Captain Black is pleased to learn of the bombing campaign over Bologna; he awaits with joy the looks of terror on the soldiers’ faces. Black is upset that he was passed over for a promotion to major—a position that was given to Major Major, despite his inexperience. Black is an intelligence officer, and he appears to think this means he is the most intelligent of the officers.
Black’s confusion—thinking that an “intelligence” officer must necessarily be intelligent—ironically speaks to his lack of . . . intelligence. His hatred of Major Major derives from one fact: that Major Major “beat” him to a promotion. Incidentally, Black is never shown doing actual intelligence work, or anything very intelligent.
To thwart Major Major, Black begins a rumor that Major is a communist. He begins a campaign—the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade—to discredit Major Major and to make himself seem the most patriotic of all the officers. He begins circulating oaths of American loyalty, to be signed before meals, before the distribution of mail, and in other insignificant situations.
Loyalty Oaths were a powerful force in Americans politics at the time the novel was written—senators like Joe McCarthy, from Wisconsin, began “witch hunts” to identify so-called communists in the US government. Heller appears to engage in a bit of anachronistic political commentary by having these witch hunts take place during the Second World War.
When soldiers complain to Black that the oaths are annoying and meaningless, Black replies that, if they were loyal, they wouldn’t mind signing the oaths. Piltchard and Wren, two captains in charge of organizing bombing missions, find the oaths especially frustrating: it takes many hours to start a mission, because so many oaths have to be signed.
The thing about loyalty oaths is that they are self-proliferating. The logic behind them insists that anyone who won’t sign one must be disloyal, with the result that any legitimate criticisms made of the oaths—they are annoying; they stop anyone from being able to get anything done—become evidence of disloyalty. In other words: Sanity becomes evidence of disloyalty.
Black does not let Major Major sign any oaths, because he finds him disloyal—but Major Major cannot prove his loyalty, since he is not allowed to sign the oaths. Doc Daneeka points this out to Black, who is unmoved by his logic.
Black attempts to enlist Major _____ de Coverley in his scheme to further discredit Major Major, but de Coverley finds the oaths stupid and refuses to sign, with a single, dismissive motion, in the mess hall. This emboldens all the other soldiers to refuse to sign, and the Oath Crusade is ended. Black claims the oaths served their purpose and increased his standing with Cathcart—who privately thinks Black is unintelligent.
De Coverley finds the whole oath crusade to be completely silly. Like Daneeka, de Coverley is too concerned with his own business to make time for the absurdity of the military hierarchy. In this sense, both Daneeka and de Coverley serve as voices of reason in the novel. But de Coverley also has a certain personal glamor on his side, and so his brush off breaks the oaths spell. Meanwhile, Black sees the whole ridiculous operation, which directly hurt Major Major, as a ploy to gain the esteem of his boss.