Yossarian comes to fear his commanding officers more than he fears the Germans attempting to shoot him down and he feels that "they" are "out to get him". The reason Yossarian fears his commanders more than the enemy is that as he flies more missions, Colonel Cathcart increases the number of required combat missions before a soldier may return home; he reaches the magic number only to have it retroactively raised. He comes to despair of ever getting home and is greatly relieved when he is sent to the hospital for a condition that is almost jaundice. In Yossarian's words:
- The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don't you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.:124
Tragedy and farce
Much of the farce in the novel is fueled by intentional and unintentional miscommunication, occasionally leading to tragic consequences. For example, Cathcart's desire to become a general is thwarted by ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen sabotaging his correspondence. Major Major's and Yossarian's mis-censoring of correspondence is blamed on the Chaplain, who is threatened with imprisonment as a result.
Yossarian questions the idea that God is all-powerful, all-good, and all knowing. The narrator seems to believe that God, if not evil, is incompetent. In chapter 18, Yossarian states that he "believes in the God he doesn't believe in", this version of God having created Hitler, the war, and all the failures of human life and society, as exemplified in the following passage:
"And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways", Yossarian continued, hurtling over her objections. "There's nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about—a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did he ever create pain? … Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! [to warn us of danger] Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't He? … What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. …"
Later Heller writes of Yossarian wandering through a war-torn Italian city (Chapter 39):
"Yossarian quickened his pace to get away, almost ran. The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been. At the next corner a man was beating a small boy brutally in the midst of an immobile crowd of adult spectators who made no effort to intervene..."
While the military's enemies are Germans, none appears in the story as an enemy combatant. This ironic situation is epitomized in the single appearance of German personnel in the novel, who act as pilots employed by the squadron's Mess Officer, Milo Minderbinder, to bomb the American encampment on Pianosa. This predicament indicates a tension between traditional motives for violence and the modern economic machine, which seems to generate violence simply as another means to profit, quite independent of geographical or ideological constraints which creates a military–industrial complex. Heller emphasizes the danger of profit-seeking by portraying Milo without "evil intent." Milo's actions are portrayed as the result of greed, not malice.