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.

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.

Major Major Major Problems

In some ways Heller’s long digression on Major Major’s life seems to interrupt the development of the novel, but, in fact, it effectively shows that “Catch-22” is not limited to military life. Although Major Major is certainly a co-conspirator in the Col. Cathcart’s scheme to keep his pilots flying missions at all cost, Major Major seems to be such a willing victim because he has been a victim his whole life:

Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

From the very beginning, life seemed to conspire to make Major Major a victim, beginning with a self-centered, hypocritical father whose “sense-of-humor” doomed him to be the butt of others:

Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. His speciality was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any.

(My students could never quite figure out why I had trouble reading this passage without at least snickering, but that’s probably because they didn’t have a father-in-law who earned considerable subsidies for raising wheat to sell to Japan, but who constantly harped against the clients his daughter and I served as welfare workers.)

The father’s greatest joke, of course, is the one played on his wife and his son. The fact that it was a particularly brutal one seemed to give him great satisfaction. Heller doesn’t have to fill in the rest of the details of Major’s childhood for the reader to imagine what his childhood must have been like. While I pray it was an exaggeration that his classmates would no longer play with him when they learned that he wasn’t really who he said he was, it seems all too believable that the shock and feelings of loss of identity would isolate him:

Nobody would have anything to do with him. He began to drop things and to trip. He had a shy and hopeful manner in each new contact, and he was always disappointed. Because he needed a friend so desperately, he never found one.

To my mind this is single most frightening example of Catch-22 in the entire book, because, as a teacher and parent, I have seen too many children devastated by being shunned by their peers. I even heard misguided parents tell their children not to play with another child because he was “weird.” It’s hard to imagine a better example of a self-fulfilling prophesy, the moral equivalent of a parent constantly telling their child they’re “no good.”

The harder he tried to overcome his feelings of inadequacy and gain favor with adults, the more they seemed to dislike him:

He never once took the name of the Lord his God in vain, committed adultery or coveted his neighbor’s ass. In fact, he loved his neighbor and never even bore false witness against him. Major Major’s elders disliked him because he was such a flagrant nonconformist.

Ever noticed it’s not “cool” to be “square?” Of course, it seems a bit strange that someone who does what he’s been taught is right can somehow be considered “square.” Reminds me a little of my unfortunate friend Lieutenant Maiden who didn’t drink and who was often ridiculed by the other 2nd lieutenants who somehow felt the truest test of manhood was to spend the night drinking and still be able to get up in the morning and lead PT with a hangover. I thought it was stupid to make fun of him, but I did my best to keep up with the drinking and never missed my turn in leading PT, no matter how bad I felt.

Little surprise, then, that Major Major finally discovers that lying is better than telling the truth:

Major Major had lied, and it was good. He was not really surprised that it was good, for he had observed that people who did lie were, on the whole, more resourceful and ambitious and successful than people who did not lie. Had he told the truth to the second C.I.D. man, he would have found himself in trouble. Instead he had lied, and he was free to continue his work.

It makes little sense to really expect people to tell the truth when society constantly rewards those who are less than truthful. If truth is really so highly valued, after all, why would we pay millions of dollars to those who produce those most skillful lies known as commercials, those sanctified lies that drive the economy. For that matter, why do we inevitably seem to elect leaders who can lie better than their opponents, and then somehow expect them to tell the truth after they’re elected?

Of course, after he has learned to lie, it’s a small step for this most honest of men to give in to greed and all the benefits awaiting those who take advantage of their position and power. Thus, though at first Major Major tells Milo Minderbinder that he wants to be served the same things his men were served, he’s seduced by the benefits of his office:

For dinner that night Milo served him broiled Maine lobster with excellent Roquefort salad and two frozen eclairs. Major Major was annoyed. If he sent it back, though, it would only go to waste or to somebody else, and Major Major had a weakness for broiled lobster. He ate with a guilty conscience. The next day for lunch there was terrapin Maryland with a whole quart of Dom Perignon 1937, and Major Major gulped it down without a thought.

Little wonder, then, at the end of the chapter that Major Major tells Yossarian, “I’m sorry” but there’s nothing I can do” when Yossarian asks for Major Major’s help in getting out of flying any more of Cathcart’s missions.

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.