Summary and Analysis
Lieutenant Nately is an ingenuous nineteen-year-old, from a privileged background, who is in love with a Roman prostitute whom he hopes to marry. For her part, the young woman is, at this point in the novel, indifferent toward her suitor and interested only in her profession. Nately spends a great deal of money on the prostitute, eventually winding up at a tenement brothel with her, some of his friends, a "proliferating flow of supple young naked girls" and an "evil and debauched ugly old man" who seems to be in charge. Nately and the old man discuss the nature of war and the meaning of life. Meanwhile, Milo's syndicate has become increasingly international. On a typical day, he flies to England to pick up a load of Turkish halvah and returns by way of Madagascar with four Nazi bombers filled with fresh vegetables. He marks out the swastikas and stencils in "M & M Enterprises, Fine Fruits and Produce." The "M & M" stands for Milo Minderbinder, of course; but he thinks that initials make the syndicate look more widely controlled. His deals with the Germans complicate life for the squadron and nearly ruin the syndicate.
Heller uses several debates in the novel to reveal character or to consider values. One of the best known is the one between Nately and the old man at the brothel in Rome. Nately is a sincere, innocent, thoughtful young man who has been raised with all the advantages except street smarts. He is convinced that he is in love with a prostitute who is particularly callous except when it comes to her twelve-year-old sister, who is not yet in the profession. The old man is a practical hedonist. He argues that dying for one's country is a foolish enterprise. "America will lose the war," he says. "And Italy will win it." Italy already is doing better than the United States, the old man argues, because her soldiers are defeated and thus no longer dying. The old man has welcomed the Italian Fascists, the German Nazis and now the Allies into Rome. It was he, we learn, who hit Major _______ de Coverley in the eye with a red rose as the Americans entered the city. Nately is furious with the old man's cynicism but can offer only clichés in response. Anything worth living for, says Nately, is worth dying for. "And anything worth dying for," responds the sacrilegious old man, "is certainly worth living for." Nately counters that it's better to die on one's feet than live on one's knee; the old man answers that it is better to live on one's feet. Nately's innocent devotion is sincere and in some ways admirable, but the licentious old man seems to win the argument. His philosophy is simple: Live and prosper and don't give a damn about principles.
We also learn more about Aarfy's character. He mocks Nately for spending so much on the prostitute and boasts, "I never paid for it in my life." At other times, Aarfy is a sycophant who caters to Nately because he thinks that Nately's wealthy father can help him after the war. Foreshadowing his behavior later in the novel, Aarfy reveals a shallow, sadistic side to his personality. He delights in telling about his college days when he and his fraternity brothers tortured and raped two high-school girls. "Boy, we used to have fun in that fraternity house," Aarfy boasts nostalgically.
Heller satirically raises other questions of values through his exaggerated, comic depiction of Milo's management of his syndicate. Milo now has planes arriving from such markets as Liberia, Cairo, and Karachi. He deals with everyone except Russia — because it is Communist; but he has no problem doing business with the Nazis. The syndicate even profits from specific battles. Milo contracts with the Allies to bomb a highway bridge at Orvieto but agrees with the Germans to defend the same bridge with antiaircraft flak. From each, he receives the total cost of the operation plus six percent. He also gets a "merit bonus" of $1,000 from the Germans for each plane shot down. Having finalized the arrangements, Milo then easily convinces each side to use its own men and equipment. He makes a tidy profit for signing his name twice. This is the raid in which Mudd, the "dead man" in Yossarian's tent, is killed.
Milo's cash flow is strapped due to his purchase of the entire Egyptian cotton crop so he contracts with the Germans to bomb his own squadron's base on Pianosa. Heller details the bombing and strafing during which Milo's pilots spare the landing strip and mess hall so they can land and enjoy a hot meal before retiring. As Milo likes to say, "What's so terrible about that?" A contract is a contract. This time, however, it seems that he has gone too far. American newspapers and congressmen denounce the action until Milo opens his books and shows what a wonderful profit he made. Then all is forgiven. He suggests that governments get out of the war business altogether and leave it to private enterprise.
Milo tries to solve the problem of cotton glut by making chocolate-covered cotton balls, a few of which he offers to a nude Yossarian (he wears sandals) who is up a tree watching Snowden's graveside funeral service. Yossarian points out that the cotton balls are indigestible but suggests selling the cotton to the American government, bribing officials to facilitate the deal. Milo at first resists but then paraphrases Calvin Coolidge's 1925 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in which the U.S. President said: "The chief business of the American people is business." Milo is ready to do business. When government intervention pads his pocket, he is all for it.
G-men government men; agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
anathema a thing or person accursed or damned; detested.
halvah a Turkish confection consisting of crushed sesame seeds, nuts and honey.
ersatz substitute or synthetic; artificial.
apocalyptic here, refers to ultimate destruction; the end of the world.
strafe to attack ground positions or troops with machine-gun fire from low-flying planes.