Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991
The events take place in Pianosa, a small Italian island where an Air Force bombing group is sweating out the closing months of World War II, and Rome, where the flyers go on leave to stage latter-day Roman orgies in a city filled with prostitutes. Men who behave like madmen are awarded medals. In a world of madmen at war, the maddest—or the sanest—of all is Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier of the 256th Squadron. Deciding that death in war is a matter of circumstance and having no wish to be victimized by any kind of circumstance, he tries by every means he can think of—including malingering, defiance, cowardice, and irrational behavior—to get out of the war. That is his resolve after the disastrous raid over Avignon, when Snowden, the radio-gunner, was shot almost in two, splashing his blood and entrails over Yossarian’s uniform and teaching the bombardier the cold, simple fact of man’s mortality. For some time after that, Yossarian refuses to wear any clothes, and when General Dreedle, the wing commander, arrives to award the bombardier a Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism, military procedure is upset because Yossarian wears no uniform on which to pin the medal. Yossarian’s logic of nonparticipation is so simple that everyone thinks him crazy, especially when he insists that “they” are trying to murder him. His insistence leads to an argument with Clevinger, who is bright and always has an excuse or an explanation for everything. When Clevinger wants to know who Yossarian thinks is trying to murder him, the bombardier says that all of “them” are, and Clevinger says that he has no idea who “they” can be.
Yossarian goes off to the hospital, complaining of a pain in his liver. If he has jaundice, the doctors will discharge him; if not, they will send him back to duty. Yossarian spends some of his time censoring the enlisted men’s letters. On some, he signs Washington Irving’s name as censor; on others, he crosses out the letter but adds loving messages signed with the chaplain’s name. The hospital would be a good place to stay for the rest of the war were it not for a talkative Texan and a patient so cased in bandages that Yossarian wonders at times whether there is a real body inside. When he returns to his squadron, he learns that Colonel Cathcart, the group commander, raised the number of required missions to fifty. Meanwhile, Clevinger dips his plane into a cloud one day and never brings it out again. He and his plane simply vanish.
It is impossible for Yossarian to complete his tour of combat duty because Colonel Cathcart wants to get his picture in The Saturday Evening Post and to become a general. Consequently, he continues to increase the number of required missions for his outfit beyond those required by the 27th Air Force Headquarters. By the time he sets the number at eighty, Kraft, McWatt, Kid Sampson, and Nately are dead; Clevinger and Orr disappear; the chaplain is disgraced (he is accused of the Washington Irving forgeries); and Aarfy commits a brutal murder. Hungry Joe screams in his sleep night after night, and Yossarian continues looking for new ways to stay alive. It is impossible for him to be sent home on medical relief because of Catch-22. As Doc Daneeka, the medical officer, explains, he can ground anyone who is crazy, but anyone who wants to avoid combat duty is not crazy and therefore cannot be grounded. This is Catch-22, the inevitable loophole in the scheme of justice, the self-justification of authority, the irony of eternal circumstance. Catch-22 explains Colonel Cathcart, who continues to raise the number of missions and volunteer his men for every dangerous operation in the Mediterranean theater. Colonel Cathcart also plans to have prayers during every briefing session but gives up that idea when he learns that officers and enlisted men must pray to the same god. Catch-22 also explains the struggle for power between General Dreedle, who wants a fighting outfit, and General Peckem of Special Services, who wants to see tighter bombing patterns—they look better in aerial photographs—and issues a directive ordering all tents in the Mediterranean theater to be pitched with their fronts facing in the direction of the Washington Monument. It explains Captain Black, the intelligence officer, who compels the officers to sign a new loyalty oath each time they get their map cases, flak suits and parachutes, paychecks, haircuts, and meals in the mess. It explains, above all, Lieutenant Milo Mindbinder, the mess officer, who parlays petty black-market operations into an international syndicate in which every man, as he says, has a share. By the time his organization is on a paying basis, he is elected mayor of half a dozen Italian cities, vice shah of Oran, caliph of Baghdad, imam of Damascus, and sheik of Araby. Once he almost makes a mistake by cornering the market on Egyptian cotton, but after some judicious bribery, he unloads it on the United States government. The climax of his career comes when he rents his fleet of private planes to the Germans and from the Pianosa control tower directs the bombing and strafing of his own outfit. Men of public decency are outraged until Milo opens his books for public inspection and shows the profit he makes. Then everything is all right, for in this strange, mad world, patriotism and profit are indistinguishable; the world lives by Milo’s motto, the claim that whatever is good for the syndicate is good for the nation.
Eventually, Yossarian takes off for neutral Sweden, three jumps ahead of the authorities and less than one jump ahead of Nately’s whore, who for some reason blames him for her lover’s death and tries to kill him. He spends the last night in Italy wandering alone through wartime Rome.