught
    I swear to vote Republicrat
    To prove I can be bought

    The Party keeps us all at war
    Which makes us quake with fear
    And so we give up all those rights
    Our ancestors held dear
    Which saves our enemies the need
    To take them from us here

    But I won’t think of bygone days
    The past I’ll just rewrite
    I’ll call my history “old news”
    To make it pat and trite
    Which sleight of mind will help me keep
    Its lessons out of sight

    With this capitulation I
    Agree to sell my pride
    Before I even own it or
    It grows too big to slide
    Into the shabby, craven cave
    Wherein I must reside

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005


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