Jonathan Shay: “Achilles in Vietnam”

Achilles in Vietnam

Full Title: Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character
Pages: 246
First Published: 1995

Synopsis: In this strikingly original and groundbreaking book, Dr. Shay examines the psychological devastation of war by comparing the soldiers of Homer’s Iliad with Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the Iliad was written twenty-seven centuries ago it has much to teach about combat trauma, as do the more recent, compelling voices and experiences of Vietnam vets.

My Thoughts: (What follows is a review I wrote on June 1, 2009.)

This book compares the combat trauma experienced by American soldiers in Vietnam with the combat trauma portrayed in the Iliad in an attempt to better understand both. As you might imagine if you know me at all, I found this book hugely interesting. Seriously, the more I learn about the Iliad, the more in awe I am of it. For example: in the Iliad, especially after the death of Patroclus and even moreso after the death of Hector, there are all these comments about how Achilles feels he is already dead, his mother is mourning him as if he is already dead, and when Priam goes to visit him, the scene is set up as though Priam is making a journey to the Underworld – as if Achilles is already in the Land of the Dead. In my Greek Epic class, the prof talked about how this could all be considered foreshadowing; Achilles dies after the events in the Iliad, so this could be the poet’s way of including his death without actually including it. In Achilles in Vietnam, Shay makes the case that it’s not uncommon for soldiers suffering from combat trauma to feel the way Achilles feels: that they are already dead, or at least that they won’t make it home alive. The idea that the Iliad accurately portrays combat trauma and, at the same time, uses that trauma as foreshadowing – it really kind of blows my mind. Like, did they even have words for “foreshadowing” and “combat trauma” three thousand years ago?

One small criticism I have of Achilles in Vietnam is that I would’ve liked to see Shay complete his analysis of the Iliad, and actually deal with the scene between Achilles and Priam. I have read at least one article that argued that the Iliad is the story of the “taming of Achilles,” and that this scene marks his return to humanity. My Greek Epic prof argued the opposite (saying quite explicity that she believes Achilles would never be able to return to civilian life), and I believe Shay would do the same (he writes that the Iliad is the story of the undoing of Achilles’ good character), but it would’ve been nice to see him tackle this scene more than he did.

In conclusion: I have no idea how anyone else would feel about this book, but I thought it was fascinating.

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