A Little Confidence in the Universe

Although most people, like myself, dislike hospitals because they are associated with death and dying, in the middle of combat they represent something quite different. At the very least they provide a temporary refuge from combat. However, Yossarian is constantly returning to the hospital because:

There were usually not nearly as many sick people inside the hospital as Yossarian saw outside the hospital, and there were generally fewer people inside the hospital who were seriously sick. There was a much lower death rate inside the hospital than outside the hospital, and a much healthier death rate. Few people died unnecessarily.

Inside the hospitals doctors, incompetent as they were, at least tried to save people, not kill them. The same can’t be said for the world outside of the hospitals. It’s bad enough that the enemy is trying to kill you, but it’s unbearable when your commanding officer is ready to risk your life for his own glorification.

Yossarian observes, rightly, that:

The people got sicker and sicker the deeper he moved into combat, until finally in the hospital that last time there had been the soldier in white, who could not have been any sicker without being dead, and he soon was.

The death of the soldier in white, like the death of Snowden, haunts Yossarian. The discussion Yossarian has with the other officers after the death of the solidier in white is significant. One of the officers complains that it’s unfair that he got malaria from a mosquito bite while making love on the beach. He says he could have accepted getting clap, but not malaria. All of the men are haunted by the seeming randomness of death. The warrant officer’s complains:

Just for once I’d like to see all these things straightened out, with each person getting exactly what he deserves. It might give me some confidence in the universe.

I’ve often felt that those of us who’ve experienced combat are likely to become fatalistic because death seems completely arbitrary in combat. Falling artillery shells didn’t seem to care whether they fell on sinners or saints. No amount of caution could guarantee your safety, and no amount of stupidity insured your death.

Yossarian’s argument that God “is not working at all. He’s playing. Or else. He’s forgotten all about us” is not an uncommon reaction to those exposed to war. Oddly enough, even those of us who lose faith in God like Lt Scheisskopf’s wife often desperately want to believe in a benevolent God:

“I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

I noted in an earlier post that I wanted nothing to do with religion while I was in Vietnam. The God I believed in would have nothing to do with killing “the enemy,” he was a loving God who wanted us to reach out to each other. Even when our faith is sorely tempted, we, like the warrant officer desperately wanting justice, want a just God who loves us when we are virtuous, punishes us when we sin, but forgives us when we make mistakes and try our best to correct them.

It’s not surprising that Yossarian’s arch-enemy Colonel Cathcart has a very deranged view of God. Though his desire to have the chaplain lead a prayer for a “tighter bomb pattern” reminds me a little of football coaches who lead their players in prayer before a game, his surprise that the enlisted men pray to the same God is hilarious:

“I’m sorry, sir, I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.”
“Well, I don’t. They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?”
“No, sir.”
“What are you talking about? You mean they pray to the same God we do?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And He listens?”
“I think so, sir.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.”

And he well may be if there is a “just” God.

Confronted by this kind of ignorance and injustice, it’s no wonder that the chaplain who has been banished to the wilderness feels that:

There was so much unhappiness in the world, he reflected, bowing his head dismally beneath the tragic thought, and there was nothing he could do about anybody’s, least of all his own.

2 thoughts on “A Little Confidence in the Universe”

  1. I really enjoy reading Catch 22 through your eyes. I remember the movie, but I never did finish reading the book. It was ruined for me when I packed it to read in the hospital following the birth of my first son. I couldn’t understand a word and I never went back to it. Thanks for giving me another chance.

  2. I can understand not enjoying this book right after the birth of a child, Deb.

    As much as I love this book, I’d have to admit that it can be depressing.

    For me, the humor makes the insights bearable, and the insights are worth a little discomfort.

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