The Spoils of Victory

When I suggested several weeks ago that I would like to cover Catch-22
Dorothea said she would follow along because she thought she missed several things the first time around. As I was reading Chapters 10-16 and searching for a common thread to tie them together, I realized for the first time after many readings what Major _______ de Coverly represented. I’d read that he represented god, but somehow that just didn’t seem to make sense. Yes, he appeared godlike with amazing powers, but he seems too primitive to represent God.

After some reflection I came to the conclusion that Major _______ de Coverly is not God, but, rather, merely the God of Victory, something so obvious I can’t explain why I didn’t see it much earlier:

Each time the fall of a city like Naples, Rome or Florence seemed imminent, Major _______ de Coverley would pack his musette bag, commandeer an airplane and a pilot, and have himself flown away, accomplishing all this without uttering a word, by the sheer force of his solemn, domineering visage and the peremptory gestures of his wrinkled finger. A day or two after the city fell, he would be back with leases on two large and luxurious apartments there, one for the officers and one for the enlisted men, both already staffed with competent, jolly cooks and maids. A few days after that, newspapers would appear throughout the world with photographs of the first American soldiers bludgeoning their way into the shattered city through rubble and smoke. Inevitably, Major_______ de Coverley was among them, seated straight as a ramrod in a jeep he had obtained from somewhere, glancing neither right nor left as the artillery fire burst about his invincible head and lithe young infantrymen with carbines went loping up along the sidewalks in the shelter of burning buildings or fell dead in doorways. He seemed eternally indestructible as he sat there surrounded by danger, his features molded firmly into that same fierce, regal, just and forbidding countenance which was recognize and revered by every man in the squadron.

This passage would seem to suggest, though not convincingly, that Major _______ de Coverly is identified with victory, as he is somehow able to forsee the victories, obtain leases for houses and magically appear at the head of the parades when our troops march into town.

However, what makes this identification even clearer is the attack on him by the old man whom we meet a little later in the story (after chapters 10-16):

Despite the multiple perils to which Major _______ de Coverley exposed himself each time he rented apartments, his only injury had occurred, ironically enough, while he was leading the triumphal procession into the open city of Rome, where he was wounded in the eye by a flower fired at him from close range by a seedy, cackling, intoxicated old man, who, like Satan himself, had then bounded up on Major _______ de Coverley car with malicious glee, seized him roughly and contemptuously by his venerable white head and kissed him mockingly on each cheek with a mouth reeking with sour fumes of wine, cheese and garlic, before dropping back into the joyous celebrating throngs with a hollow, dry, excoriating laugh.

At first this attack doesn’t seem like an attack at all; it merely seems like the result of excessive celebration. Only later do we discover that this “attack” was probably not entirely accidental.

Obviously, you can’t defeat the God of Victory, but the old man does question the value of victory:

“You put so much stock in winning wars,” the grubby iniquitous old man scoffed. “The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost. Italy has ben losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we’ve done nevertheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crisis. Germany loses and prospers. Look at your own recent history. Italy won a war in Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble. Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn’t a chance of winning. But now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better, and we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated.

The old man makes a distinction that few others are able to make. Victories in war may well not represent true victories but may truly represent a failure. (We might ask the Bush administration for further elucidation of this complex topic.) Modern victories, just like those of ancient warfare, bring the spoils of war with them. But they do not necessarily guarantee future success. After all Greeks, Romans, and French under Napolean won great victories but were unable to sustain their victories under the weight of widespread empires.The old man goes on to question how long America’s empire will last, question whether it would last as long as the frog has lasted.

As the God of Victory, Major _______ de Coverley commands the immediate respect of all those fighting:

Captain Black had boundless faith in the wisdom, power and justice of Major_______ de Coverley, even though he had never spoken to him before and still found himself without the courage to do so.

He deputized Milo to speak to Major_______ de Coverley for him and stormed out impatiently as he waited for the tall executive officer to return. Along with everyone else in the squadron, he lived in profound awe and reverence of the majestic, white-haired major with the craggy face and Jehovean bearing, who came back from Rome finally with an injured eye inside a new celluloid eye patch and smashed his whole Glorious Crusade to bits with a single stroke.

What soldier doesn’t live in awe of victory? it is the ultimate goal of all soldiers, the ultimate measure of success or failure. It’s no mere coincidence that Major _______ de Coverley is able to smash Captain Black’s “patriotic” campaign with a few words:

Milo carefully said nothing when Major _______ de Coverley stepped into the mess hall with his fierce and austere dignity the day he returned and found his way blocked by a wall of officers waiting in line to sign loyalty oaths. At the far end of the food counter, a group of men who had arrived earlier were pledging allegiance to the flag, with trays of food balanced in one hand, in order to be allowed to take seats at the table. Already at the tables, a group that had arrived still earlier was singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in order that they might use the salt and pepper and ketchup there. The hubbub began to subside slowly as Major _______ de Coverley paused in the doorway with a frown of puzzled disapproval, as though viewing something bizarre. He started forward in a straight line, and the wall of officers before him parted like the Red Sea. Glancing neither left nor right he strode indomitably up to the steam counter and, in a clear, full-bodied voice that was gruff with age and resonant with ancient eminence and authority, said: “Gimme eat.”

There is little connection between “patriotism,” particularly the kind of inane “patriotism” demanded by the Captain Blacks of the world, and victory. One doesn’t win battles because one is or is not patriotic. Battles are won because of superior firepower or superior strategy, not by patriotism sold by those promoting parades or 4th of July fireworks.

It is not entirely coincidental that the only person who dares approach Major _______ de Coverley is Milo Minderbinder, that evolving symbol of capitalism who turns military victories into financial gain:

He resolved to remain binocular and specified to Doc Daneekia that his eye patch be transparent so that he could continue pitching horseshoes, kidnapping Italian laborers and renting apartments with unimpaired vision. To the men in the squadron, Major _______ de Coverley was a colossus, although they never dared tell him so. The only one who ever did dare address him was Milo Minderbinder, who approached the horseshoe-pitching pit with a hardboiled egg his second week in the squadron and held it aloft for Major _______ de Coverley to see. Major _______ de Coverley straightened with astonishment a Milo’s effrontery and concentrated upon him the full fury of his storming countenance with its rugged overhang of gullied forehead and huge crag of a humpbacked nose that came charging out of his face wrathfully like a Big Ten fullback.

Before the scene has finished, Major _______ de Coverley places his plane at Milo’s disposal so that he can fly eggs back for the major’s breakfast. The spoils of war are the source of Milo’s burgeoning empire, one that has terrible implications for Yossarian’s entire squadron.

It is no surprise then, that after successfully leading a major bomb attack on Bologna that:

At the briefing room Yossarian made his intelligence report to Captain Black and then waited in muttering suspense with all the others until Orr chugged into sight overhead finally with his one good engine still keeping him aloft gamely. Nobody breathed. Orr’s landing gear would not come down. Yossarian hung around only until Orr had crash-landed safely, and then stole the first jeep he could find with a key in the ignition and raced back to his tent to begin packing feverishly for the emergency rest leave he had decided to take in Rome, where he found Luciana and her invisible scar that same night.

Despite all the attempts of Christian governments to control troops, soldiers and prostitutes seem as inseparable as football and cheerleaders. Now that my mother has passed on and I’m no longer teaching, I’ll even admit that I spent five nights of blurred debauchery while on R&R in Bangkok. Fear of dying and sex seemed entangled in some sort of St Vitus’s dance.