Tag Archives: war

!Viva Cristo Rey! Some historical background for the movie “For Greater Glory”

15 May

I haven’t seen much publicity for it, but the movie titled Cristiada in Mexico and For Greater Glory in the United States is coming to theaters June 1st.  I imagine a sizable number of moviegoers will fill the seats so they can watch Eva Longoria (or, for ladies who prefer older gentlemen, Peter O’Toole).  I don’t imagine that many U.S. viewers, however, will know much about the historical event the film revolves around: the Cristero War of the 1920s in Mexico.

I did an undergraduate research project on press surrounding the Cristero rebellion, two years ago, and with this movie coming out so soon I’m hoping that some of that research proves useful.  If you can read Spanish, I commend you to the Spanish-language Wikipedia entry (it’s much more complete than the English article, unfortunately).

The full text of my research paper with sources: Los Fieles: Faith, Anxiety, and Prejudice in the Press during Mexico’s “Religious Crisis,” February-July 1926

Another previous post — Mexico’s Holy War: Faith, Prejudice, and the Press in 1926

This is David Uribe Velasco, a native of Buenavista de Cuellar, a small town in southern Mexico.

A month ago marked the 85rd anniversary of his death, and next month, it will have been 12 years since his elevation to sainthood by Pope John Paul II.  On April 12, 1927, Father Velasco—a Catholic priest—after putting his affairs in order (he repaid the 50 pesos owed to a fellow cleric; he bequeathed his typewriter and vestments to a friend)—and after blessing his captors in the sign of cross and the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he was taken outside, forced to his knees by Federal soldiers, and shot in the back of the head.

In May 2000, he was canonized as San David, a martyr, and one of 250,000 Mexicans killed in the conflict known today as la Cristiada, or the Mexican Cristero War—a rebellion unique in modern history as a popular uprising that took the international community completely by surprise.

Lasting from summer 1926 to spring 1929, the Cristero rebellion represented a popular reaction to the contemporary Mexican administration’s increasing restrictions on religious speech and practice in the country—a country with a Catholic population upwards of 90%.

The very name of the war bears witness to the deep-set piety of the rebel soldiers, christened Cristeros by opponents ridiculing their battle cry:  “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long Live Christ the King!”

However, in the months leading up to the initial outbreak of violence the depth of Catholic devotional sentiment in the Mexican population was completely underestimated by the American press, which saw the seething controversy to the south as a strictly institutional conflict—not the rebellion of individual cristeros, but a “Church War.”

The flashpoint for mobilization was July 31, 1926—when the Catholic Episcopal hierarchy of Mexico ordered, as protest against clerical persecution, the indefinite suspension of worship services throughout the country—and the federal government obliged by attempting to take possession of church buildings.

Lay Catholics resisted.

Crowds of hundreds, most of them women, spontaneously mobilized to defend the churches—even as police brigades brought fire hoses and mounted federal soldiers to disperse the congregations.  One Mexico City newspaper summed the day up in a single headline—“Los Fieles [the faithful] Will Not Abandon Their Churches.”

Even so, the fight was initially expected to be a rout.

For perspective—At the time, the Mexican government under President Plutarco Elías Calles had a federal army of nearly 80,000 professional soldiers.  The rebel movement, on the other hand, was unorganized until 1927—and comprised mostly untrained, and practically unarmed, rural Catholic peasants of the Bajío region, Central and Southern Mexico, which remains even today the bastion of Catholic conservatism in the country.  To the contrary—by the end of the war the Cristeros numbered 50,000.  And an auxiliary brigade of  women, engaged in smuggling weapons and provisions into combat zones for the soldiers, totaled 25,000.

Popular sentiment was enraged—and the uprising reflected the crystallization and shattering of widespread anxiety that had been growing throughout 1926.

A memoirist from San Julián, a small town in Jalisco, one of the centers of the rebellion, recalled the pervading climate of fear and apprehension that entered her community with the New Year:

“The enemies of the Holy Church began to spread their poison everywhere… black stormclouds began to rise in the blue sky—Everyone was afraid.”

But this anxiety of the faithful was ignored.  Commentators abroad, particularly in the United States, viewed and reported the conflict through the lens of domestic problems and paradigms: an ideological clash of Church and State.

On one side, the child of the 1910 Mexican Revolution: he Liberal, secular administration of President Calles—determined to suppress religious speech, end religious education, restrict the influence and very number of Catholic clerics in Mexico, and nationalize Church property—in the name of secularization.

On the other the child of the Spanish Conquest: the centuries-old Mexican Catholic Episcopacy under Archbishop José Mora y del Río, equally determined to preserve the Church’s economic privileges and institutional autonomy.

Church and State—no third party in existence.  But this was the perspective of an American press embroiled in its own ideological collision:

Just the year before, the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” over evolution in the education system had made headlines in the United States as a war of secularism or fundamentalism, science or faith, progress or regression, educated urbanites versus rural ignorance.  These were the antitheses occupying American minds in 1926—and reporter H.L. Mencken summed up the public attitude in two words: the rural-based, deeply religious segment of the American population comprised: “yokels and morons.”

This domestic situation provided American commentators with a template for the dissatisfied Mexican laity: rural, ignorant, superstitious, racially inferior—and thus incapable of exercising any significant political influence.

Essentially, the United States media projected its own anxieties onto Mexico, and ignored those of the Mexican Catholic.

One incident in particular encapsulates the American perspective:

When Mora y del Rio and the Episcopacy announced that worship would be suspended at the end of July, the Mexican faithful flocked in thousands to churches to receive what many believed might be the final sacraments of their lives.  The Archbishop himself was said to have baptized, confirmed, and married over 3,000 individuals in one day alone.

But while the Mexican press reported apocalyptic panic—in San Julián, the faithful prayed in the streets for God’s pity and mercy—TIME magazine treated the incident as entertainment:

“… barefoot, blanketed Indian runners; toothless Mexican gaffers, perhaps pagans all their lives, hobbled in frenzied haste to receive a precious sprinkling of holy water… in this baptismal race.”

Said correspondent was also thoughtful enough to add a footnote explaining to his readers that the people of Mexico were only nominally Catholic, their religion really a pantheon of primitive deities smeared with a veneer of saints and idols.

Even New York City’s premier Catholic periodical, the Commonweal, espoused strikingly similar racial and religious bigotry:

“the plain truth about Mexico… is that a native Indian population is not the same thing as a Caucasian civilization fostered by centuries of Christian discipline.”

The national academic journal Current History exhibited a comparable bias in its July 1926 issue—intended to be a symposium on opinion about the religious situation in Mexico.

The contributing parties—supporters the Mexican Government, American Catholics, and American Protestants (although, notably no representative of Mexican Catholicism went to print)—all, essentially, agreed on one central issue: the degeneracy of the masses in Mexico.  The only question that remained was which institution—Church or State—was responsible for developing a program for the “uplift” of the Indian and Indo-Latino population:

“Physical welfare is a fact; spiritual consolations are the resources of a theory.”

—a comment that typifies the 1920s, and even modern, elitist ‘progressive’ trivialization of Mexican Catholic piety.

The Mexican press, on the other hand, did not see the growing religious crisis as an issue of progress; rather, it was about freedom of conscience.  This is probably my favorite quote to come from a reel of microfilm.  From the Mexico City paper Excélsior:

“We imitate the United States in its defects, in its sports, in its diversions, in its food, in its clothing, in its affectionate ‘spooning’… but in its indisputable virtues, we don’t care much to imitate them.”

Still, the American press remained convinced that religion was not a primary driving force in human behavior—first came social and economic factors.  And thus, the religious crisis in Mexico could not be any sort of popular war, let alone a “holy war,” but rather had to represent a power struggle between institutions.  Thus when the Mexican Episcopacy called for an indefinite suspension of religious services beginning July 31st—a virtual interdict—American papers such as the Catholic Commonweal assumed the inert, helpless Mexican laity would bear their cross and pray.

But popular anxiety had been steadily growing since Mexico rang in the New Year 1926 and the faithful of San Julián saw “dark clouds” on the horizon.  As early as February, a columnist for the Mexico City paper El Universal predicted what the American press could not imagine: violence.

In an article titled “Spiritual peace is indispensable,” a columnist warned against the Calles administration attacking the “essence of the religion”—the sacraments.

Current History writers, such as the Methodist bishop James Cannon, undervalued this deeply-rooted devotion.  According to Cannon, Catholic ritual was superstitious ceremony alone—and only served to retard social and economic progress for the Mexican peasant:

“The mass in the morning, the rosary in the evening, confession, communion, extreme unction, the benediction of the grace within a Church cemetery, and responsories for the departed, kept the people well under the control of the church even after they were dead…”

But that is a viewpoint unique to the primarily Protestant United States.

Protestantism, unlike its Catholic rival, developed from a theology of faith and scripture alone.  The Catholic Church, contrarily, held tradition on par with these as a source of religious authority: the sacraments were thus not empty ritual to believers, but a conduit of God’s grace and the path to salvation—the essence of religion El Universal mentioned.

And when this was targeted on July 31, 1926—churches seized, worship suspended, and sacraments ended throughout the country—all the assurances of the American press that there would be no reaction meant nothing to the Mexican Catholics who felt their very identity at risk.  From El Universal, six months before the July 31st uprising:

“The truth is that the people never commit suicide.  They might change, transform, and even disappear; but they never change their essential nature—an integral part of native religion.  It is the Mexican people, instinctively, who understand the danger.  For them it is a question of to be or not to be… and it costs everything to want to be!”

Until an accord was reached in June of 1929 between the Mexican Episcopacy and the Calles administration, it did cost everything for faithful Mexican Catholics like Father Velasco.

And in the end, the Mexico City paper was right—the Mexican people knew early on what the international community, blinded by racial prejudice and a disastrous underestimation of the depth of religious devotion in Mexico, never saw coming: the tragedy and the violence of la Cristiada.

* * *


I’m with Team Human (review: Peace Warrior)

12 Dec

There’s nothing like enslavement by brutal alien overlords to bring people together, right?

Or at least in most science fictional scenarios.  But in Peace Warrior, author Steven L. Hawk takes that classic story set-up and turns it around.  Excepting John Lennon (rest in peace, btw), most of us probably can’t imagine a world without war, hatred, poverty, misery, and all-around horror headlining the news every night.

Grant Justice is one of us.  He swears up a storm even when he’s not directing military maneuvers in one of earth’s endemic wars.  He’s a good guy who can handle a gun who happens to die in a particularly gruesome manner (insert description here of shattered bone and bloody, ragged stumps where limbs used to be.  Oh, and drowning).

But 600 years from now, when a young N’mercan scientist resurrects him with the power of cryogenics, Grant Justice is a social deviant, a dangerous “Violent” far removed from the Peace-loving culture of the distant future.  And seriously, those future humans need to chill out.  “What the fuck?” are entirely acceptable first words for a guy whose consciousness has been drifting in a deathly abyss of memories for the last six centuries.

But the world Grant wakes up to isn’t anything like what he remembered.  And it’s probably more of a shock than waking up in 1410 would be.  At least people swore back then.  But Hawk has created a world where world peace has been achieved and beauty pageant contestants have to think of some new cliché to talk about (insert gasp!).

Peace isn’t just some geopolitical goal either—it’s a lifestyle.  Welcome to Planet Pacifist, where the “verbal violence” of a bewildered “What the fuck?” is enough to excommunicate a time traveler from society.  Oh, and where an alien race called the Minith enslaved earth’s entire human population to die in the millions mining for natural resources—and did it without quashing a single rebellion.  Why?  Because there weren’t any.

The appropriate response here would, indeed, be: What the fuck?  I mean, ABC has a Catholic priest becoming a terrorist to fight alien subjugation (and it’s awesome).

Humankind’s last hope is the revived warrior with the violent psyche of a twenty-first century human, good ol’ Grant Justice—and while the name reeks of cliché, Peace Warrior doesn’t.  There are a very few weak points (the Grant-Avery love interest subplot happened a little too fast, perhaps), but Hawk makes his story, characters, and future world entirely plausible.

Good science fiction tells a captivating story, making readers empathize with believable characters and tense with anticipation as the story builds to a climax.  Peace Warrior does all this, hands-down.  The book had barely started before I was entirely invested in the success of Grant and his army of Violents.  Example: the other day I was reading in my sister’s room while she painted.  When I cheered out loud, she asked simply: “Did Grant kill another alien?”  Hell yes he did!  And I, well how could I not be with Team Human?

There’s nothing like good storytelling—but great stories go deeper than that.  Science fiction can take us into the far future, but the best SF reflects the present world too, incorporating contemporary social issues and ideas into the plot itself (there’s nothing worse than a preachy novel, after all).  Peace Warrior is a damn good story, even as Hawk raises complex issues about Nature vs. Nurture and the role of violence in society.

I’ll be concise to sum up, because I think that’s how Grant would want it: Rebel humans are super badass, and Peace Warrior is a great book.

Peace Warrior is available as an ebook on Amazon for $2.99.

Trial by Combat: God, Feudalism, and the Crusades (part 2 of 2)

8 May

The belief that God will necessarily lead the righteous to conquest reflects the superstitious mentality of feudal judicial practices, only now on a much wider scale.

Where trial by ordeal or combat once applied the principle to feuds or disagreements between individuals, the crusades incorporated this feudal institution into the realm of international politics.  But emphasis on more admirable values of feudalism than superstition also crossed over into the “crusading mentality” to fuse with religious sentiment­—in particular, the importance of personal loyalty to one’s lord.

For instance, loyalty to God’s cause is demonstrated by devotion to Charlemagne, characterized through the epic as a pious king who receives visions from God and is guarded by St. Gabriel.

Moreover, the swords of both Roland and Charlemagne symbolize more concretely the connection between feudal service and religion; while Roland’s Durendal contains relics from various saints and the Virgin Mary, Charlemagne’s Jouise holds the point of “the lance with which our Lord was wounded on the cross” (108), providing a direct connection between Christ the heavenly king and Charles the earthly emperor.

But this synthesis of religious ardor and feudal values ultimately creates a conflict of interest within the vassal-crusader.  While combining the fervor of supposed divine sanction with a belief in infallibility makes Charlemagne’s army a formidable force– described by the enemy as “fierce” men with “no thought of failing” (129)—Roland’s interpretation of war as holy encourages zeal over caution.

Roland’s courage and pride, bolstered and supported by certainty of moral rightness, approaches recklessness when he refuses to blow his horn for help.  In this way, religious zeal comes into conflict with the traditional qualities of a good vassal—prudence, common sense, and cooperation.

In the Song of Roland, this war of values finds symbolic expression in the inadvertent battle between Roland and a blinded Oliver—Roland, described as “brave,” represents the crusader, valiant to the point of recklessness and proud nearly to the point of sin; Oliver, “wise” (64), reflects the caution and discretion of the feudal vassal.

Rejecting the established Benedictine standards of piety, which held secluded monks and nuns as the holy men and women who ensured God’s blessings on earth, crusading warriors instead emphasized the active life, dashing headlong into the world to “administer His judgment” (136) themselves.

Filled with confidence in both their rightness and the divine support of God in their mission, these crusaders—as depicted in the Song of Roland—carried feudal values with them, in the head and hilt, into an atmosphere of religious fervor.

But ironically, while feudal standards and superstitions help to create the “crusading mentality” of moral certainty and certain victory, it is this same fusion which, by contributing to the pride and reckless confidence of the crusader, ultimately leads to the rejection of a number of core feudal values in the Song of Roland.  Though “Roland never loved a coward, nor arrogant man” (97), the title warrior demonstrates that—in an arena of religious zeal—avoiding the one may create the other.

A/N: After re-reading this paper (written about a year and a half ago for a University of Alabama history course), I had another couple ideas about The Song of Roland—in light of the Reformation/Counter-Reformation course I took from the same professor this semester—

The idea of God’s sovereignty and divine will in the crusading mentality makes for an interesting example of the Catholic theology early Protestant reformers so vehemently opposed.  Traditional Catholic theology of justification holds that divine will cooperates with human will in a person achieving salvation; Protestants, on the other hand, hold that justification and receipt of grace is a strictly passive process (human works are worthless).

In Roland, the message is absolutely orthodox: faith in God’s will makes the crusaders certain of their moral superiority—but also of a very temporal victory.  The knights, after all, are the ones who initiate battle, in the belief that they are the ones carrying out God’s work.  Thus, cooperation between heaven and earth.  How lovely.

Just thought that was interesting; it’s a pretty good example, too, of the original justification for indulgences (something else the Protestants abhorred).  Indulgences were original created as an incentive for potential crusaders, or rather, an assuagement of their fear—otherwise, why would a man fight without being able to receive Extreme Unction and confess before he died (die with a mortal sin on you, and it’s straight to hell, buddy).  The theology behind the practice paralleled the crusading spirit itself: You do this for God, and he’ll reward you.  Again, cooperation.

And please remember to cite your sources, if you don’t want to end up in the eternal torment of the Saracens (because, naturally, they’re all going to hell, the heathens):

The Song of Roland. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Trial by Combat: God, Feudalism, and the Crusades (part 1 of 2)

8 May

Though modern conceptions of religion in the Middle Ages focus almost exclusively on the violent fervor of the crusades, early in the sixth century St. Benedict’s rule for a disciplined monastic life set a starkly different lifestyle—seclusion and self-denial—as the standard for religious zeal.

Fleeing the temptations and indulgences of worldly society for a quiet existence of poverty, chastity, and obedience, medieval monks and nuns devoted their lives to prayer and charitable works—popularly thought, in doing so, to guarantee God’s blessings for the laity.

But transitioning from a culture in which cloistered clergy pray for the kingdom of God into one where warriors attempt to actively bring it about themselves required the emergence of a fundamentally different mindset.  The Song of Roland communicates this new “crusading mentality” as a radical redefinition of piety, which, by incorporating feudal values and superstitions, overthrows the traditional ideal of withdrawal and asceticism.

No individual more clearly illustrates this transition than the Archbishop Turpin, who expresses only contempt for the secluded life.

Stating that “in battle [a knight] should be strong and fierce, or else he is not worth four pence” and “ought rather be a monk in one of those monasteries praying all day long for our sins” (89), Turpin fuses religious service with the values of feudal warfare—valor and strength.

Throughout the epic, warfare and religious devotion continue to be inextricably tied in the person of Turpin, who not only demonstrates a commitment to the active life by being the first man to start the battle with King Marsile’s army, but by buoying up his own fellow men with the promise of heaven, a testimony to the origins of indulgence theology—“in one thing I can act as guarantor: Holy paradise is open to you.  You will take your seat amongst the Innocents” (77).  Equating death in battle against the Muslims with martyrdom, Turpin—in line with beliefs of the time—reveals the characteristic trait of medieval crusaders: absolute faith in a divinely-guided mission.

Throughout the Song of Roland, recurring imagery juxtaposing antitheses—good versus evil, right versus wrong—highlights this moral certainty of Charlemagne’s men, who consistently employ a strictly black and white evaluation of their work and enemies.

While Charlemagne fights for “the fair land of France,” the very country of Marsile’s warriors is described as “accursed,” outrageously depicted as a blackened desert where “some say that devils live” (60).  The Muslims also bear similarly impossible physical deformities, such as spines “as bristly as pigs” (131) or “skins as hard as iron” (132) – further stressing their hard-hearted rejection of Christianity and estrangement from the side of ‘right.’

Furthermore, the pagans engage in battle assailed by doubts, Marsile lamenting that “these gods of ours have abandoned the fight… they have allowed our men to be slain” (115) when Charlemagne’s rearguard refuses to be daunted by the superior numbers of the Muslims.

Roland, on the other hand, rallies his troops for the seemingly-impossible fight against the Saracens with unshakable assertions of the rightness of their cause.  He declares that “the pagans are wrong and the Christians are right” (61); he defends Charlemagne’s reputation against Marsile’s nephew with the words that “we are right, but these wretches are wrong” (67); and he avenges Duke Samson’s death with the cry that “On your side is both pride and wrong” (79).

Holding their enemy as impotent because the Muslim faith—wrongfully described throughout the poem as polytheistic—“is not worth a penny” (135), Roland suggests that fighting on the side of Christianity gives the Franks more than certain moral superiority: certain victory.

Rather than support notions of individualism and the primacy of human effort over divine, the crusading emphasis on and confidence in actively correcting the evils of the world reflects the complete opposite idea: successful action can be taken only because of God’s sovereignty.

The first stanza of the Song of Roland, for example, introduces King Marsile not only as a man “who does not love God,” but one who, for that rejection of Christianity, “cannot prevent disaster from overtaking him” (29).  Though mistaken and superficial depictions of Marsile and his men serve in part to dehumanize the Muslim enemy, the defining quality of their evil stems from their pagan faith.

In fact, while physical deformities are attributed to some of the Saracens, a number of Muslim leaders are described as either a “worthy baron” (129), a “good knight” (59), or even “very handsome… fierce and fair” (57)—the only caveat being that they are not Christians.

And as paganism creates, in the eyes of the crusaders, an insurmountable barrier to eternal salvation, so does it also make victory in battle impossible—even before the fight begins, the Muslims “all are doomed to die” (63).

Works cited at the end of part 2.

You’re Crazy! — Dunbar and Catch-22, again

28 Mar

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.

Boredom makes you live longer: Dunbar, Catch-22

17 Mar

(Foil of Yossarian’s and somehow endearing, for saying barely a sentence per fifty pages)

I’ve realized in the last few months that I have the uncanny ability to spot the supporting characters in a novel for whom that grim reaper called an author always manages to get right when I think the coast is clear.  I’m like a divining rod for fictional death.  (Lone exception: Percy Weasley)

I haven’t finished Catch-22 yet, but with this macabre talent in mind I’m beginning to get worried for Dunbar, the laconic officer who doesn’t appear often but has managed to win enough of my affection to merit a response paper for a U of A satire seminar, which I’ve included for the sake of anyone who wants to read about a foil of Yossarian’s in the first half of the book:

When the reader meets Yossarian, he’s befuddling doctors with a medical condition that both is and is not jaundice—and the absurdity only grows from there.  In line with the nature of the title military regulation, almost every event and conversation Yossarian and company (squadron, actually) have in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 abounds in contradiction and tautology.  At one point or another, after all, nearly every character accuses someone else of being crazy.

Second only to Yossarian in alleged insanity—in the opinion of Clevinger, at least, supposed voice of reason—is Dunbar, who also happens to be second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the novel.  His companion from the hospital and the only man the bombardier doesn’t include among “the people Yossarian wanted to machine-gun” (18) in the officers’ club, Dunbar and Yossarian share a crucial trait: they don’t want to die.

Finishing each others’ sentences in the hospital, playing off of each other while tormenting the irritating Texan, the two officers’ characters appear as close as their infirmary beds.  “Outside the hospital there was nothing funny going on,” Heller notes; “The only thing going on was a war, and no one seemed to notice but Yossarian and Dunbar” (16). Among brothers-in-arms like Clevinger, Haverly, and McWatt—“the craziest combat man of them all probably, because he was perfectly sane and still did not mind the war” (60)—their desperate love for life seems, ironically, unrequited by most.

But while similar in this respect, Dunbar also serves as a foil for Yossarian in the first half of the novel: his fatalism and passivity highlighting more vividly the proudly-proclaimed coward—“‘I’m not ashamed, Yossarian said. ‘I’m just afraid.’” (102)—in his anger, desperation, and active attempts to outwit, outplay, and outlast all his fellows as a survivor in war.

Dunbar, unlike Yossarian, accepts the fact that death comes for everyone, and has committed himself to a somewhat unorthodox theory and practice of life extension: the cultivation of boredom.  The men Yossarian despises and heaps imaginary violence upon, such as Clevinger with his accusations of “antisocial aggressions” (19), are welcomed by his laconic friend.  “Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it” (38), Heller explains, and “Dunbar liked Clevinger because Clevinger annoyed him and made the time go slow” (19)—activities that he insist literally count eleven-times-seventeen years to the hour.

Though a different tactic than Yossarian’s flying tackle employed on Major Major (Major Major) for the sake of information on how to get grounded, Dunbar’s ideas are, like Yossarian’s, less absurd than they seem at first read.  When Dunbar defends himself to Clevinger with the observation that “You’re inches away from death every time on a mission.  How much older can you be at your age?” (39), it may be the sanest sentence in the book so far.

An atheist, Dunbar’s simple, matter-of-fact assertions that “There is no God” (126) may be less colorful than Yossarian’s comparison of the Supreme Being as an incompetent bungler with a “warped, evil, scatological mind” partial to tooth decay (179)—nevertheless, disbelief in an afterlife makes survival, for the sake of whatever life, paramount:

“Be furious you’re going to die” (179), Yossarian says—”What else is there?” his friend asks.