Chapter 1 - 4
Yossarian is an Assyrian-American pilot in World War II. He used to worry about hitting the target when he went on a bombing mission, but his priorities have changed. His only priority now is coming back alive. One way he attempts this is by remaining in the hospital instead of flying. As he always has a temperature of 101 degrees, it is easy for him to fool the doctors into thinking that he is sick. However, soon a Texan is admitted to the ward. "The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him" (17). Due to this annoying new patient, everyone in the ward stops pretending to be sick and goes back to duty.
Unfortunately, the war is still going on. Yossarian is concerned because people are trying to kill him. He has proof for this: people keep shooting at him. Of course, they are shooting at everyone, but that does not make the situation any more pleasant. Nor do the absurdities of the Air Force make things any more pleasant. Whether he is required to censor letters or asked to help build an officer's club, Yossarian resists conforming to the demands of the Air Force.
The people are rather absurd, as well. Yossarian's roommate, Orr, tells part of a story to get Yossarian to ask questions, and then replies with a statement that still does not clear up the confusion. Yossarian finds this maddening, although he is curious about why a young prostitute once beat Orr over the head with her shoe for fifteen minutes. Doc Daneeka is the company physician who leaves all his work to his assistants, bemoans the practice he left behind in the U.S., and gets Yossarian or other pilots to certify that he has done his required flying each month, even though he is terrified of planes. Doc Daneeka refuses to return the favor by getting Yossarian sent home. McWatt flies his plane low over Yossarian's tent to scare him, and Havermeyer puts everyone at risk by actually trying to hit the target. Then there is Dunbar, who "was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom" (17). The more Dunbar dislikes something, the more he appreciates it, because it helps make the time seem longer.
On top of all of this, there are the feuding generals, P.P. Peckem and Dreedle. They want to outdo each other, so they dispute over the placement of tents, send innumerable U.S.O. performances to the base, and call each other leaving mysterious messages. Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, the mail clerk at Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters, controls many communications, so he can manipulate the outcome of this feud without the generals even knowing it.
In this section we are introduced to Yossarian, who takes great pride in his efforts to flout the authority of the Air Force. For example, when asked to censor enlisted men's letters, he does not pay attention to content, as the Air Force would like. Instead, he makes a game of the task, striking out particular kinds of words. The Air Force can force Yossarian to be present and to fly missions, but it cannot force him to embrace the military lifestyle. In fact, it cannot even force him to do a good job, and he drops his bombs wherever he can just so he and his crew can get back out of danger as soon as possible. Yossarian's rebellion against the rules and refusal to take extra risks are the only ways he can offer resistance to the Air Force that forces him to be here.
The other men on his base deal with their fear of death in different ways. Havermeyer, for example, pretends to have no fear and to want to do the best job possible, but at night he shoots mice in his tent, exercising control over that aspect of his life since he cannot control the danger he is in. All of the men act out in some way to respond to the rules and fear of the Air Force.
In this section, we also begin to see how ridiculous the armed forces are. The two generals spend all their time competing with one another instead of trying to help their men. The men are then caught between them in a very dangerous yet absurd situation. While it is all quite funny, the reader realizes that is it horrible for the superior officers to pay so little attention to the needs of the men whose lives are in danger.