Yossarian is going to Rome AWOL (absent without leave), and Milo chastises him for this, saying Yossarian is not a “team player.” Yossarian lands in Rome and finds that the city has been reduced to ruins. He sees an old woman in the apartment that used to be inhabited by the prostitutes, and the woman claims that a “catch-22” is to blame.
Yossarian breaks the biggest rule thus far—he goes on rest leave without official permission, which is equivalent to desertion, an offense that was, and still is, punishable by death in wartime. Meanwhile, Rome, the Eternal City, which had offered the soldiers their only respite from war, is now in ruins—the war has destroyed even it.
Yossarian is taken aback by this phrase, which he did not believe the old woman knew. The old woman claims that the MPs who busted up the apartment argued that their having to leave the flat was a catch-22, but they did not explain the phrase’s meaning. The woman asks Yossarian who will take care of her, now that she lives alone in the abandoned rooms.
The old woman does not understand what a catch-22 is: she barely speaks any English. The catch-22 in this case seems to be that by occupying a city the army ensures that it will be destroyed. But for the old lady this isn’t a catch-22 at all—rather, it’s a tragedy that she has no home and no one to take care of her. The army’s catch-22s have lots of human costs to civilians that the army doesn’t seem to care about.
Yossarian goes outside and finds Milo, telling him that they must seek out Nately’s prostitute’s kid sister. Milo takes Yossarian to the police in one of his M & M Enterprises squad cars. Yossarian and Milo meet with an Italian police officer, who says there is nothing he can do to find the girl—but he can find Yossarian another prostitute. Milo leaves to investigate the illegal tobacco trade, and Yossarian, disgusted with both men, walks the streets alone.
Milo, once again, is concerned only with profit. When he realizes there is money to be made in another illegal market, he abandons Yossarian. Yossarian seems more and more to understand the selfish motivations of those around him, and he seeks someone, anyone, in Rome who actually cares for Nately’s prostitute’s kid sister, who is, after all, just twelve years old.
Yossarian walks past scenes of total despair: old and young men and women are sitting or standing aimlessly, looking haggard, poor, and hungry. He finds US MPs roughing up an American soldier and, recalling that himself is AWOL, Yossarian sneaks away. The police swarm around a man and, later, a woman, harassing them, and Yossarian does nothing to help either person.
Rome has become a nightmare landscape, filled with men and women in various states of hunger and homelessness. The war has finally touched Rome—all the suffering that was believed to happen only in other places has come to this special paradise, once reserved for relaxing soldiers.
Yossarian is particularly struck that one unnamed man in the street, surrounded by menacing police officers, cries out to help for other police officers to save him. Yossarian walks faster back to the apartment, where he finds Aarfy, also on leave (it is not said if it’s AWOL or not). Aarfy acknowledges that he has just raped a woman and thrown her out the window. Yossarian is aghast.
Ironically, the police are the perpetrators, and not the men who might save innocents persons from other criminals. The man calling out for other police officers to save him still seems to believe in some kind of order or rule of law, but in the chaos of Rome all that has broken down. Yossarian’s realization that Aarfy has murdered someone in cold blood marks a final break—an understanding that the men surviving in his group care only for their own safety and the satisfaction of their own desires.
Yossarian cannot believe what he has seen throughout the evening, and Aarfy’s confession is the last straw. He tells Aarfy that the police will come for him and arrest him, and that it is not acceptable to murder a civilian, even in wartime. Aarfy claims that nothing will happen to him, that no one cared about the girl, and no one will ever discover the crime in lawless Rome.
Aarfy’s statement is brutal, but it turns out to be true. Throughout the novel, Heller underscores the idea that, in war, very little attention is paid to the victims—the people whose houses are destroyed and whose lives are taken by enemy bombing campaigns.
MPs bust into the apartment again and arrest Yossarian for being AWOL. They do nothing to Aarfy, as Aarfy predicted. Yossarian is flown back to Pianosa and taken to Cathcart and Korn, who announce, swiftly, that Yossarian is to be sent home.
Ironically, Yossarian is arrested for breaking a relatively minor rule—albeit one punishable by severe measures. Aarfy, however, is unpunished, having committed a series of serious crimes. The army cares about its own rules and regulations and is seemingly blind to all else.