Summary and Analysis
Yossarian's movement of the red satin ribbon, which indicates how far the Allies have advanced, does not fool the Germans; but it does fool Major _______ de Coverley. He thinks that Florence has now been captured, so he flies there to rent apartments for officers and enlisted men who might want to visit the city on short leaves. In a flashback, we learn how Milo became mess officer and began his syndicate. We also learn the details of Yossarian's performance during the bombing of Ferrara and the decision to award him a medal and promote him to Captain. Returning in time, we find that the mission to Bologna has been approved after all. Yossarian is the bombardier in Kid Sampson's plane that day but is no longer interested in medals or promotions. He just wants to get out of the assignment any way that he can.
Heller is a master at indicating character through a brief description of physical characteristics and personality quirks. Major _______ de Coverley is "a splendid, awe-inspiring, grave old man with a massive leonine head and an angry shock of wild white hair" raging like a blizzard around his "stern, patriarchal face." He is a man of few words, accomplishing most of his tasks without having to speak, which may be a good thing because his spoken words are less than impressive. His tasks appear to be few. As squadron executive officer, de Coverley procures rental apartments in occupied cities — separate for officers and enlisted — so the men will have places to stay when on leave. He also provides the base with Italian laborers, apparently by shady means. Other than that, he pitches horseshoes and likes to arrive in a city just before the occupying Allied force so that he can ride in a jeep at the front of the conquering army. The Major's patriarchal manner evokes respect to the point that the troops seem intimidated by him. No one knows the Major's first name because no one has had the courage to ask. The Germans would like to learn more about this older officer who seems to spearhead every Allied occupation of a city; so would the C.I.D. Neither learns much.
In Rome, the Major has arranged for luxurious quarters for the men, featuring spacious rooms in a new white stone building; this foreshadows important events later in the novel. Entering Rome with the triumphal Allied procession on June 4, 1944, de Coverley receives his only injury when a "seedy, cackling, intoxicated old man," reminiscent of Satan himself, strikes the Major in the eye with a flower.
At about the time that Yossarian bombs the Ferrara bridge twice (March 1944), Major de Coverley appoints Milo mess officer. Milo gains the position by boldly approaching the Major and tempting him with fresh eggs, which Milo can get plenty of in Malta if he only has a plane. The Major likes his fresh eggs fried in fresh butter; Milo just happens to know where to find fresh butter in Sicily. All of this can be paid for from the mess fund and a profit made by selling extra butter and eggs to other squadrons — if he only has a plane. The Major obliges and makes Milo mess officer by simply calling him the mess officer.
The military is subject to further satirical treatment by Heller. Yossarian insists on making a second run at the bridge over the Po River at Ferrara because he is sick of having to repeat the mission (it's the squadron's tenth attempt in seven days) and because he did not get his bombs dropped on the first try. During a bomb run, the bombardier is in control of the plane; Yossarian uses that authority to order a second run at the bridge. His entire flight of six planes goes with him. Kraft and his crew are killed when their plane is hit by flak. Yossarian is called in for questioning by Colonel Cathcart and his assistant, Lt. Colonel Korn, who don't know how to handle the situation. Men have been killed, perhaps needlessly; but the colonels don't care about that. They just don't want the official report to make them look bad. Yossarian suggests that they call it a heroic act and give him a medal. Like the bomb raid, the debate goes around twice until the colonels are the ones suggesting a medal — and a promotion as well. As Colonel Korn says, in the military it never hurts to "act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of."
Returning to the raid on Bologna (late June 1944), we find a fresh definition of courage. Yossarian has no interest in medals but is even braver than he was at Ferrara. In fact, the narrator tells us, Yossarian is so brave that he now has the courage to avoid the mission altogether. Yossarian tries to tell the immature pilot, Kid Sampson, that the plane must return to base because something is wrong. Sampson at first responds, "Everything seems okay. Everything is all right." Yossarian knows that something is terribly wrong if everything is all right because that means they must finish the mission to Bologna, where the flak is rumored to be murder. Yossarian outranks Sampson and the co-pilot, Nately, and finally convinces them that they must return because the intercom is not working. It isn't working because Yossarian has broken it. After returning to the base, Yossarian watches for the return of the squadron planes that survive the mission. They all come back without a scratch. Bologna turns out to have been a milk run.
lithe flexible; supple; limber.
enigma a perplexing, usually ambiguous statement; a riddle.
debauch to lead astray morally; to corrupt or deprave.
excoriate to strip, scratch, or rub off the skin; to chafe.
milk run a mission so easy and safe that it's compared to the daily delivery of milk.