Scheisskopf Meets Clevinger

Sometimes I think Catch-22 is the intellectual's equivalent of Married With Children because no one seems sacred to Heller. No one avoids the harsh exposure of his brillian wit, including the literary intellectuals who are most likely to love his work.

It is, of course, the Clevinger's of the world who are most likely responsible for rating Catch-22one of the 10 greatest novels of all time. He's precisely the kind of intellectual reader who would most likely appreciate this kind of complex novel. Success be damned, Heller skewers the Clevingers of the world just like he does virtually everyone else:

Everyone agreed that Clevinger was certain to go far in the academic world. In short, Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found it out.

Fortunately, Heller saves his real barbs for Lieutenant Scheisskopf, that "shit head," and that's more fun since few people could take parades as seriously as he does. Anyone who's ever taken R.O.T.C. probably hates parades almost as much as I do. As if R.O.T.C. wasn't bad enough, we used to hold parades nearly every Saturday while I was stationed at Fort Irwin, California. Few things seemed more ridiculous than spit polishing boots in order to march through sandy fields and stand at parade rest for hours in 110 degree temperatures in order to present a combat medal to a cook who had served in Vietnam. But we couldn't hit the road to L.A. until we'd had our Saturday parade.

Unfortunately, there really were people as anal as Lt Scheisskopf in the Army. I know, because Captain "Rush-Rush" once stood me at parade rest in his office for four hours because my belt buckle had scratches on it and he was worried that the troops we were training to go to Vietnam would lack discipline if we officers didn't set a good example. Never mind that I got those scratches because I was constantly crawling in and out of tanks and mortar tracks trying to make sure my platoon knew those vehicles from top to bottom. I would have had to buy a new belt buckle each morning or sit in office headquarters like he did in order to have avoided those scratches. Somehow it never occurred to me that the Viet Cong would be less apt to kill me if my belt buckle were shiny, though of course by the time we got Vietnam we didn't have brass belt buckles at all.

It was inevitable that someone who thought as much as Clevinger did would inevitably end up at odds with someone as dumb and as rigid as Lieutenant Scheisskopf:

Clevinger had a mind and Lieutenant Scheisskopf had noticed that people with minds tended to get pretty smart at times. Such men were dangerous, and even the new cadet officers whom Clevinger had helped into office were eager to give damning testimony against him. The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.

Unfortunately, the last thing you want in the army is a "smart" ass who thinks for himself. If you're not careful everyone would start thinking for himself or herself, and there's never been room in a combat unit for people who want to think for themselves.

Of course, Scheisskopf's capture of the parade pennant symbolizes the triumph of mindless conformity in the military:

And to an audience stilled with awe, he distributed certified photostatic copies of the obscure regulation on which he had built his unforgettable triumph. This was Lieutenant Scheisskopf's finest hour. He won the parade, of course, hands down, obtaining permanent possession of the red pennant and ending the Sunday parades altogether, since good red pennants were as hard to come by in wartime as good copper wire. Lieutenant Scheisskopf was made First Lieutenant on the spot and began his rapid rise through the ranks. There were few who did not hail him as a true military genius for his important discovery.

It's not enough for Heller to merely have Lieutenant Scheisskopf win because of his obsession with parades; he has to win on the smallest of technicalities, the kind of technicality that only an obsessed person would ever find. Nor is it entirely irrelevant that this "began his rapid rise through the ranks."

In the end the conflict can end only one way for there is no way a thinking man can stand up to the mindless conformity required in the army:

Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so. He was sentenced to walk fifty-seven punishment tours.

...


Yossarian had done his best to warn him the night before. "You haven't got a chance, kid," he told him glumly. "They hate Jews." "But I'm not Jewish," answered Clevinger "It will make no difference," Yossarian promised, and Yossarian was right. "They're after everybody."

That last line is prophetic, as is this confrontation between those who would dare to think for themselves and the mindless conformity that is demanded by those in charge.

What do you think?