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.