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.