Essay, Research Paper: War And Psychology


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The experience of war places stresses on the human spirit that can scarcely be
imagined in peacetime. Dilemmas that can be largely avoided in time of peace
must be faced in a time of war. Concern for one’s own physical safety is often
at odds with concern for the wellbeing of one’s countrymen. The dictates of
the mind often fight the dictates of the emotions. In such a tug of war
situation, where practical and moral factors align themselves in strange and
ironic patterns, it is hardly surprising that individuals respond in highly
divergent ways. In this paper, the dangers that war poses to the human psyche
will be considered and an attempt will be made to account for the some of the
variability that can be seen in the way in which individuals respond to these
threats. An examination of two books suggests that certain character traits help
inoculate people in time of war, better enabling them to withstand the assaults
of war. It also suggests that the absence of certain traits makes people
vulnerable when they are placed in threatening circumstances. In examining two
literary works: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and The English Patient by
Michael Ondaatje three character traits that were necessary in order to ensure
spiritual survival were clearly shown. These traits were faith, courage, and
loyalty. In the course of this paper, special attention will be given to the
character traits described above. The significance of their presence or absence
in the personalities of a number of literary characters will be considered. In
The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’ portrays an anonymous English protagonist
struggling to maintain his spiritual integrity against the assaults of
temptations of Hell during World War Two. In The English Patient, Ondaatje
portrays a group of characters, brought together by their circumstances,
reacting to what the author portrays as the tidal wave of war. The importance of
faith, courage and loyalty enable Lewis’ character to spiritually survive all
the assaults of wartime. The absence of these characteristics cause Ondaatje’s
characters to flounder. Faith, courage and loyalty provide a necessary framework
for moral thought and action, enabling the soul to survive even under the
adverse conditions presented by war. C.S. Lewis deals extensively with the
dangers that war poses to the human psyche. In his wartime work entitled The
Screwtape Letters, he presents an essentially hopeful view concerning the
ability of the soul to survive the assaults of war. He proposes that having the
right perspective is the key to the soul’s survival. Lewis deals with a wide
variety of temptations that serve to undermine the integrity of man in his
journey through life. All of these temptations assert their power to some degree
in peacetime. Yet, their power is often strengthened by the pressures of war. In
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje presents an entirely different perspective
concerning the effects of war on the human psyche. Although he never spells it
out, Ondaatje seems to take a fairly deterministic view. The fate of his
characters often seems to lie beyond their control. It is almost as if his
characters have been struck by a giant tidal wave and are helpless to resist as
they are carried away. The reader seldom gets the impression that Ondaatje’s
characters have alternatives other than to think and act the way they do. They
are presented as victims of circumstances who warrant our compassion but not our
judgment. Each leaves the war deeply scarred in the spiritual sense. In the work
of C.S. Lewis, faithfulness to God is the factor that ensures the soul’s
survival. Lewis describes the danger of being overwhelmed by “the stream of
immediate sense experiences” (Lewis pg.12). A man’s tendency to focus on the
immediate and the personal at the expense of the universal threatens his ability
to survive in any spiritual sense. When focusing on his own inconvenience,
hunger and pain, a man tends to lose sight of broader concerns, such as his
spiritual wellbeing and the common good. Faith enables a man to focus on the
spiritual and the eternal, to face each day’s trials with commitment and
determination and to survive war with his psyche intact. Lewis grapples with the
paradox of war. Lewis argues convincingly that, while some may be destroyed by
war, others may actually experience spiritual growth through adversity. Alerted
to the finite nature of life and made more conscious of the needs of others, a
man’s faith and strength may flourish in ways that he never dreamed possible.
Lewis dispels the belief that a long, relatively peaceful or painless life is
any guarantee of spiritual survival. He expresses fear for the souls of those
who die “in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends
who lie…promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness
excuses every indulgence, and even …withholding a priest lest is should betray
to the sick man his true condition.” (Lewis pg. 32). During wartime, the need
for courage cannot be ignored. Lewis sees courage as “not simply one of the
virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means the
point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to
danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was
merciful till it became risky” (Lewis pg. 148). Yet, courage must be grounded
in faith and resignation to God’s will. Lewis explains how worrying about the
future and taking precautions against the dangers of war tend to undermine
courage. When a man begins to obsess about all the things he can do to increase
his chances of survival, his commitment to doing his duty becomes “honeycombed
all through with little unconscious reservations.” In a moment of terror,
these reservations will assert themselves and his overriding concern will be
physical self-preservation.(Lewis p150). Only by putting his full trust in God
can a man avoid the threats to the spirit that uncertainty brings and act
courageously under all conditions. Key characters in The English Patient each
possess some of the traits that Lewis deems to be important: Yet each of
Ondaatje’s characters displays certain frailties that weaken his chances of
spiritual survival. Each of the characters is profoundly influenced by the
‘stream of immediate sense experiences’ that Lewis analyses so vividly in
the Screwtape Letters. Each allows the pain and suffering that he has witnessed
to destroy any faith he had in God, country or the war effort. Caravaggio is a
man who possesses tremendous courage. In his role as a spy for the Allies, he
risks death and torture on a daily basis throughout the war. After being
captured by the Germans and having his thumbs cut off by them, he finds his way
to a villa in Florence where Hana, a Canadian nurse and daughter of an old
friend is caring for a burned and dying patient. There, he devotes his days to
convincing Hana and Kip, the sapper whom Hana loves, to abandon their
responsibilities. He urges Hana to leave her dying patient even though there is
no one left to care for him. Referring to the Bedoin tribesmen who rescued the
burning man, he says, “Those men in the desert were smarter than you. They
assumed that he could be useful. So they saved him, but when he was no longer
useful, they left him.”(Ondaatje pg. 45) Confiding to Kip, he blames the war
on the rich who “ have to follow the rules of their…civilized world. They
declare war, they have honour and they can’t leave. But you two. We three.
We’re free. How many sappers die? Why aren’t you dead yet? Be irresponsible.
Luck runs out.” (Ondaatje p.123) Caravaggio is portrayed as warm, human and
very likable. Yet, he is a man who has lost his faith, his loyalty and his
confidence. The English Patient is portrayed as a man of great intellect. He is
‘the wise man’ who sees ‘the greater picture’. Yet, at critical times,
he reacts in a manner that is narrow and self-serving. He has an affair with the
wife of friend and colleague, a man whom he claims to love. This is portrayed as
a natural response of one caught up in a tidal wave of emotion. He blames ‘the
war’ for destroying his research, his adopted homeland, and his friendships;
yet he makes no credible attempt to come to terms with the terrible events that
made war inevitable. He collaborates with the Germans, dooming thousands in the
desert to torture and death. He rationalizes his behaviour and abdicates
responsibility for his actions by blaming the war on international financial and
military interests rather than on Nazi aggression. Yet the English Patient is
portrayed as a thoroughly likable victim. Never is it suggested that he is the
product of the choices that he himself has made. Kipp, the Sikh sapper, is a man
of tremendous discipline. Charged with the unenviable task of diffusing bombs,
he survives against all odds through a combination of resourcefulness and a
great ability to concentrate. He possesses many admirable qualities, traits that
should have enabled him to withstand the assaults of war with integrity. Yet,
Kip never seems to reflect upon the issue of why he is at war until the end when
he falls apart . Kip’s wartime relationships with the English are
characterised by mutual respect, acceptance and, in several instances, love.
Throughout the story, Kip is glued to his radio where he would, no doubt, have
heard of the German and Japanese atrocities that were being revealed on a daily
basis in 1945. Yet, suddenly, he is swept away with revulsion at the news of the
dropping of The Bomb on Hiroshima. He literally blames the English for all of
the evils of the world, including the dropping of the bomb. In response to an
act that he sees as racist and imperialistic, he abandons his post and all
loyalty to the war effort. Hana, the heroine of the novel, is, in many respects,
the noblest of Ondaaje’s characters. After months of sustained and intensive
exposure to the pain and suffering of others, she refuses to move on with the
Allied troops as they travel north in their occupation of Italy. Instead, she
chooses to remain with one horribly burned patient who is too ill to move.
Hana’s psyche is deeply damaged by the pain that she has witnessed. She is
totally caught up in what Lewis would term ‘the stream of immediate sense
experience.’ She is portrayed as half-mad, prone to mania and depression. At
times she is completely overwhelmed with her sorrow and sense of helplessness.
At other times, she rejoices as the rain drenches her through the gutted roof of
the villa that she calls home. She seems to be lacking in religious faith and
feels nothing but scorn for the leaders of the Allied war effort. Still, she
remains loyal to a cause that goes beyond her own wellbeing. She risks death on
a daily basis as she fulfils her duties in a villa that the Germans left full of
mines and booby traps. Her devotion to the English Patient and her stubborn
refusal to abandon him redeem her. They help compensate for her frailties,
giving her something greater than her self to live for during the dreary spring
of 1945. Faith, courage, discipline and loyalty preserve the soul, though not
the body of Lewis’ anonymous hero. The absence of one or more of these traits
weakens the spiritual immune system of each of Ondaatje’s leading English
Patient characters. Carvaggio faces post-war life lacking confidence and faith.
Kip returns to India hating the system that he has given his heart and soul for.
At best, he can see himself as a helpless pawn, a victim or a fool. At worst, he
can see himself as a willing agent of death and destruction. The English
Patient, presumably, dies muddled as much by his own rationalisations as by his
morphine. He clings to a love that he uses to excuse acts of personal and
collective treachery. Hana finds herself in an extremely vulnerable position as
she faces her post-war future. She has abandoned any faith that she ever had in
God, her country and her civilisation. She has placed all of her faith, trust
and loyalty in the hands of her patient and her lover. This has given her
something to live for as the war winds to an end. But when these two abandon
her, she has no faith in anything but herself to fall back on. She returns to
Canada, completely distrustful of human relationships. Many who have endured the
horrors of war may relate to the disillusionment portrayed by Ondaatje’s
characters. Many who would never claim to possess the virtues promoted by C.S.
Lewis clearly reflect them in the way in which they live their lives. These are
the wartime survivors who continue to inspire those who have never endured the
horrors of war. These are the survivors who show what it means to live a good
life, even under the most adverse conditions.

BibliographyLewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Great Britain: Fontana Books, 1942
Ondaatje, Michael. The Engish Patient. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1996
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