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  • Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character
  • Graham Zanker
Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, by Jonathan Shay; xxiii & 246 pp. New York: Atheneum, 1994, $20.00.

This book, a study of posttraumatic stress disorder victims among U.S. Vietnam veterans which considers the Iliadic Achilles as a test-case, has a clear tripartite structure. First, the causes of PTSD are located in a sense of betrayal by superior officers which results in a shrinkage of social and moral horizons to include only one’s closest friend who, if killed, triggers off guilt and frequently the berserk state. The parallel with Achilles’ relations with Agamemnon, Patroklos, and Hektor is strikingly close.

Second, Shay discusses the importance of honoring the enemy, as he finds happens in the Iliad; remarks on “what Homer left out,” like deprivation; illustrates the limitations placed by luck upon the soldier’s virtue, engaging usefully with the work of Martha Nussbaum in the context of the Iliad and actual modern combat; and considers the Homeric gods as “REMFs” (Rear Echelon Mother-Fuckers), a droll notion by no means devoid of truth.

The third section argues for the inadequacy of the U.S. definition of PTSD and offers suggestions for preventing the disorder, like proper grieving for the dead, and strategies for treating it, including the communalization of the trauma by narrative, which Shay sees in exemplary form in Attic tragedy.

The four reservations I set forth here are meant on the whole to offer the perspective of a Homerist, and are discussed in detail in my The Heart of Achilles: Characterization and Personal Ethics in the Iliad. First, Shay recognizes the vital role of honor in Iliadic society, but does not point home quite clearly enough that honoring the enemy was built into the Iliadic warrior-ethic: the intensely individualistic sense of honor insisted that combatants knew one another by [End Page 376] name, for anonymity was uniformly detested. Thus, when Shay makes his convincing case for honoring the foe in modern combat as benefiting the mental health of combatants and veterans, his suggestion that the Iliad’s warriors were acting “properly” should, I feel, have been accompanied by a distinction between Iliadic and modern motives for honoring the enemy. Second, Shay could profitably have probed more deeply into Achilles’ reasons for refusing the supplication of the Achaians: Achilles now expresses doubt over honor as the driving factor in human effort, for he claims that the only ultimate honor is shared by warriors both great and small—death. Third, I suggest that Shay underplays the meeting of Priam and Achilles in Iliad 24 where, as I have argued, Achilles goes far beyond what is commended by the reciprocity-driven warrior honor code, achieving a magnanimity which modern philosophers like Bernard Williams would call altruism. Fourth, Shay denies that any true war story can carry a moral (p. 183). If Book 24 shows Achilles to any degree restating or refining the generosity admitted by the “code,” the Iliad, for one, assuredly carries a moral. The narrative is bleak, but the narrator leaves the audience uplifted by the thought that pity and kindness can meaningfully be extended even to an enemy, given that all humanity is subject to forces beyond its control, an idea explicitly stated in Achilles’ image of the Jars of Zeus.

That said, and while this book is targeted primarily at medical professionals, literary scholars will be fascinated to find the Iliad used sometimes as an exemplar for modern war practice, for instance in Shay’s commendation of Diomedes’ moderation during combat, sometimes as strikingly paralleling the mental processes of the modern soldier, especially, of course, in the progress of Achilles. Putting the relationship of Achilles and Patroklos in the context of the experience of the Vietnam berserker, for example, adds a significant dimension to what has often been felt to be a mysteriously underdeveloped presentation of the friendship. Scholars will be grateful to see a respected psychiatrist reminding us that Homer’s original audiences, with their frequent experience of warfare in the service of their local lords, would have been particularly alert to any psychological improbabilities...

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pp. 376-377
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