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What's the Catch? Catch-22.

Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Susan Wood

What's the Catch? Catch-22.

Joseph Heller, born 90 years ago today, wrote one of the all-time greatest anti-war novels: Catch-22. Much like M*A*S*H would do a few years later, Catch-22 used comedy to comment on the absurdity and horror of war.

In 1953, when Heller began writing his satire, the Korean conflict was just ending and World War II was still fresh in the minds of Americans. Heller himself had served in World War II and used that war as the setting for Catch-22. By the time the book was published in 1961, America was nearly a generation removed from WWII, but the war in Vietnam was escalating with the U.S. tripling its number of troops there. U.S. forces in Vietnam would triple again the following year.

Catch-22 excited its readers, especially students angry about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and Korea before that, by piling ridiculous situations onto each other until suddenly, in its final chapters, concluding with tragedy and horror.

Central to the story was the "catch" of the title – the impossibility of getting out of military service. As the catch goes, only an irrational person would want to fight and put himself in danger. If you were irrational, you weren't fit to fight (even though that’s what you wanted to do). But if you did not want to fight and asked to be released from service, well, that proved that you were rational and thereby fit for service – and so, you had to keep fighting.

Confusing? Sure. So is war, and that was Heller's point.

Joseph Heller died at age 76 in 1999. But his most famous work remains timely long after his death.