BMCR 2001.03.03

From Melos to My Lai: War and Survival

, From Melos to My Lai : war and survival. London/New York: Routledge, 2000. 1 online resource (xv, 220 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0203251768. $22.95.

In From Melos to My Lai, Lawrence Tritle presents a highly personal reading of the effects of war on ancient Greeks and on twentieth-century Americans. Starting with the proposition that “the human experience with violence, culture, and survival is one that transcends time” (xii), Tritle constructs parallel narratives of ancient Greece and the Vietnam-era United States. From these, he argues that notions of heroism, the effects of violence-induced trauma (in particular post-traumatic stress disorder or πτσδ depictions of the enemy as “other,” and mourning practices are similar, even identical in both cultures.

Tritle (xiii) specifically acknowledges Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam as progenitor.1 He expands upon Shay’s work by examining the roles of women in warfare, ancient and modern literary representations of violence, and the forms and functions of Greek and American war monuments. Unlike Shay, who drew almost exclusively on the Iliad to complement his clinical discussion of PTSD, Tritle employs a wide range of both ancient and modern literary sources, from Euripides and Thucydides to novelist Tim O’Brien and correspondent Michael Herr. To this he adds material evidence, from the Chabrias monument in Athens to a community Vietnam memorial in Westchester, California.

As an attempt to come to grips with the tragedy of Vietnam and with the author’s own experience there, From Melos to My Lai is powerful and moving. Tritle takes seriously what he considers an obligation for survivors of violence: “to explain to the wider community what happens when violence is unleashed” (6). He confronts his own painful memories, exposes the failings and inequities of Vietnam-era American policy, and gives voice to numerous survivors—female and male, American and Vietnamese—of the conflict in Southeast Asia.

Yet the very personal perspective which Tritle employs makes From Melos to My Lai in some ways less compelling as an investigation of ancient Greek warfare and society. Perhaps most significantly, by insisting on exact and consistent cross-cultural matches between Greece and the United States, Tritle tends to read more than is warranted into the ancient evidence. There are as well points where his analysis does not adequately address the divergences between ancient and modern experiences.

In comparing the massacre at My Lai and the Athenian destruction of Melos, for instance, Tritle argues that “both the Athenians and Americans ended up destroying two communities in much the same fashion” (120). Central to this comparison is Tritle’s assertion that the destruction of Melos was spontaneous reaction rather than premeditated plan. The frustrated and embarrassed Athenians, he conjectures, made “an on-the-spot decision to punish the Melians for their daring in resisting Athens” (121). On this reading, Melos represents an instance of “payback,” soldiers’ uncontrolled revenge for their own losses. Likewise, the My Lai massacre arose from a “contagion of violence…in which…scared men began striking back at perceived enemies” (122).

Yet Thucydides’ representation of the dialogue between Athenians and Melians shows that from the very beginning both sides clearly understood what was at stake; all the Melians could expect was war or slavery (Thuc. 5.86). Killing the men and enslaving the women and children of a captured city was accepted, if not always unquestioned, Greek practice. The events at My Lai were not accepted American practice; indeed they were a cause for outrage and courts-martial when made public.

Even if the Melians were hoping for the fate of Mytilene rather than of Scione (Thuc. 5.32)—and Thucydides gives no indication of this—the limits of ancient technology could well have made the massacre at Melos rather different from that at My Lai. Simply put, soldiers with helicopters and automatic weapons can—and at My Lai did—murder hundreds of people in a few minutes. Indeed, the enormous destructive power wielded by individual American soldiers in Vietnam was particularly conducive to the culture of “payback,” to the mob-like frenzy devoid of control and order which Tritle describes (122). Soldiers armed with spears and swords, in contrast, need time and planning to execute a mass of disarmed and dispirited people, particularly when they are methodically separating adult males from women and children (Thuc. 5.116); to understand this one need only read Thucydides on the massacre at Corcyra (4.47-4.49). Melos was not My Lai.2

Furthermore, although his preface claims to eschew “nineteenth-century positivism” in favor of a Burckhardt-like “broad cultural approach,” Tritle repeatedly treats texts as straightforward depictions of reality (xi-xii). When Aeschylus, for example, describes Asia as empty of men ( Persae 166), he is literally “referring to the realities of the violence of war and its human toll” (111). Similarly, when Aristophanes in Knights describes Demosthenes as a heavy drinker, Tritle readily concludes that this “suggests alcoholism” (78). Consider Tritle’s analysis of the Spartiate Clearchus, which holds a central place in his work. He asserts that PTSD “works in the same way for the ancient Greek world as it does for the modern” (10). Comparing Xenophon’s obituary of Clearchus in Anabasis 2.6.1-15 with Shay’s list of PTSD symptoms, Tritle concludes that Clearchus “in fact provides us with the first known historical case of PTSD in the western literary tradition” (56). Yet Tritle overdraws the comparison. For instance, Xenophon does not say Clearchus was “incapable of personal relationships or friendship” (60-61). Rather, he writes that soldiers obeyed Clearchus not because they liked him but because they were compelled to by reasons beyond their control ( Anabasis 2.6.12-13).

Elsewhere, Tritle tends to read texts as literal reality. When it comes to Clearchus, though, he passes Xenophon’s words through a modern PTSD lens: “when Xenophon says that Clearchus liked to lead the attack, he is actually referring to hypervigilance, the persistent mobilization of body and mind for danger” (69). Tritle himself admits that the interpretation “might seem forced” (56). He portrays Clearchus as a traumatized survivor, attempting to cope with his violent experiences. Yet the Spartiate’s obituary, read on Xenophon’s own terms, seems largely positive. What emerges most strongly from it is Xenophon’s admiration for Clearchus’ effective leadership and personal bravery, in contrast to his awareness of Proxenos’ ineffectiveness ( Anabasis 2.6.16-20). Again, ancient and modern differences deserve more stress. To be a “lover of war” in modern America is immediately bad, even pathological; in ancient Greece, and particularly in Xenophon’s world, the same was not necessarily true.3

Tritle notes that From Melos to My Lai springs partly from a series of courses on “Achilles in Vietnam” which he has taught over the past several years. This may account for the underdeveloped character of certain sections of the book. More thorough copyediting would have eliminated some distracting minor errors (Son Tra Bong for Song Tra Bong) and inconsistencies (LURP for LRRP). The prose, although not always the most engaging, is accessible to non-specialists and all Greek quotations are in translation.

Whatever its flaws, From Melos to My Lai represents an important contribution to understanding Greek warfare and society. The nature of violence and post-combat trauma in antiquity, women’s (as well as men’s) experience of war, representations of violence in ancient literature—Tritle shows that all these deserve further investigation. The book also constitutes another entry in the growing list of cross-cultural studies on PTSD.4 And, it stands on its own as a soldier’s (and scholar’s) tale of war and survival. Whether or not readers accept all of Tritle’s matches between ancient Greece and modern America, they will agree that he has mapped out a fruitful, and sobering, terrain.

Chapter 1: Introduction (1-11). Tritle, initially determined to forget his Army service in Vietnam during 1970-1971, describes how frustration with academic “naïvety and ignorance” about the war in Southeast Asia, interactions with students, and reading Shay’s book eventually spurred his own search to make sense of the Vietnam experience. As a survivor of violence as well as a trained classical historian, Tritle claims an interpretive advantage over those without similar personal knowledge (6).

Tritle asserts survivors possess a unique first-hand perspective, an aid to understanding not only the recent past, but also the distant past. Different cultures—whether Lakota, Vietnamese, or ancient Greek—may well possess their own specific traits, but these for Tritle are secondary “to more basic considerations, namely what happens when humans…are exposed to the prospect of bodily harm” (8, 58-59). Human biochemistry dictates a similar range of reactions to violence, regardless of time or culture. Thus PTSD “works in the same way for the ancient Greek world as it does for the modern” (10).

Chapter 2: Listening to Thersites (12-33). Tritle compares Thersites, Homer’s “worst of the Achaeans” ( Iliad 2.216), to one of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam “grunts.” Neither had a voice in the decision to fight; neither saw any returns on sacrifices made for exalted leaders. For the Greeks, however, Thersites’ disruption of the Achaean assembly represented a positive first step along the road to citizen power over warmaking; Tritle sketches this road out only briefly and mostly with reference to Athenian democracy (15-19). The United States, in contrast, went to Vietnam arrogantly and ignorantly, its leaders even circumventing democratic principles in order to do so (24-25).5 And, whereas military service in the Greek poleis was a widely shared burden, in Vietnam the weight fell disproportionately on the less privileged (30). While privileged “war wimps” stayed home, the government’s Project 100,000 inducted men of marginal physical and mental fitness into the U.S. military. Thersites, concludes Tritle, aptly symbolizes the cynicism and despair of the American rank and file in Vietnam.

Chapter 3: Achilles and the Heroic Ideal (34-54). Tritle asserts that “despite the millennial breach separating us from antiquity, the expectations of the warrior seem little different today than they were for the Homeric heroes or the Greeks of the classical era” (35). He recognizes the disparate heroic values of Homer, Tyrtaeus, Archilochus, and Aeschylus, but emphasizes their shared vision: the heroic warrior “takes revenge for the death of his friends”; he knows that “the good man is the brave man and vice versa” (43). Likewise, the heroic ideals of 1950s and 1960s America, expressed in John Wayne and Audie Murphy movies, were translated into reality on Vietnam battlefields. Tritle quotes correspondent Michael Herr: “grunts would run around during a fight when they knew there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads” (49).

Chapter 4: Clearchus’ Story (55-78). Tritle argues that Xenophon’s portrayal of the Spartiate Clearchus “in fact provides us with the first known historical case of PTSD in the western literary tradition” (56). Indeed, Xenophon’s eulogy of Clearchus in the Anabasis represents for Tritle virtually a clinical diagnosis of PTSD (60, 67-71). Tritle adduces further examples of ancient warriors suffering PTSD: Epizelus at Marathon (63-64); Telamonian Ajax (74-75); the Spartiates Aristodemus and Pantites (75-77), even Alexander the Great (77).

Chapter 5: Penelope and Waiting Wives and Lovers (79-100). Ancient and modern women, writes Tritle, share common bonds: both “wait for the return of warriors”; often both suffer most from war, “either directly as victims or in dealing with the warriors’ survival” (80). The emotional scene between Hector and Andromache in book six of the Iliad, for example, “could just as easily be used as a title for a novel or study of the Vietnam wives or lovers as the situations are virtually identical” (85). Ancient and modern women, moreover, can become agents as well as victims of violence: Hecuba blinds Polymestor (Euripides, Hecuba 1034-1119); Tim O’Brien’s “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” gives up cut-off blue jeans for a necklace of human tongues (93-94).

Chapter 6: War, Violence, and the Other (101-123). Both Greeks and Americans, Tritle argues, created an image of the enemy as foreign and different. The Greeks reflected on this process: thus Aeschylus had “sympathy for his old enemies the Persians,” while Euripides’ plays show “a perception that somehow the Athenian community had been perverted by the violence of the Peloponnesian War and…was guilty of committing some evil acts” (110, 116). The Americans in Vietnam, however, rarely found room for self-criticism; their enemy was always the “gook,” subhuman, inscrutable (117). Nevertheless, for both Greeks and Americans “it would appear that emotional factors…were greater inducements to carry out brutal acts of violence than racially or culturally based perceptions of the ‘Other'” (123).

Chapter 7: The Historiography and Language of Violence (124-142). “Michael Herr and Thucydides,” writes Tritle, “saw that violence had a way of influencing language as well as the thoughts of those who were exposed to it” (125). Thucydides’ history reflects the outlook of a survivor traumatized by battle and plague; this explains his terse style and concern with military affairs (127). The American soldiers Herr interviews, similarly, resort to cryptic, elusive language in describing their experiences. Both Greeks and Americans manipulate language to cope with violence; individuals do so in order to cope with trauma (133), while states (the Athenians at Melos, the Pentagon) do so in order to justify or whitewash their policies (136-142).

Chapter 8: Remembrance, Rhetoric, and Memory (143-164). Tritle argues that “in the Peloponnesian and Vietnam Wars, the societies of ancient Greece and the US experienced numerous violent events that would have been remembered and memorialized in diverse ways” (143). He describes war monuments at Athens and elsewhere (146-148), then compares Pericles’ Funeral Oration with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 Memorial Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery (148-156). Pericles and Lincoln delivered powerful speeches “that brought comfort to the survivors, both families and fellow soldiers” (156). Johnson in contrast “essentially failed” by not placing the deaths of American soldiers “into the historical context of society” (156). At Athens, Tritle continues, memory found expression in drama, in war souvenirs and in the bodies of veterans (159-160); in America film has been most powerful in shaping memories of the Vietnam War (163).

Chapter 9: The Visibly Dead (165-183). Here Tritle focuses at more length on war monuments, considering Athenian casualty lists, the Kerameikos, and the Stoa Poikile, as well as the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C. Visitors to “the Wall,” he asserts, “would likely see the same sort of mourning as in classical Athens”—particularly the offering of tokens of love and remembrance (170). Athenian monuments were intended to reinforce communal solidarity and to inspire viewers to “emulate the deeds of the heroic dead and to live up to their sense of obedience to the law” (177). American monuments resemble Athenian ones; the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, for example, “resembles an Attic casualty list…organized only a little differently” (181). Indeed, the two inscriptions later added to Maya Lin’s original design make the Wall an expression of “obedience and devotion to the community, ideas that the classical monuments of Greece evoke as well” (181).

Chapter 10: The Unanchored Dead (184-198). Tritle places veterans in the context of ancient Greek and modern American society. The streets of classical Athens were filled with “soldiers who returned home bearing physical and mental wounds of war,” men who had survived battle “but because of what they had done and seen had difficulty living in peace” (185, 188). Yet the Greeks had dance and music, rituals which helped “facilitate the warrior’s return home to civilized society” (191). Vietnam veterans in contrast had “little opportunity to be so cleansed” (191). In fact, Vietnam veterans have found their identity attacked by “fakes and fantastists” falsely claiming military experience and by conservatives who consider “PTSD a political-social construct of anti-war psychiatrists” (197). Still, both Athens and the United States possessed “bureaucratic procedures for assisting the war wounded” (193).


1. Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).

2. If anything, Mycalessus (Thuc. 7.29-30) would seem a better comparison with My Lai. In both instances, what was nominally a military operation devolved into a “mob-like frenzy.” The Thracians at Mycalessus killed young and old, male and female, animals as well as people—just as the Americans did at My Lai. The Thracians could readily see the Greek inhabitants they massacred as an alien “other”—just as the Americans saw the Vietnamese at My Lai. Arguably then the Thracians, not to mention the Persians, deserve investigation as survivors of violence-induced trauma. Indeed, Persian veterans of the wars against Greece might find something in common with American veterans of Vietnam: both belonged to logistically-advanced conscript armies sent far from home by overconfident and unresponsive governments in order to suppress local aspirations for independence. From Miletus to My Lai, perhaps?

3. On the “enduring appeals of battle” even in the modern world, see J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959).

4. Along with Shay, see for example Eric T. Dean, Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

5. For a different view, particularly of Robert McNamara, see Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).