Summary and Analysis
When Yossarian goes on bombing missions, his pilot ordinarily is McWatt. At other times, McWatt enjoys flying low over the squadron, buzzing Yossarian's tent as well as the bathers at the beach. McWatt seems reasonably sane but unusually happy with the war. He whistles "bouncy show tunes constantly" and usually wears a smile.
As often is the case, however, the chapter named for one character is really about someone else. Chapter 7 is mostly about Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, the new mess officer and a burgeoning entrepreneurial wizard. Chapter 8 flashes back to the previous year when Yossarian was in cadet school at Santa Ana, California, with Clevinger. Because he offends Lieutenant Scheisskopf, Clevinger is put on trial.
The Milo Minderbinder subplot will play an important part in the rest of the novel. Heller uses Milo to satirize the graft and corruption of capitalism gone amok. When Milo becomes the new mess officer, he finds a perfect opportunity to put his larcenous talents to work. He is a virtuous man, we are told, a man of principle who wants only the best for his men — as long as it is really best for himself. One of his moral principles is that it is "never a sin to charge as much as the traffic [will] bear."
Heller again delights in manipulating logic and language. When Milo discovers that Yossarian has a letter from Doc Daneeka stating that Yossarian is to have "all the dried fruit and fruit juices he wants," Milo is overwhelmed at the possibilities for procurement. He tries, in vain, to persuade Yossarian to permit Milo to put the supplies on the black market. Yossarian is allowed the fruit because he has a liver condition; but if he eats fruit, the liver condition could get better. Therefore, he refuses to eat the fruit. Milo struggles with the concept:
"Now I do see," said Milo. "Fruit is bad for your liver?"
"No, fruit is good for my liver. That's why I never eat any."
Yossarian gives the fruit to other men in the squadron, including Nately who passes it on to his favorite prostitute (and her little sister) in Rome. They trade it for "flashy costume jewelry and cheap perfume." Milo is distraught but will be more successful in other negotiations.
Justice, or the military distortion of it, is the theme of Clevinger's trial. At cadet school in Santa Ana, Yossarian and Clevinger are under the command of Lieutenant Scheisskopf, a haughty, ambitious, humorless tyrant who is obsessed with parades. Scheisskopf (whose name literally means "shit-head" in German) loves the Sunday afternoon parades, which the men in his command detest. The airmen also resent the fact that Scheisskopf appointed his own cadet officers instead of allowing the men to choose them from their ranks. When the lieutenant asks for someone to tell him, without repercussions, what the problem is, Clevinger — despite Yossarian's urgent warnings — volunteers. Clevinger is a very bright guy, a Harvard man who, for example, knows everything about literature "except how to enjoy it." Unfortunately, he has no street smarts. He is "a very serious, very earnest and very conscientious dope." Clevinger is certain that Scheisskopf won't punish him for being candid. "He'll castrate you," says Yossarian.
Scheisskopf does the next best thing. He brings Clevinger to trial despite the fact that the squadron becomes parade champion of the entire base after Scheisskopf follows Clevinger's suggestions. As Yossarian knew he would, Scheisskopf resents Clevinger's intelligence and, most of all, his being right.
The trial is a vicious satire on institutional justice, exposing blatant corruption of any semblance of logic or fair play. It's also very funny. Sitting in judgment is the Action Board, consisting of Scheisskopf, Major Metcalf, and an unnamed bloated colonel with a fat mustache. The charges stem from the fact that Clevinger tripped one day while marching to class; he is thus accused of "breaking ranks while in formation, felonious assault, indiscriminate behavior, mopery, high treason, provoking, being a smart guy, listening to classical music, and so on." The prosecutor is Scheisskopf. The officer defending Clevinger is Scheisskopf. But the bullying colonel soon takes over. He claims that Clevinger said the Action Board could not punish him.
The dialogue illustrates the trial's Kafkaesque absurdity. Clevinger speaks:
"I didn't say you couldn't punish me, sir."
"When?" asked the colonel.
"When what, sir?"
"Now you're asking me questions again."
"I'm sorry, sir. I'm afraid I don't understand your question."
"When didn't you say we couldn't punish you? . . . Now suppose you answer my question."
"But how can I answer it?"
"That's another question you're asking me."
" . . . I never said you couldn't punish me."
"Now you're telling us when you did say it. I'm asking you to tell us when you didn't say it."
Clevinger took a deep breath. "I always didn't say you couldn't punish me, sir."
Clevinger eventually is found guilty simply because he was accused. However, the colonel gives him a lighter punishment than he metes out to the court reporter or Major Metcalf — each of whom has irritated the colonel even more than Clevinger has. Clevinger feels that his own senior officers hate him as much as much as the enemy does, but they don't directly kill him. (In 1973, Heller published a one-act dramatization of Clevinger's trial.)
derisive ridiculing; laughing at with contempt or scorn.
black market a place or system for selling goods illegally.
GI Government Issue, referring to all Army clothing, weapons, other supplies, and, eventually, any individual soldier.
gullible easily cheated or tricked; credulous.
WAC The Women's Army Corps of the U.S. Army, formed during World War II, was designed to relieve men of certain clerical tasks so that more of them could go to battle.
pernicious causing great injury, destruction, or ruin.
Billy Petrolle a contending American lightweight prizefighter (1905–1983) in the 1930s.