BMCR 1994.03.21

1994.03.21, Shay, Achilles in Vietnam

, Achilles in Vietnam : combat trauma and the undoing of character. New York: Atheneum, 1994. xxiii, 246 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780689121821. $20.00.

If it was a snake, it woulda bit us: “Homer’s Iliad… is about soldiers in war.” (xiii) Classicists are not, of course, ignorant of that fact, but we have tended to gloss over it, foreign as war is to most of us, and thereby to find ourselves puzzled by certain ethical aspects of the poem which are the direct result of warfare. We are accustomed, after all, to think of Homer as “fiction,” to assume that social realities in the Iliad are refracted through the lens of oral tradition and bear only a tenuous connection, like the Trojan War itself, to historical events and actual people.

Jonathan Shay brings a different perspective to bear on Homer and shows us that the wrath of Achilles is, unfortunately, all too familiar to contemporary existence. A clinical psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Tufts Medical School who works at the VA clinic in Boston, Shay reveals through Achilles in Vietnam the grim truth that this most famous of fictions presents an accurate picture of combat trauma as experienced by some soldiers in Vietnam, and probably in every war. “Homer’s starting point … is menis, indignant wrath. I believe it is also the first and possibly the primary trauma that converted subsequent terror, horror, grief, and guilt into lifelong disability for Vietnam veterans.” (21)

Shay occasionally seems to confuse Homer’s literally true psychological portrait of war and soldiers with a similarly true historical portrait, as when he says “The king of Lykia, a Trojan ally, is killed in action.” (12) We do not actually know whether that particular king of Lykia ever existed as an individual, ever fought that particular battle. Homer was speaking of an era which predated his own by centuries and telling a story which had been filtered through many tellings.

But the basic truths of war, if not necessarily the precise techniques of battle or the exact people in battle, remain the same from Troy to Homer to our own time. Historical generals in Greece were at risk in battle in a way that the generals in Vietnam were not if only because they lacked the technology to command from a safe distance. For this reason Shay’s analysis of the experience of Homer’s characters in contrast to Vietnam veterans with whom he has worked is not noticeably impaired and not in fact naive.

The book is clearly written and a marvel of organization, divided into explicitly-labeled sections which make it easy to locate particular aspects of the comparison between the wrath of Achilles and the berserk rage of Vietnam veterans. In Part I Shay discusses the progression of events which leads to the rage shared by his patients and Achilles, from “Betrayal of ‘What’s Right'” to “Shrinkage of the Social and Moral Horizon” to “Grief at the Death of a Special Comrade,” “Guilt and Wrongful Substitution,” and “Berserk.” In each case he supports his argument with extensive quotations, both from the Iliad and from the oral histories of veterans.

The discussion of special comrades may be of particular interest to those who have participated in the long argument about whether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. To a scholar who stands outside the experience of war (and your reviewer is a prime example of such), the depth of Achilles’ grief and rage makes most sense in a sexual context. But Shay examines the close bonds forged between soldiers in the crucible of war (recognizable to anyone who has read All Quiet on the Western Front) and concludes that “Achilles’ grief for Patroklos would not have been greater had they been a sexual couple, nor less if they had not been.” (42, with a long note discussing 5th and 4th century interpretations of the relationship, 214-16.)

The obviousness of many of Shay’s points, like that above, is one of the most striking things about the book. The psychology of Achilles, on which classicists have spilled so much ink, becomes perfectly clear when seen through the lens of Shay’s experience with war trauma. The excess of Achilles’ revenge for Patroclus’ death, the killing spree which includes even the river, his refusal of mercy to Lycaon, his abuse of Hector’s body: Homer never equates these things with the great achievements of warriors which he praises in other parts of the Iliad. The poet is clearly ambivalent, as his readers have been after him, towards the wronged hero whose actions display more savagery than heroism. We too have for the most part remained ambivalent, unable to condone Achilles’ treatment of Lycaon, of Hector, of the twelve Trojans sacrificed on Patroclus’ funeral pyre. But we have focused our attentions primarily on the psychology of Achilles as an individual, on the character of the “hero,” the special internal quality which makes an Achilles or an Ajax or an Antigone act in defiance of custom.

Yet the obviousness of Shay’s points, once he has made them, is the obviousness of retrospect and hindsight. Common as Achilles’ experience may be in long wars, it is still not familiar to the average classicist. Nor is it only the American academy which is ill-equipped to comprehend and cope with combat trauma and the violence it can precipitate. American society at large reacted to returning Vietnam veterans with such a massive lack of understanding that many of them were unable to return to anything like a normal life or to recover from what they suffered. As he proceeds from “Dishonoring the Enemy” to “The Breaking Points of Moral Existence” to “Healing and Tragedy,” Shay makes it clear that the key to understanding the behavior of Achilles lies not in the fact that Achilles is a “hero” but in the fact that he is a soldier. The experience of Achilles is neither unique nor anomalous: it is a straightforward case of combat trauma of the sort which has led to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in many contemporary veterans.

It is not the unusual quality of Achilles’menis which makes him, and not someone else, the subject of Homer’s epic. Achilles is a hero, a general, a man whose mother is a goddess, and so the fact that he becomes a victim of berserk rage, of combat trauma, is, as it were, headline news. Homer and his aristocratic audience paid attention to Achilles where they would have ignored the trauma and berserkerang of social nobodies. Today’s popular audience is not so heavily biased in favor of the wealthy and powerful, yet Shay is well aware that Achilles had a far better chance of being listened to and respected than the average soldier either at Troy or in Vietnam: “As the political and military head of an independent contingent, Achilles could indeed leave if he wished. The modern soldier who does the same commits the gravest military crime.” (26) But his rage itself is an experience of which Shay shows us many, many examples throughout the course of his book.

Shay is hardly the first person to find contemporary society wanting in its ability to deal with emotions, or to lay blame on the Judaeo-Christian tradition for impairing the coping skills of human beings (74, 147). But neither does he prefer Greek culture to our own with a Nietzschean lack of discrimination. The cities of Greece were perpetually at war, and the suffering engendered by war was, even in the Bronze Age, more terrible and universal than the Iliad indicates (121-35). Finding a way to manage the emotional consequences of combat experience was a matter of simple communal survival, and denial of moral breakdown more difficult for people constantly surrounded by it. In addressing “The Breaking Points of Moral Existence” (165-181), Shay tries to answer the question “What Breaks?” In the chapter’s final section, “Destruction of the capacity for democratic participation,” he says:

Democratic political activity presupposes that the future exists and that it is meaningful. Combat taught the survivor … not to imagine a future or to want anything …. Unhealed combat trauma … destroys the unnoticed substructure of democracy, the cognitive and social capacities that enable a group of people to freely construct a cohesive narrative of their own future. (181)

Shay emphasizes the value of narrative for healing, the importance of compassion and communalization of grief, the need which those traumatized by combat have to tell their story to a compassionate and nonjudgmental audience. (188-94) He does not suggest either that Homer composed the Iliad for therapeutic purposes or that the telling of one’s story in appropriate circumstances will produce instantaneous, cathartic healing. But he finds encouragement in the fact that Homer shows us military and social practices which are better for the emotional health of soldiers than our own have been, and offers suggestions for the prevention of future PTSD, even if we cannot, as he would prefer, eliminate war altogether.

The great strength of Achilles in Vietnam is in its combat narratives, its vivid evidence of the realities of modern warfare and their striking similarities to, and equally striking differences from, antiquity. Shay relies heavily on Nussbaum for his concept of Greek ethics and on Nagy for his understanding of Homeric society and generally accords classical scholars a less critical respect than that which he has for his own colleagues, but his status as a neophyte Homerist does not impair his argument. Indeed, the fact that he does not go into philological detail makes his book much more accessible not only to the general public but to the undergraduate student. Shay’s purpose is not to offer a definitive treatment of Greek ethics or Homeric vocabulary or even ancient warfare. His aim is to discuss the persistence of combat trauma and the soldier’s experience through thousands of years of warfare, and he does that superbly well.

Achilles in Vietnam should appeal to a diverse audience: veterans, health care professionals, the general public, and academics. Its intention is to increase the awareness of anyone reading it. “I hope this book will educate and motivate mental health professionals who are just starting to work with combat veterans or are considering doing so,” Shay says at the end of his introduction. But he speaks not only to them. “To all readers I say…. Learn how war damages the mind and spirit, and work to change those things in military institutions and culture that needlessly create or worsen these injuries. We don’t have to go on repeating the same mistakes.” (xxiii)

Jonathan Shay might find it ironic that I think of his book as a weapon, a weapon in the battle which classicists fight to defend their departments against university budget cuts and accusations of obsolescence and irrelevance. As long as war persists, the literature of a culture which persisted and even flourished in spite of its suffering in constant warfare will remain important to us for our self-understanding and possibly even our survival.

Achilles in Vietnam has a definite place in the classroom, offering students a bridge to the past. Shay makes Homer accessible to the modern psyche by demonstrating that many seemingly foreign aspects of the Iliad‘s narrative are alive and well in any soldier’s experience.

He also provides a challenge to classical scholars to rethink their approach to Homer and his successors. Without appreciating the nature of war and its impact on those involved in it, whether as soldiers or civilians, we cannot hope to understand Greek literature or culture. If we ignore Achilles in Vietnam and its implications for tragedy, comedy, and every other genre of literature, we run the risk of continuing to be baffled by the obvious.