The actions happen on the fictional island Pianosa located in the Mediterranean sea, on the US Air Force base at the times of World War II. Despite the war raging around, every of the numerous character of this literature work fights their own war, in which they don’t spare neither themselves nor others.
Captain of the Air Force Yossarian, who is a bombardier on a said base, fights for a long time already. He is almost up to complete his norm set by Air Force of twenty-five flights and thinks about going back home. But his commander, Colonel Cathcart is obsessed with becoming a general and is ready to do anything to please his superiors even if he needs to raise the quantity of flights each of his men must complete. The dream of going home becomes a cruel mirage for Yossarian because every time he is close to the current norm of flights, Cathcart rises it again.
As a natural result, Yossarian gradually starts to fight worse and worse. Rising into the air, he sets himself the only goal: to return back alive, he even does not care at all where the dropped bombs fall - on the enemy object or into the empty sea. So do some other pilots, especially after they see the sheer inhumanity of their commanders’ orders and their neglect of people’s lives. The pilots are ordered to bomb the Italian mountain village where were no combatants just to slow down the potential movement of enemy’s military transport. No one bothers to warn the civilians, no one minds the amount of casualties.
The commanders fight each other for a place under the sun, they see the war as a chance for a quick promotion. General Peckem is plotting to take over General Dreedle’s position and these intrigues do not add efficiency to the overall work of the base. Cathcart joins the race, mercilessly exploiting his pilots and volunteering them to the most deadly and dangerous of missions. No one can stand against him because he is responsible for soldiers’ papers and it depends solely on him if the right paper will be delivered to right person or “accidentally lost”.
However, the generals are not the only people who are immersed into the power play on the base. Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder is responsible for supplies and he has built his own miniature criminal empire on the base. Having access to combat aircrafts, he buys and resells food, fabric, fuel and everything he can make profit of. He even engages Luftwaffe in transportations and trading operations, calmly explaining to his superiors that in this case the Germans are not the enemies but partners. Strongly determined to put the war on a commercial basis for him, he receives money from Americans to bomb the bridge controlled by Germans, and from Germans - even more money to prevent the bombing. After the first success, he gets a contract from Germans to destroy his own airfield and successes, betraying his country and his fellow pilots.
Lieutenant Sheisskopf (that is German for “shithead”) is, from the other hand, not a quick thinker and is rather awkward but has great passion for military parades. He is also unfortunate to have a wife who sleeps with his entire squadron (including Yossarian) without her husband’s smallest suspect. Nevertheless, these traits aren’t stopping him from incredibly quick rise from lieutenant to general.
Calm and shy chaplain Tappman is ashamed of his job and just doesn’t know how to approach the pilots and talk to them. His ruthless, manipulative and atheist assistant, Corporal Whitcomb, takes the duty instead, psychologically tormenting the chaplain in process. The alive and healthy doctor on the base is considered dead because the documents say so and his presence can’t prove anything to the officer, who signed the papers about his “death” in front of the doctor himself.
These absurdity, bureaucracy and ignorance are the usual way of life on Pianosa base and those who retained something humane in their souls perish one after another. The only people who feel good there are the ones who have the power and have no remorse.
Horrified by this madness, Yossarian comes to the conclusion that he is the only one who cares about himself. He desperately tries to avoid being praised for his service and wants to show that he is a miserable soldier who needs to be sent home. But it just doesn’t work. Neither constant “liver pain” nor even mental illness can be the arguments for the system. According to the mysterious Catch-22, a person who claims to be mentally ill to retire is actually healthy, because this decision requires logical thinking that mentally ill people are incapable of.
The final straw for him is death of his comrade pilot, Snowden. On the one of the missions Snowden was hit and Yossarian tried to dress his wounds and get him back to the base. But he missed one wound, small but lethal and Snowden bled to death in his arms. This episode haunts Yossarian long after it happened, like an obsessive nightmare, emerging before him in more and more detailed and eerie form.
After Snowden’s death, Yossarian takes off his military uniform, still stained with his blood, swearing never to wear it again. He walks around the military base naked, and the authorities don’t care so much that they give him a medal he deserved while Yossarian is still naked. Yossarian walks backwards carrying a loaded gun and mumbling about the great conspiracy - that is all the World War II - that was made to destroy him. Now the pilot is considered a psycho but that’s what he wanted. He hopes that now he will be dismissed but doctor Daneeka (the one who is considered dead) cites the same Catch-22 and does not allow him to go.
No one has ever read this Catch-22, it is unclear if it even exists on paper, but those who have power in their hands use it to do whatever they want. To question the existence of Catch-22 means to mark yourself as suspicious and unreliable potential traitor. It is necessary to believe in it and obey it.
Other honest and somewhat naїve soldiers and officers such as Nately, Clevinger and Major Danby, try to convince Yossarian that it is the wrong way and America still needs such a brave and skillful pilot here. But Yossarian is almost sure that war isn’t against Nazism, it serves to prosperity of superiors. In his opinion, all the patriotic speeches about duty and honor are empty lies that are needed to distract soldiers from the horrible death or even worse – from becoming “a soldier in white”, a stump without hands and legs, lying in the hospital poked with tubes and catheters, without name, without friends, without any hope.
Yossarian behaves worse and worse, he starts to drink and openly engages in sex. Meanwhile, his friend Orr prepares his plan much calmer and more methodically. To the surprise of other pilots, his plane always crashes, despite the fact that Orr is a very skillful pilot. But these accidents are not a result of pilot’s mistakes and aren’t consequences of unfavorable conditions. Orr is plotting a plan of desertion. Once again, having suffered an accident, Orr disappears without a trace to soon appear in neutral Sweden. He swam there on an inflatable boat from the Mediterranean Sea. This deed inspires hope in the hearts of those, who, like Yossarian, suffer from the ignorance of their superior and still have desire to resist.
Finally Yossarian also gets a chance to escape. His enemies, Colonel Cathcart and Lieutenant Colonel Korn, suddenly offer the pilot to go home. In their opinion, Yossarian’s behaviour influences badly other pilots of the regiment and if he is removed everyone will benefit from it. However, they ask a favor for this generosity. Korn says that Yossarian will have to love them, talk about them with ave and friendliness at home in the States. They offer him to become a liar like they are. If Yossarian refuses, they will give him to the tribunal, because they have a lot of evidence of his amoral behaviour. Yossarian has no other choice than to agree.
But then another trouble emerges. The friend and lover of Nately, an Italian prostitute who had a complicated relationship with Nately, suddenly decides that Yossarian is guilty of the former’s death. She pursues Yossarian with a knife after he made a deal with Cathcart and Korn and finally injures him, causing the pilot to return to the hospital (for the first time he has a good reason for it).
After Yossarian regains consciousness he understands that his wound is insignificant and his life is out of danger. But the rumor is spread around the base that he was stabbed while blocking the way for the Nazi assassin sent to kill both Korn and Cathcart. So his personal issues were used to forge another patriotic legend for propaganda. Yossarian is deeply ashamed and decides to break the deal, but Cathcart isn’t willing to let him go so easily. He tells the pilot than in this case he will be a hero of another rumor saying that he was stabbed by an innocent girl who he tried to molest and engage into illegal operations, sabotage and treason.
Yossarian is in a grave danger. His dilemma is to either make a deal with his own soul or to go to the prison as a traitor. There is nobody he can rely at. Milo Minderbinder is now united with Cathcart and rule his syndicate together and their monopoly now includes almost everyone on the base who has the slightest influence.
Yossarian makes a hard decision: to flee to Sweden too. His superior, Major Danby, finds no arguments to prove him wrong. The regimental chaplain wishes him luck. Every good person left on the base wants him to succeed but they are too terrified to actually help. Yossarian walks out of the door. His escape begins.