What I’m Reading: Achilles in Vietnam

October 4, 2011 — Leave a comment
Ever since I discovered the amazing translation by Robert Fagles, I’ve been a fan of The Iliad.  I also have a strong interest in the human dimension of war, particularly the way that good men and women come to grips with war’s moral ambiguities and horrendous suffering.  So I was pleased to stumble across a book that combined these two interests.  In Achilles in Vietnam, Jonathan Shay argues that The Iliad is really a story about Achilles’ combat trauma and the tragic undoing of his character. This is how he summarizes the tale:
Agamémnon, Achilles’ commander, betrays “what’s right” by wrongfully seizing his prize of honor; indignant rage shrinks Achilles’ social and moral horizon until he cares about no one but a small group of combat-proven comrades; his closest friend in that circle, his second-in-command and foster brother, Pátroklos, dies in battle; profound grief and suicidal longing take hold of Achilles; he feels that he is already dead; he is tortured by guilt and the conviction that he should have died rather than his friend; he renounces all desire to return home alive; he goes berserk and commits atrocities against the living and the dead. This is the story of Achilles in the Iliad, not some metaphoric translation of it.

What I enjoyed so much about this book is that it transformed my view of both subjects: The Iliad and post-traumatic stress disorder.  As much as I enjoyed The Iliad, I never much liked Achilles.  I saw him as a spoiled child who is unforgivably selfish, who ceases to care about his own army but explodes in killing rages to protect his own interests (it probably didn’t help my view of Achilles that he was played by Brad Pitt in the movie Troy).  My sympathies were always with Hector, Achilles’ quieter and more noble adversary who eventually sacrificed his life defending his family and his city.

Shay turned my view of Achilles upside down.  In Shay’s reading, Achilles is not merely selfish; he is not simply pouting because Agamemnon stole his woman.  On the contrary, Agamemnon’s act violates the moral universe that the Greeks inhabited.  It is a grave act of betrayal by Achilles’ leader, and it sets Achilles on a tragic descent into combat trauma that ultimately costs him his moral character.

The book also changed my view of post-traumatic stress disorder.  I have always associated PTSD with (to put it simply) seeing, experiencing, or doing terrible things.  But for Shay, who has worked extensively with Vietnam veterans who suffer extreme PTSD, something else is primary: moral injury, which is typically inflicted directly or indirectly by a soldier’s superiors.  Shay writes:

moral injury is an essential part of any combat trauma that leads to lifelong psychological injury. Veterans can usually recover from horror, fear, and grief once they return to civilian life, so long as “what’s right” has not also been violated.

This is an intriguing read for anybody who has a special interest in the psychological journey of traumatized veterans.  It is also of interest for those who enjoy Homer and wish to see his work in a new light.  Shay captures the timelessness of war and the constancy of human nature; he shows the enduring relevance of the ancient Greek tale to warriors today.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

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