Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Scott Anderson, Triage (1998)

Scott Anderson’s Triage (1998) is an anti-war novel that explores confronting psychological, philosophical and moral issues that emerge in war.  These include decisions to kill, to let die, to save others, to save oneself, to merely observe and do nothing, or to profit from the suffering of others.  The novel also examines the roles of intention, accident, chance and fate in determining the outcomes for individuals who are directly involved in war or merely caught up in it. 

The attention paid by Anderson to the human costs of war features his interest in what he regards as the less palatable, less discussed, and less recognised psychological injuries that can occur, which he believes should be appreciated as just as real as the physical injuries.  These psychological injuries, which currently come under the label of post-traumatic stress disorder, are experienced by the novel’s main character, the freelance war photographer Mark Walsh.  Through the experiences of Mark Walsh, the novelist examines the causes, symptoms, and process of healing from post-traumatic stress disorder and this sequence is central to the plot.   Around this, Anderson wove his subplots and secondary themes that develop the other ideas explored in the novel. 

Triage presents the case that the origins of war are found in human nature rather than in political events.  The origins of war reveal themselves through an anthropological rather than historical analysis.  This is a concept expressed by a character who is a former psychologist, Joachin Morales, who dismisses the value of ‘history’. 

Triage provides commentary on the nature of modern wars, pointing out that they are predominantly fought within rather than between nation states, and that they seem to be irresolvable, indecisive and ongoing.  They are particularly brutal to the civilians who seem to be caught in the middle of violent factions. 

While examining the nature of modern warfare, the novelist also provides insights into the nature of war correspondence and the news values that govern the marketability of information and pictures.  The novel shows that the tragedies of some people are more saleable than others.  Wars that do not involve major Western nations, like the United States, are perceived by major news media organisations to be less interesting to their audiences.  Consequently, some wars receive prominent media coverage while others remain relatively unknown. 

Triage also explores the different ethics demanded by the harsh reality of war and how this ethics informs the decisions of those with power over life and death, such as the former psychologist Joachin Morales and Doctor Talzani.  What emerges is a utilitarianism that tries to maximise good outcomes and minimise loss.  A doctor may be able to save an individual with severe and complicated injures but he appreciates that the time it would take to do so would mean he would not have the time to save several other at risk casualties with less complex but treatable injuries. Some individuals have to be sacrificed due to limited time and medical resources. 

Despite these ethical calculations, the novel also conveys a recognition that ethical systems can be compromised by chance factors that override them, which can decisively affect the fates of individuals. 

While examining the psychological costs of war, Triage also examines the psychological states, unhealthy or healthy, that can emerge from people’s responses to the situations created by war and human tragedy. 

Triage puts the case that happiness and wellbeing are found in strong and secure family ties that provide a sense of belonging and provide nurture. It is the family of Mark Walsh’s de facto wife Elena that heals him of his psychological malady. 

Triage also suggests that the positive attributes of broadmindedness and compassion are required to maintain valued family structures.  In this regard, Triage implies that people should exercise tolerance and patience.  It also implies that people should seek to discover the varied and sometimes hidden dimensions of individuals and their motivations before judging them, especially in regards to judging them harshly. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Triage meaning, Triage themes, Triage analysis, Triage notes