Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York : Atheneum, 1994. Pp. xxiii + 246. ISBN 0-689-12182-2. US$20.00.
University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg
Every so often, a book on a Classical subject but written by a non-Classicist appears which throws a remarkable amount of light on what is often overworked ground. Some examples which spring to mind are Brian Vicker's Towards Greek Tragedy (1973), Ian Johnson's The Ironies of War : An Introduction to Homer's Iliad (1988) and (more controversially) Martin Bernal's Black Athena (1987). Now, in 1994, we have Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character--a groundbreaking piece of work with much of intense interest to say about the oldest masterpiece of western literature.
In brief, Achilles in Vietnam is a study of Combat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as exhibited and described by (on the one hand) Vietnam veterans undergoing psychotherapy and (on the other) Homer's Achilles. The author is a psychiatrist for the Boston Department of Veterans' Affairs Outpatient Clinic who has also acquired, by way of good modern translations and some important secondary sources, an impressive acquaintance with the Iliad. He has been heavily involved in treating Vietnam combat-veterans for severe, chronic PTSD; and he observes, early in the introduction to his book, how he was 'struck by the similarity of their war experiences to Homer's account of Achilles in the Iliad.' (p.xiii). This simple starting-point has led Shay to produce something unique (to my knowledge) in writings about (or mostly about) the Iliad--and that is a work which looks at Homer's poem not only from a practising psychotherapist's point of view but also through the eyes of battle-shattered soldiers left over from an appalling modern war.
This perspective has led Shay to conclude that Achilles' behaviour in the Iliad can most successfully be explained not in terms of supposed heroic codes prevailing in early Greece but in terms of the more or less common experiences of soldiers who have been through the physical, emotional and moral hell of combat. From this perspective, most of Achilles' startling, often horrifying behaviour suddenly makes total sense: his fury at Agamemnon's 'betrayal' of what was clearly regarded as the right and proper way to behave, his terrible grief and guilt over Patroclus' death, and his monstrous orgy of berserk blood-shedding culminating in the mutilation and abuse of Hector's corpse. Many of Shay's chapter-headings are eloquent: 'Betrayal of "What's Right"', 'Shrinkage of the Social and Moral Horizon', 'Grief at the Death of a Special Comrade', 'Guilt and Wrongful Substitution', 'Berserk' and 'Dishonouring the Enemy'.
This book is not 'about' the Iliad; it is about Combat PTSD. However, the Iliad provides a large number of its 'case-studies'. The remainder consist of transcripts of statements and other utterances made by severely traumatized Vietnam veterans during therapy sessions. Both sets of case-studies constitute what can only be called an extended shout of pain, ringing across some twenty-eight centuries, and so piercing as to be one of the most passionate anti-war protests ever encountered by this reviewer.
The intensity of the protest is, if anything, enhanced by Shay's lucid, systematic, highly-controlled deployment of his material. In fact, from almost any viewpoint, this is a very impressive book: it has been painstakingly researched, carefully planned, superbly structured and presented, and it concentrates on matters of immense human importance. A measure of Shay's respect for completeness and his scrupulous avoidance of merely superficial similarities can be seen in the title of Chapter 7 : 'What Homer Left Out'.
Achilles in Vietnam is, to my mind, essential reading for any serious scholar of the Iliad, and for almost anyone concerned with the horrors of war, with its desperate and often misunderstood aftermath in later years, and with both the toughness and the fragility of the human psyche.