Jonathan Shay

Achilles in Vietnam

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Achilles in Vietnam Summary

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Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character is a 1994 work of nonfiction by Jonathan Shay. Shay is a physician and clinical psychiatrist who is recognized for his writings in which he compares the Vietnam experience to war and homecoming as depicted in Homer’s classic works, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Shay specializes in working with Vietnam veterans suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. In Achilles in Vietnam, he compares the experiences of such veterans to the Achilles as presented by Homer in The Iliad. Shay contends that war breeds fury because war is founded on unfairness. Close friendships are formed and only those companions can be trusted. Achilles experiences grief and then intense anger over the death of Patroclus. The Vietnam War was widely viewed as a wrongful conflict where there was much indifference, and mourning dead comrades was difficult. Shay suggests that rotating units and official recognition of losses suffered in battle are the main ways to maintain a moral structure in times of war.

Achilles in Vietnam compares events that occurred thousands of years apart, yet Shay finds significant parallels to be drawn between the soldiers in the Greek classic and the conflicted men who fought in Southeast Asia. Themes of the ancient war of The Iliad are part of the lives of the veterans of the Vietnam conflict as well. The Iliad opens with a section titled “The Rage of Achilles” which Shay connects to the feelings of Post-traumatic Stress that the Vietnam veterans experience. Shay, in his work with the veterans, finds that many years after their experiences, they are still engulfed with rage. He says that these veterans are the embodiment of the term “walking wounded.” They are unable to access their feelings, often suffer from depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide.

Shay relates stories of friendly fire in which deaths are a result of weapons being mistakenly directed at one’s own side, and of fragging, which is a term used when a member of a superior’s side kills that superior on the battlefield out of hatred. These stories out of Vietnam are compared by the author to an example of friendly fire in The Iliad. He also references an example of fragging from Homer’s text. All such comparisons serve to exemplify that Shay views Homer’s work as more than just a fictional account of the Trojan War filtered through generations of the oral tradition. He is able to show that the wrath of Achilles is, whether or not factually bound, a contemporary phenomenon that accurately reflects the trauma haunting Vietnam veterans.

Shay finds that the most basic facets of war remain the same even if the battle techniques and the people change. Generals in the Greece of Homer were perhaps more vulnerable than modern day generals, as a result of the need to be in closer proximity to their foes due to the nature of the weapons available. Shay keeps the inherent differences in mind as he makes comparisons and does not force the similarities that he presents. The book is divided into sections such as “Betrayal of What’s Right,” “Shrinkage of the Social and Moral Horizon,” “Berserk,” “Dishonoring the Enemy,” “What Homer Left Out,” and “Healing and Tragedy.” In each of his sections, Shay juxtaposes quotes from Homer with quotes from veterans’ oral histories.

Achilles has been widely studied. Achilles goes to the extreme to avenge the death of Patroclus. Homer does not equate the acts that Achilles commits with important achievements of war. He does praise the actions of warriors elsewhere in the tome. It has proven difficult historically to know whether to praise a hero who, even though he has undoubtedly been wronged, turns to revenge over heroic deeds. Through examples and explanations, Shay shows that Achilles’ actions are the result of battle traumas not at all unlike the situations that have given rise to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Vietnam veterans. Greek cities were almost always at war. The suffering experienced by those involved was likely more far reaching than what was chronicled by Homer. The survival of society at large and the handling of the emotional scars left in the wake of battle are common aspects of war to be dealt with in any age. Shay stresses the need for healing and empathy and the importance of those suffering from trauma to be able to tell their stories. While he stops short of suggesting that The Iliad is a tool for therapy, he does find it supportive that Homer shows some practices that might be better for emotional recovery than some of the contemporary approaches.

Achilles in Vietnam includes graphic narratives of combat that make the similarities and differences between ancient and modern warfare clear. Shay’s overarching goal is to offer a discourse on the ever present aftermath of the traumas of war and the experiences of those who have gone to war throughout generations of history. In the introduction to the book, Shay offers his readers, with respect to understanding the implications of going to battle, “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.”