In his previous letter, Wormwood has mentioned that the Europeans have begun a new war. Screwtape irritably tells Wormwood to focus on his tempting duties, not the war.
Even as Screwtape ignores the information about “the war,” we, the readers, cannot. The war Lewis refers to is, by his own admission, World War II. Following this bloody, half-decade-long conflict, millions of people questioned their faith in God and Christianity, inspiring Lewis to write books like Mere Christianity and, of course, The Screwtape Letters.
Screwtape observes that Wormwood has experienced the thrill of success: the patient is anxious about the war, and has begun to doubt Christianity. Wormwood has encouraged this anxiety by giving the patient memories of the past and frightening pictures of his future. Nevertheless, Wormwood must focus on his duties, rather than gloating about his success. Wormwood must next decide whether to encourage the patient to be a pacifist or a patriot—either would be useful.
Here we see some of the ways that war challenges faith and religion. To begin with, war fills people with fear and the irrational expectation of pain or suffering. Fear, Lewis implies, is dangerous for religion because it encourages people to act irrationally and do things they’d otherwise be too “moral” to do. Once again, the implication is that Christianity is a rational philosophy.
War is very entertaining, Screwtape acknowledges, but nevertheless it’s not always as useful for devils as one might suppose. Although there is much short-term suffering on the Earth because of war, this suffering is useless to devils unless people go to Hell because of it. Moreover, God often rewards people for showing bravery in battle, even if they are fighting for a side that God considers immoral. Finally, war is often disastrous for devils because it encourages people to think about death and take religion more seriously.
In spite of the apparent advantages of war for evil, Lewis shows how war can actually be useful to Christianity. In order to do so, he must give his own opinion on the subject—that people are rewarded in Heaven for bravery of any kind. Thus, the familiar idea that “God is on our side” is foolish, Lewis argues, as God is on the side of anyone who fights bravely. Lewis then suggests that the fear of death encourages people to be more, not less Christian, because at least they must think seriously about their own mortality during wartime, whereas generally people prefer to avoid the issue.
There are some devils, Screwtape notes, such as Scabtree, who see war as a great opportunity to corrupt humans. While it’s certainly true that war confuses people and makes them more susceptible to demonic influence, it’s also true that war gives humans the opportunity for suffering, and therefore Christian redemption. On this “pessimistic” note, Screwtape ends his letter.
Screwtape’s pessimism, is, of course, optimism for Lewis. Ultimately Lewis sees war as an opportunity—for both sin and for redemption. One could treat war as a series of temptations to be evil—to kill, to steal, etc.—but at the same time, war can also inspire people to behave better, knowing that their lives are in danger.