First Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder is a character in Joseph Heller's most successful novel, Catch-22. As the mess officer of Yossarian's squadron, Minderbinder is a war profiteer during World War II, "perhaps the best known of all fictional profiteers" in American literature. The Minderbinder character is a "bittersweet parody" of the American dream, both a "prophet of profit" and the "embodiment of evil".
Milo Minderbinder is the mess officer at the U.S. Army Air Corps base who becomes obsessed with expanding mess operations and trading goods for the profits of the syndicate (in which he and everyone else "has a share"). Milo is a satire of the modern businessman, and beyond that is the living representation of capitalism, as he has no allegiance to any country, person or principle unless it pays him.
Minderbinder, unlike most characters in Catch-22, who are only the subject of one chapter, is the subject of three chapters (Chapter 22: "Milo the Mayor", Chapter 24: "Milo" and Chapter 35: "Milo the Militant"). He is one of the main characters in the novel. His most interesting attributes are his complete amorality without self-awareness, and his circular logicality in running his Syndicate.
Minderbinder's enterprise becomes known as "M & M Enterprises", with the two M's standing for his initials and the "&" added to dispel any idea that the enterprise is a one-man operation. Minderbinder travels across the world, especially around the Mediterranean, trying to buy and sell goods at a profit, primarily through black market channels. Everyone has a "share", a fact which Minderbinder uses to defend his actions, stating that what is good for the company is good for all. For example, he secretly replaces the CO2 cartridges in the emergency life vests with printed notes to the effect that what is good for M & M is good for the country.
Eventually, Minderbinder begins contracting missions for the Germans, fighting on both sides in the battle at Orvieto, and bombing his own squadron at Pianosa. At one point Minderbinder orders his fleet of aircraft to attack the American base where he lives, killing many American officers and enlisted men. He finally gets court-martialed for treason. However, as M&M Enterprises proves to be incredibly profitable, he hires an expensive lawyer who is able to convince the court that it was capitalism which made America great, and is absolved only by disclosing to the congressional committee investigating what the enormous profit he made by dealing with the Germans was.
In typical Catch-22 satirical fashion, Minderbinder's business is incredibly profitable, with the single exception of his decision to buy all Egyptian cotton in existence, which he cannot unload afterwards (except to other entrepreneurs, who sell the cotton back to him because he simply ordered all Egyptian cotton) and tries to dispose of by coating it with chocolate and serving it in the mess hall. Later Yossarian gives Minderbinder the idea of selling the cotton to the government, since "the business of government is 'business'."
The exact size of Minderbinder's syndicate is never specified. At the beginning of the novel, it is merely a system that gets fresh eggs to his mess hall by buying them in Sicily for one cent, selling them to Malta for four and a half cents, buying them back for seven cents, and finally selling them to the mess halls for five cents. However, the syndicate is soon revealed to have become a large company, and then an international syndicate, making Minderbinder the Mayor of Palermo, Assistant Governor-General of Malta, Shah of Oran, Caliph of Baghdad, mayor of Cairo, and the god of corn, rain, and rice in various pagan African countries. Whenever Minderbinder appears in one of his cities, an impromptu holiday with parades forming around him is declared.
Relationship to Yossarian
Ironically, Minderbinder tends to trust the novel's protagonist Yossarian more than he trusts anyone else because Yossarian – an unselfish man of principle – is so unlike himself. After learning that Yossarian can have all the dried fruit he wants, which he then gives to friends in the squadron, Minderbinder decides that he can be trusted because "anyone who would not steal from the country he loved would not steal from anyone." However he continually ignores Yossarian's pleas for help because of his preoccupation with running M & M Enterprises. He ultimately betrays Yossarian by striking a deal with Colonel Cathcart: Yossarian's squadron must fly additional missions, and Minderbinder gets the credit. When Nately's Whore's Kid Sister, a young girl for whom Yossarian comes to care deeply, goes missing, Minderbinder agrees to help him find her, but abandons the attempt in order to smuggle illegal tobacco.
Joseph Heller intentionally seeded Catch 22 with "anachronisms like loyalty oaths, helicopters, IBM machines and agricultural subsidies", all of which only appear in the McCarthy Era, in order to create a more contemporary atmosphere. Likewise, Heller created Minderbinder's famous saying "What's good for Milo Minderbinder, is good for the country" (insert Syndicate or M&M Enterprises for Milo Minderbinder) as a parody of Charles E. Wilson, who said "What is good for the country is good for General Motors" during a hearing of a Senate subcommittee in 1952. Wilson was the head of General Motors in 1952, but became Secretary of Defense in January 1953, thus being an early example of the military-industrial complex, which the Minderbinder character well represents.
According to Heller, he modeled the character traits of Minderbinder – fast-talking, self-promoting, thoroughly conscienceless – on his Coney Island childhood friend Marvin Winkler (or Beansy to friends). Winkler is described at length in Heller's 1998 memoir Now and Then.
Milo Minderbinder has become the archetypal unabashed war profiteer in the American novel, better known than the first example of the species, the character Charles Holt in the 1863 novel The Days of Shoddy by Henry Morford, and the later characters Marcus Hubbard in the play Another Part of the Forest, Joe Keller in the Miller play All My Sons and Noah Rosewater in the Vonnegut novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
- Stuart Dean Brandes: Warhogs: a history of war profits in America. University Press of Kentucky, 1997, ISBN 0-8131-2020-9, pg. 273
- Barbara Tepa Lupack: Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction. University Press of Florida, 1995, ISBN 0-8130-1331-3, pg. 50–52.
- Harold Bloom (2009). Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Infobase Publishing. p. 78. ISBN 978-1-4381-1709-6.
- Playboy Interview: Joseph Heller. Playboy, June 1975. In: Joseph Heller and Adam J. Sorkin: Conversations with Joseph Heller. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson 1993, ISBN 0-87805-635-1, pg. 150.
- Barbara Gelb: Catching Joseph Heller. (Profile / Interview), New York Times, March 4, 1979. In: Joseph Heller and Adam J. Sorkin: Conversations with Joseph Heller. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson 1993, ISBN 0-87805-635-1, pg. 195.
- See Chapter 1 of Now and Then. In: New York Times, February 2, 1998.