Achilles in Vietnam (Magill Book Reviews)
Shay argues that Homer’s representation of the combat experience includes important insights that have been overlooked by mental health professionals. Clues to the dynamics of combat trauma applicable to veterans of our recent wars can be gleaned from the travails of Achilles. Conversely, the testimony of Vietnam War combat soldiers can inform interpretation of the ILIAD. Beyond the symbiosis of these fields of investigation, Shay is concerned with character itself—not character as the consequence of an author’s art of characterization, but the essence of personality and personhood. IT is not just what we call “sanity” that is at stake, but something more profound.
Shay tasks us with meeting our moral obligation to those we send to war. That obligation includes caring about “how soldiers are trained, equipped, led, and welcomed home.” The costly, devastating character changes associated with PTSD can be prevented or reduced by demanding that our military take a number of steps. These include protecting unit cohesion, valuing griefwork, avoiding the encouragement of berserking, eliminating intentional injustice as a motivational technique, respecting the enemy’s humanity, and acknowledging (rather than denying) psychiatric casualties. Shay gives special attention to the role of narrative in the necessary communalization of grief.
Short of ending warfare as our way of solving problems, Shay calls upon us to assert our own humanity in ways that lessen the damage we do to our own people. He is asking us to refuse complicity in the kind of betrayal that robs individuals and society of physical and moral well-being. Shay’s voice is informed and impassioned. ACHILLES IN VIETNAM should be required reading for all present and future government and military leaders. It is a valuable and inspirational text for all citizens.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XC, April 1, 1994, p. 1415.
Choice. XXXII, November, 1994, p. 508.
Kirkus Reviews. LXII, March 15, 1994, p. 382.
Library Journal. CXIX, April 1, 1994, p. 120.
The New York Times. June 13, 1994, p. C15.
The New Yorker. LXX, September 26, 1994, p. 114.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, March 7, 1994, p. 58.
The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXX, Autumn, 1994, p. 770.
The Wall Street Journal. May 16, 1994, p. A16.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, June 5, 1994, p. 17.
Achilles in Vietnam (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Sometimes the most remarkable books come from scholars working at the intersection of two seemingly unrelated fields. Unfettered by a single methodology or disciplinary mind-set, such thinkers can make the kind of discoveries that newly illuminate the human condition and newly perceive its constants and variables. Such a book is Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, a brilliant discussion of the American way of dealing with war’s losses that holds in a most provocative tension a reading of Homer’s The Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.) and a clinical familiarity with combat veterans of the Vietnam War suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Shay argues that Homer’s representation of the combat experiences of his hero (and other characters) includes important insights that have been overlooked by mental health professionals. Clues to the dynamics of combat trauma applicable to veterans of recent wars can be gleaned from the travails of Achilles. Conversely, the testimony of Vietnam War combat soldiers can inform interpretation of The Iliad. Above and beyond the symbiosis of these fields of investigation, Shay is concerned with character itself—not character as the consequence of an author’s art of characterization, but the essence of personality and personhood. It is not only what is called “sanity” that is at stake, but something more profound.
Shay’s chapters lay out essential issues one by one. In “Betrayal of ‘What’s Right,’” he finds parallel causes of disorientation and despair in his paired texts. Construing an army as “a social construction defined by shared expectations and values,” Shay observes the effects on subordinates when leaders betray that moral order. Agamemnon betrays Achilles by commandeering the prize of honor (Briseis) voted to him by the troops. His outrage and disorientation parallel that of many Vietnam veterans who found their sense of “what’s right” betrayed by the institution to which they offered their loyalty. That betrayal took many forms, from faulty equipment to supply shortages to a system of rotating officers that kept soldiers in the situation of being led by relative novices. Equipment failure, as Shay points out, is frequent in The Iliad, but the Homeric soldier usually supplies his own equipment, so that its failure cannot be felt as a betrayal of trust.
Indeed, throughout his study Shay manages a fine balance of attention between the similarities and contrasts in the lives of warriors separated by twenty-seven centuries. One similarity, a consequence of the “betrayal of thémis” (what’s right), is the constriction of the soldier’s social and moral space. The “us-against-them” outlook creates unusually strong bonds among members of the fighting unit, while it dilutes or destroys all other attachments to the human community. At the far end of this process, the soldier can become an isolated world and law unto himself. Desertion and unusual cruelty to prisoners are typical behaviors that follow from the creation of this shrunken moral sphere. Men of good character, men like Achilles, behave like criminals. The anticredo of the Vietnam War soldier, “Don’t mean nothin’,” signals the collapse of value in the soldier’s inner world and the consequent collapse of good character.
In his discussion of the grieving soldier, Shay drives home essential differences between the Homeric world and the condition of the American soldier in Vietnam. After underscoring once again the special affections that develop among men who share the experience of war, Shay investigates the special relationship between Achilles and Patroklos, counterpointing this analysis with references to the testimony of Vietnam veterans.
The differences that Shay urgently uncovers have to do with the process of grieving. For the Homeric soldier, tears were a natural sign of grief, and exhibitions of grief were not considered unmanly. In American culture, however, these emotions cannot be acted out. Weeping and wailing are signs of losing control that are not tolerated in American military culture and hardly accepted in the culture at large. Bottled up, grief becomes a poison that unbalances and distorts character. The Iliad shows a healthy, restorative communalization of grief. Shay points out the significance of the two funerary truces in The Iliad as cultural indications of respect for the mourning process. He also reminds readers of how the fallen soldier’s comrades retrieved the body and engaged together in the mourning process. Not so in Vietnam, where there was no time to grieve, no ceremonial process, and no prestige in lamentation. Unlike in Homer’s world, strangers cared for the dead, and the unit went on as if nothing had happened. Yet something had happened, and...
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