Learning about war from Homer

Issue 

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character
By Jonathan Shay
New York: Atheneum. 1994. 236 pp.
Reviewed by Allen Myers

The title of this fascinating study is not merely a literary allusion. Dr Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who has worked with US veterans of the Vietnam War, believes that the Iliad can provide considerable insight into the reasons for the unusually high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder which persist more than two decades after the last US troops left Vietnam.

Shay reads the Iliad as the tragedy of Achilles, the hero of high moral character brought into an antisocial "berserk" state by the misdeeds of others and the accidents of war. While the "berserker" may be valued by commanders because he is a ferocious fighter, his disregard for social moral norms and for the safety of both himself and his comrades are an abnormal psychological condition which typically remains with him on return to civilian life.

The author, citing examples from both Vietnam and Homer's text, distinguishes four key elements leading to the berserk state: betrayal of "what's right" by those in authority; contraction of the "social and moral horizon" under the stress of the threat to individual survival; grief at the death of a special comrade; and misplaced guilt associated with that death.

The last three elements, while not universal, would be a statistically inevitable for a certain percentage of almost any military force involved in extended combat. The key variable in bringing on the berserk state, in Shay's view, is the betrayal of "what's right".

This phrase is what the author uses to render Homer's th‚mis, which encompasses "terms such as moral order, convention, normative expectations, ethics, and commonly understood social values". It thus may include everything from the ethics of state policy to a "fair" division of labour in a military unit. (As Shay points out, in combat conditions the latter can be a life and death question.)

In the Iliad, says Shay, th‚mis is violated when Agamemnon arbitrarily seizes the slave which the army has voted to Achilles as the prize of honour for his valour against the Trojans. In Vietnam, soldiers experienced a betrayal of "what's right" in incidents such as the covering up of an accidental massacre of civilians, or in the perceived unwillingness of officers to share the risks of battle (which Shay attributes to the top-heaviness of the US forces, not to cowardice).

Shay's chief interest is the treatment and prevention of post-traumatic stress disorder. But the clarity and concreteness of his presentation make this a rewarding book also for the reader whose primary interest is politics rather than psychiatry.

For example, Shay does not directly raise — let alone attempt to answer — the question of whether "what's right" was violated more frequently in Vietnam than in, say, World War II. But this and many other questions about US society rise spontaneously to the surface of this perceptive work. This is an intriguing, stimulating book.