The first time Dunbar and Yossarian enter the hospital together, they spend their brief rest tormenting the Texan over his supposed “murder” of the soldier in white; the second time, they tag team Nurse Duckett and debate who gets the credit of insanity for Dunbar’s dream; the third and final time, when the soldier in white returns, Dunbar completely snaps—along with his and Yossarian’s rapport. Suddenly, the two officers are no longer on the same wavelength.
[Major Major Major Major spoilers below… get it? get it? For a more light-hearted look at Dunbar and Yossarian, see: Boredom Makes You Live Longer]
The second half of Catch-22 takes a particularly dark turn as most of the sympathetic characters in the novel begin, as Joseph Heller describes Dunbar and the Chaplain doing, “wasting away” (330).
The sheer absurdity of Yossarian and Dunbar’s casual wordplay and improvisation during briefings before missions or chance meetings at the hospital disappears as the other squadron’s bombardier begins to crack—going as far, for example, as categorically refusing to drop his bombs anywhere near the Italian village in chapter 30, risking a court-martial “without a word even to Yossarian” (330).
At times, Dunbar still shares Yossarian’s thoughts almost exactly—hiding in the brush after Sergeant Knight’s drunken celebratory machine gun fire panics the camp, the two recognize each other solely by the sound of their gunshots as they fire at each other. And like Yossarian, who wakes with the horrible thought that “Milo was attacking the squadron again” (360), Dunbar immediately assumes the same: “‘They took ten years off my life,’ Dunbar exclaimed. ‘I thought that son of a bitch Milo was bombing us again.’”
But by the latter half of the novel Dunbar becomes more brooding than bored, terrifying both the friends of Nately’s whore and the naked generals keeping her captive with a “look of mean dislike and hostility” (354) on his face.
He terrifies Yossarian as well in the hospital when the two are faced with the reappearance of the soldier in white. As Dunbar screams, “Yossarian froze in his tracks, paralyzed as much by the eerie shrillness in Dunbar’s voice as by the familiar, white, morbid sight of the solider in white covered from head to toe in plaster and gauze” (363).
And while Yossarian will agree with his friend that the soldier is, indeed, the same man from chapter one, “he shouted with dread” when Dunbar insisted that the plaster cast was empty, “stunned by the haggard, sparking anguish in Dunbar’s eyes and by his crazed look of wild shock and horror” (365).
Unlike earlier scenes, in which the two men defend each other’s idiosyncratic views on war and death to doubters such as Clevinger, Yossarian for the first time isn’t on the same page as the other bombardier, and shouts something he rarely imputes to anyone as a pejorative—“You’re crazy!” (365).
By the time the squadron “disappears” Dunbar, the witty banter that served as welcome comic relief during the first half of the novel has mostly disappeared as well—a reflection of the rapidly dropping morale of the all the men and approaching fates of a number of other sympathetic characters: Dr. Stubbs’s transfer to the Pacific, the Chaplain’s interrogation, Nately’s death as a result of “Milo the Militant” (368) manipulating Colonel Cathcart into raising the number of missions. And there’s probably nothing less humorous than Yossarian’s pilgrimage through the Eternal City—scenes of gore, brutality, and blood punctuated by the bleak observation, “What a lousy earth!” (412).
Yossarian, who had previously fought Dunbar with witty repartee for the honor of being pronounced clinically insane by the hospital psychiatrist, has had a change of heart— commenting now that, in the “night filled with horrors,” he “thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts” (415). Absurdity that had brought laughs now turns simply dark—“nothing warped seemed bizarre anymore” to Yossarian, “in his strange, distorted surroundings” (412).
Notably, and sadly, the change came just shortly after Yossarian labeled his own good friend “crazy” himself.
Like I said, I can pick out the ones who die.