illustrated portrait of American author John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

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How does the body's "anesthesia" protect the soldier against combat stress according to Steinbeck?

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No doubt influenced from his time as a war correspondent, Steinbeck's essay suggests that there is almost a physical condition that can be overwhelming for the soldier.  Sleep is almost a sanctuary.   Prior to the "anesthesia" of which he speaks, Steinbeck has talked about the physical experience and physical toll that war exacts on the soldier.  For Steinbeck, this physical toll is one in which the body controls what the mind experiences.  Steinbeck discusses this with how food is digested irregularly, the eardrums are constantly under siege, and the eyes are "blurred." The sleep that is welcome is where the release from this being is seen. Through this, the "anesthesia" of sleep overcome the soldier.  Steinbeck describes this as almost like a body breaking down, and succumbing to the simultaneous overload and deprivation of the senses: 

Then sleep can come without warning and like a drug. Gradually your whole body  seems to be packed in cotton. All the main nerve trunks are deadened, and out of the battered cortex curious dreamlike thoughts emerge. It is at this time that many men see visions. The  eyes fasten on a cloud and the tired brain makes a face of it, or an angel or a demon. And out  of the hammered brain strange memories are jolted loose, scenes and words and people forgotten, but store in the back of the brain. These may not be important things, but they come back with startling clarity into the awareness that is turning away from reality.

For Steinbeck, it is this sleep that is the "anesthesia" that envelops the soldier.  It is this condition, one that causes them to "turn away from reality," that also precludes them talking about their experiences as it provides a sense of protection against the stresses of combat.  In this state where the "nerve trunks are deadened," the body creates a realm of escape for the soldier, a momentary pivot away from a horrific reality.

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