Not wanting to face the violence of World War II, Yossarian, an American soldier, has gone to an Italian military hospital claiming to have a pain in his liver. The doctors seem unable to prove that he is well, so they let him stay, though they are perplexed that his condition is neither improving nor worsening. The hospital patients are required to censor letters traveling between the soldiers and their loved ones at home. Yossarian plays games with the letters, deleting words according to his own arbitrary rules and affixing his signature as “Washington Irving.” He shares the hospital ward with his friend Dunbar, a bandaged, immobile man called “the soldier in white,” and a pair of nurses who appear to hate Yossarian.
An affable Texan is admitted to the ward one day, and the Texan tries to convince the patients that “decent folk” deserve extra votes. The Texan’s patriotism deeply annoys the other patients. Meanwhile, a chaplain comes to see Yossarian, who enjoys the chaplain’s company. But within ten days of the Texan’s arrival at the hospital, almost everyone, including Yossarian, flees the ward out of annoyance with the Texan, recovering from his or her ailments and returning to active duty.
When he leaves the hospital, Yossarian feels that he is the only one concerned about the senseless war in which millions of young men are bombing each other. He remembers arguing about the nature of the war with an officer in his group named Clevinger. Yossarian had claimed that everyone was trying to kill him, while Clevinger argued that no one was trying to kill Yossarian personally. Yossarian had rejected Clevinger’s arguments about countries and honor; for Yossarian, the salient fact was that people kept shooting at him.
Yossarian sees his roommate, Orr, and finds out that Clevinger is still missing. He remembers the last time he and Clevinger called each other crazy, during a night at the officers’ club when Yossarian announced to everyone present that he was superhuman because no one had managed to kill him yet. Yossarian is suspicious of everyone when he gets out of the hospital. He has a delicious meal in Milo’s gourmet mess hall, then talks to Doc Daneeka, who enrages Yossarian by telling him that Colonel Cathcart has raised the number of missions required before a soldier can be discharged from forty-five to fifty. At the time of this change, Yossarian had flown forty-four missions.
Orr tells Yossarian a nonsensical story about how he liked to stuff crab apples in his cheeks when he was younger. Yossarian briefly remembers an episode in Rome during which a whore beat Orr over the head with her shoe. Yossarian reflects on Orr’s size; he is even smaller than Huple, a young boy who lives near Hungry Joe’s tent. Hungry Joe has nightmares whenever he is not scheduled to fly a mission the next day, and his screaming keeps the whole camp awake. Hungry Joe’s tent is near a road where the men sometimes pick up girls and take them out to the tall grass across the road from an open-air movie theater.
A U.S.O. (United Service Organizations) troupe that visited the theater that afternoon has been sent by an ambitious general named P. P. Peckem, who hopes to take over the command of Yossarian’s unit from General Dreedle. General Peckem’s troubleshooter, Colonel Cargill, used to be a marketing executive paid by Wall Street firms to fail at marketing so that they could establish tax losses. Cargill does much the same thing now as a colonel: he fails most notably at bringing enthusiasm to the men, some of whom have finished their fifty missions and anxiously hope their orders to return home arrive before Colonel Cathcart raises the number of missions again.
Yossarian feels sick, but Doc Daneeka refuses to ground him. Doc Daneeka advises Yossarian to emulate Havermeyer, a fearless bombardier, and make the best of his situation. But Yossarian thinks that his fear is healthy. The narrator notes that Havermeyer likes to shoot mice in the middle of the night and that he once woke Hungry Joe with a shot that compelled him to dive into a slit trench. These slit trenches had mysteriously appeared beside every tent the morning following the mess officer Milo Minderbinder’s bombing of the squadron.
The narrator explains that Hungry Joe is crazy and thus Yossarian is trying to give him advice. Hungry Joe won’t listen, however, because he thinks Yossarian is crazy. Doc Daneeka, in turn, tells Yossarian that his own problems are worse than Hungry Joe’s because the war has interrupted his lucrative medical practice.
Yossarian remembers trying to disrupt the educational meeting in Captain Black’s intelligence tent by asking unanswerable questions, which caused Group Headquarters to make a rule that the only people who could ask questions were the ones who never did. This rule comes from Colonel Cathcart and Lieutenant Colonel Korn. These two colonels also approved the construction of a skeet-shooting range at which Yossarian never hits anything. Dunbar, though, shoots skeet frequently because he hates it. Dunbar believes that when he engages in activities that are boring or uncomfortable, time passes more slowly and he thereby lengthens his life. He argues with Clevinger about this theory. Meanwhile, ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen has started a panic among the officers in Rome by telephoning them and saying only, “T. S. Eliot.” Although he intends these words as a response to a general memo from a colonel saying that it would be hard to name a poet who makes any money, General Peckem assumes that the words constitute a coded message and suffers great anxiety as a result.
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety . . . was the process of a rational mind.
In the tent that Doc Daneeka and an alcoholic Native American named Chief White Halfoat share, Doc Daneeka describes his corrupt Staten Island medical practice to Yossarian. He tells him about some sexually inept newlyweds who once visited his office. Chief White Halfoat enters, telling Yossarian that Doc Daneeka is crazy. Halfoat then relates the story of his own family: because every place that he and his family settled turned out to be on top of a significant oil supply, major oil companies began following them, using them as “human divining rods.” The oil companies then kicked them off the land, forcing the family to live a nomadic life.
Yossarian again pleads with Doc Daneeka to be grounded, asking if he would be grounded if he were crazy. Doc Daneeka replies that he would, and Yossarian argues that he is indeed crazy. Doc Daneeka then describes Catch-22, a regulation holding that, in order to be grounded for insanity, a pilot must ask to be grounded; but any pilot who asks to be grounded must be sane, since sane people would never want to fly bombing missions. Impressed, Yossarian takes Doc Daneeka’s word for it, just as he had taken Orr’s word about the flies in Appleby’s eyes: Orr had insisted that there are flies in Appleby’s eyes, and though Yossarian had no idea what Orr meant, he believed him because Orr had never lied to him before.
Yossarian begins thinking about bombing missions and how much he hates his position in the nose of the plane, where he is separated from the escape hatch by a passage just wide enough to fit through. On these bombing missions, Yossarian is always terrified for his life, and he pleads with the pilot, McWatt, to avoid antiaircraft fire. He remembers one mission when, while the squadron was taking evasive action, Dobbs, the co-pilot, went crazy and started screaming, “Help him.” The plane spun out of control and Yossarian believed he was going to die. Enigmatically, the narrator states that someone named Snowden lay dying in the back of the plane.
One of the main goals of Catch-22 is to satirize the dehumanizing machinery of war by showing the irremovable survival impulse at the heart of every individual. By constantly making fun of wartime situations and by carrying arguments to their extreme, absurd conclusions, the novel shows the conflict that arises when a war’s course is determined by factors alien to the people who are fighting the war. Through a maze of characters and events, Catch-22 explores war and bureaucracy and their effects on ordinary people.
In these early chapters, these effects take the form of an absurd irony that penetrates virtually every facet of the characters’ lives. The greatest irony is, of course, the perceived uselessness of the war—at least as it is carried out by the characters who surround Yossarian. All that matters to the generals controlling the troops is getting a promotion; all that matters to the troops is staying alive long enough to go home. No one is concerned with the larger political or ethical implications of the war. This grand irony is played out in hundreds of small ways, with Yossarian and his companions acting in self-defeating, paradoxical ways simply because their actions have so little meaning. In the hospital, for example, Yossarian and his companions hate the Texan because he is so likable, and Yossarian makes a fool of the chaplain even though he senselessly loves him. Furthermore, wielded with wickedly satirical intent, the banter between characters is full of paradoxes as impossible as Catch-22 itself.
One of the statements that the novel makes is that the rules that govern individuals also tend to shape their thoughts. The early chapters show us how the soldiers, imprisoned by the paradox of Catch-22, take this type of paradox to heart, pursuing irrelevancy, meaninglessness, and nonsense as though they are real values in a world where relevancy, meaning, and sense are impossible. The power of bureaucracy further manifests itself in the first few chapters through Colonel Cathcart’s impersonal raising of the number of required missions and even more through Doc Daneeka’s explanation of Catch-22—Yossarian is forced to confront the revelation that the law governing his life is an irresolvable paradox.
The failure of communication plays an important role in the development of Heller’s paradoxes. Words have little meaning, a truth that becomes clear in the very first chapter as Yossarian capriciously deletes random words from letters simply because he finds the letters boring. Heller often uses miscommunication to create comedy, as when ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen causes General Peckem a great deal of worry by calling him and saying, “T. S. Eliot”—a simple, harmless phrase that Peckem interprets as something complicated and sinister. Part of the irony here is that insubstantial, easily misinterpreted words are what determine the very real, substantial aspects of the soldiers’ lives. The contrast between the actual fighting and the ridiculous bureaucracy that controls it is one of the most horrifying aspects of Catch-22.
Finally, even the notion of time itself is affected by the absurdity governing characters’ lives. The story is told with a jumbled chronology involving recollections, allusions to future events, and statements whose meanings become clear only as the novel progresses. The narrative skips from scene to scene with occasional (but still confusing) mentions of before and after but with no central now to give these terms meaning. However, a number of handholds are offered to enable us to put the events in some kind of order: the growth of Milo’s syndicate, the ranks of certain officers, and, most important, the number of missions the men are expected to fly.