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Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character Paperback – October 1, 1995
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Shay works from an intriguing premise: that the study of the great Homeric epic of war, The Iliad, can illuminate our understanding of Vietnam, and vice versa. Along the way, he compares the battlefield experiences of men like Agamemnon and Patroclus with those of frontline grunts, analyzes the berserker rage that overcame Achilles and so many American soldiers alike, and considers the ways in which societies ancient and modern have accounted for and dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder---a malady only recently recognized in the medical literature, but well attested in Homer's pages. The novelist Tim O'Brien, who has written so affectingly about his experiences in combat, calls Shay's book "one of the most original and most important scholarly works to have emerged from the Vietnam war." He's right.
Thomas E. Neven Marine Corps Gazette Shay's astute analysis of the human psyche and his inventive linking of his patients' symptoms to the actions of the characters in Homer's classic story make this book well worth reading for anyone who would lead troops in both peace and war.
Jon Spayde The Utne Reader ...eloquent, disturbing, and original...
Herbert Mitgang The New York Times A transcendent literary adventure. His compassionate book deserves a place in the lasting literature of the Vietnam War.
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That being said, the book is not for everyone because the anecdotes are pretty gruesome. However, Dr. Shay has written an important book that contributes to our understanding of PTSD that simultaneously examines Homer's epic work with a fresh perspective.
into a tunnel where his friend was struck and almost instantly killed by a deadly Mamba planted by the VC; the snake struck at him, but missed as he backed out. It will be the same for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Shay speaks of secondary prevention, preparing the soldier before deployment through training and education, for what he is about to experience. While that may have some benefit, there is no way to prepare a young medic for having to attend to his best buddy after seeing him step on a mine and lose 3 of 4 limbs and bleed out as he holds his friends head. The carnage (and I have not seen it, but only heard it described) is not something one can be prepared for. Shay makes the very important point that one's experience can't be compared with another's by saying," What he went through was so much worse than what I went through." There is no real comfort in that comparison and no real truth. Sometimes I say to someone who says something like this, "Would you prefer to get hit in the head by a 6 pound sledge hammer or a 9 pound sledge hammer?" At some point, you can't really tell a difference. I have Odysseus... and have only read the incorrect assumptions we make about war and training and the changes Shay believes need to be made. We have deployed units together and returned them together, but deployed them too many times. We may have learned a few more things about training, especially for Special Forces, but we have not learned to charge into countries and cultures we do not understand. We have not begun to understand the depth and breadth of damage that is done to our soldiers, their families, friends, and communities. We count costs in "treasure", destroyed equipment, killed and wounded and do not differentiate between wounded and maimed for life. Shay touches on all of these as well as the profits made by some who strongly support the war (maybe to a lesser and less explicit degree). The REMFs still don't have a clue; even those who "tour" the war zone get a sanitized view (by necessity to protect their lives). Visiting Walter Reed exposes one to bandaged and bloodless wounds, even with traumatic amputations. We haven't begun to understand blast induced TBIs; maybe Tony Dorsett and other NFL players from 2 or 3 decades ago will teach us some things. We don't always see the damage immediately. Shay gets it right and picks the best passage out of Tim O'Brien's "The Things We Carried". He also has a passage on trust that I intend to share in the future with all of my trauma patients. Thank you, Dr. Jonathan Shay.
Shay opens with a long quote from a PTSD patient who describes some of his problems. He is lucky, his wife tries to help him cope with his problems. When they go to a restaurant, he has to sit at a corner table so that he doesn’t have anyone behind him. When he goes to the men’s room, he has to check all the stalls, make sure there is no one there who could do him harm. He doesn’t understand men who don’t do that. He can’t spend a complete night in bed with his wife because he gets restless and once he woke up with his hands around her throat. He has to get up and walk the perimeter. When he goes into town, he can’t check his mailbox while he is there because of a certain letter he got in Vietnam. The quote is laced with coarse language. That is how the veteran talks about his problems. There are about 3/4 million heavy combat Vietnam veterans alive today, and 1/4 million have PTSD like this.
Shay lists the events that lead to PTSD and the stages the soldier goes through. In the remainder of the book he will focus on these one at a time, compare and contrast it with Achilles in Homer’s Illiad, and illustrate it with an event in Vietnam. The first event he deals with goes by the Greek word thếmis. It means “what’s right.” A commander violates “what’s right.” Achilles fought heroically in a battle, and all the soldiers voted to reward him. Today heroes are rewarded with the Congressional Medal of Honor or some lesser medal. In those days, a hero was rewarded with a beautiful woman who was taken from the conquered city. Achilles’ commander, Agamemnon, violated thếmis by taking the woman away from Achilles. Shay cites several examples of thếmis. Some soldiers observed men unloading weapons from their boats at night. The commander told them to open fire on them, and they did. When daylight came, it turned out they were fishermen unloading their fishing boats, no weapons. The commander applauded the soldiers, gave them medals, counted the dead in their enemy body count reports. Another example – when soldiers returned to America, they were not treated as heroes. Quite the opposite. Anti-war people called them all baby killers. The WWII vets at the American Legion and VFW called them losers. Yet every Vietnam vet knew that he had won every battle he had been in. Another example – compared to WWII, there were lots more full colonels in Vietnam. But the colonels did not lead from the front. They flew over the battlefield in a helicopter, safely out of range of the enemy, and directed the captains and lieutenants over a radio. So the exposure to risk was not the same for the upper ranks as it was for the lower ranks. Only 8 colonels were killed in action in Vietnam. Location 541. Another example – the Army replaced the soldiers’ M-14 rifle with the M-16. The M-16 is very deadly and effective at close range when it works, but those early models just failed too often.
Before Achilles experienced the violation of thếmis, he was a model of good soldier character. He cared about all of the men under his command, he honored the dead, even the enemy dead, after battle, and he treated prisoners of war honorably. After Achilles is dishonored, he flips and kills dishonorably. Shay gives a quote from a Vietnam vet who was raised in a good and honorable family, but he did terrible and (I guess) dishonorable things in Vietnam. Shay argues that many, or most, of us would have done the same if we had experienced heavy combat in Vietnam.
There is always deception in warfare. A small force attacks in one place, to deceive the enemy, then the main force attacks from a different direction. In Vietnam the enemy did a lot of deception. Eleven percent of American deaths and 17 percent of American injuries were from booby traps, which are a form of deception. (page 34) There were lots of surprise ambushes. Soldiers lost confidence in their mental functions, from the continual deception. In war, a soldier feels like a prisoner. If he moves toward the enemy, the enemy may capture or kill him. If he deserts, his commander may imprison him or have him shot.
Shay explores the relationship between Achilles and Patroklos. Many (most? All?) scholars say that they were lovers – that they had a sexual relationship. Shay does not find evidence of that in the Illiad. Patroklos was raised as Achilles’ adopted, or foster, brother, and they were best friends in a special way that is common to combat soldiers. Shay gives quotes from Vietnam veterans who had a best friend who was killed in action. Achilles and Patroklos were such close friends, they were bonded so tightly, that one was incomplete without the other. The same was true of many combat soldiers in Vietnam.
Patroklos is killed in battle when Achilles is not present. There is not only the intense grief for Patrokos’ death, but there is also guilt – it should have been me, it would not have happened if I had been there as I should have been. Vietnam soldiers experienced the same grief and the same guilt.
In Achilles’ time, the events following the death of a soldier were much different than they were in Vietnam. Often, there was a truce that allowed the collection of the dead. The dead bodies were cleaned and cared for by their closest comrades, then cremated. The pyre was doused with wine, and the closest comrades sifted through the ashes to gather the remaining bones. The bones were preserved and cared for until the end of the campaign, and went home to the soldier’s family. There was ceremony as soon as the fighting ceased for a while and the surviving soldiers wept freely and without shame. In Vietnam, dead bodies were very quickly transported from the battle field to Grave Registration in a rear area, where they were cared for by strangers who had no personal attachment to the soldier’s unit. Almost immediately, the dead were flown back to the U.S. There was no time when it was safe for ceremony, and weeping was shunned and seen as weakness. There was almost never a truce for the collection of dead bodies. Sometimes, communist soldiers would mark dead American bodies with white lime so that they could be seen from the air and collected. Sometimes, dead American bodies were booby trapped.
In Vietnam, the soldiers served a twelve month tour. Usually, they arrived and were sent to a unit that had been there for a long time, then they would return to the U.S. at the end of twelve months. Mostly, whole units did not deploy as a unit and redeploy as a unit. (From my reading of Lewis Sorley’s book, I learned that when the U.S. started withdrawing troops from Vietnam in 1969-1973, General Abrams wanted to redeploy whole units. This would have been better for unit cohesion. By then, General Westmoreland was Army Chief of Staff, back in the Pentagon, and he insisted that the soldiers who had been in-country the longest must be the first ones to go home. So one-by-one the soldiers would leave their unit, leaving it under strength. It was terrible for unit cohesion.) Near the end of a soldier’s twelve month tour, he would get superstitious, fearful that he would be wounded or killed just before he went back to the world. The Army tried to put soldiers into a safe rear area a couple of weeks before he went home.
Some soldiers became suicidal while they were in Vietnam. Some of these had an aversion to suicide, so they did very dangerous, risky things, maybe hoping that the enemy would kill them. I don’t think I ever witnessed this, but there was a pilot in my squadron who flew a dangerous mission. Two engines were knocked out, his flight engineer was killed, and his navigator and loadmaster were wounded or injured. He wanted to fly on the very next mission into the same place. He went on to a fine career and retired as a full colonel.
Shay documents how the Greeks and Trojans were respectful of their enemy. Sometimes they taunted their enemy, but in private conversation they were respectful. It helped, I suppose, that they were the same race and adhered to the same religion. American soldiers in Vietnam were disrespectful of the enemy, calling them names like “gooks.” Shay attributes this, at least in part, to Biblical accounts like David and Goliath, who are disrespectful of each other. He cites the way Americans disrespected the enemy in WW I and WW II. I am not at all convinced that the Bible can be blamed for this. I think some of it is race. American soldiers disrespected German soldiers somewhat, but they disrespected Japanese soldiers way more.
In Chapter 7 Shay takes on the possibility, the likelihood, that Homer left some things out, didn’t admit that they happened. He reasons that Homer wrote a couple hundred years after the event and he wrote for patrons of both Trojan and Greek descent. So he didn’t want to offend anyone. He did not write about the privation or the long painful deaths, for example. As I read previous chapters, I wondered if Homer told the whole story on other topics. Earlier, Shay says that the Greeks and Trojans were respectful of each other. Maybe they would taunt each other on the battlefield for a purpose, but inside they had respect. I suppose they did, especially in comparison to how American soldiers felt about North Vietnamese soldiers. Shay examines the various sufferings of soldiers and civilians in Greece and Vietnam. He points out that the rape of women was widespread in ancient times and he alleges that many women were raped, and some were then killed, in Vietnam. It usually was not reported or prosecuted, he says. So how does anyone know how common it happened? It would be terribly counter-productive to the mission, so I do not believe it was ever encouraged or condoned by the leaders, as it was in ancient times. Shay has treated a lot of Vietnam veterans, so he has a few data points on the topic.
Part 3, starting with Chapter 10, is a bit more clinical, although there are still quotes from Homer, and now Shakespeare – Harry Hotspur is diagnosed with PTSD based on Shakespeare’s script. Shay goes through specific symptoms of PTSD. Persistence of the traumatic moment (flashback), not trusting the senses, memory loss, constant watchfulness and readiness for danger, persistence of survival skills learned in combat, feelings of betrayal, isolation, suicidal tendencies, meaninglessness, inability to participate in the democratic political process. Chapter 11 examines to what extent the veteran can be healed. He can never return to the person he was, but symptoms can improve. Therapies are examined. The soon after the war, the popular therapy was “getting it all out” which was disastrous. Ways to prevent PTSD or to make it less common or less intense are discussed. What made PTSD so bad for Vietnam was the individual rotation policy. In general, units were not deployed to Vietnam as units. Individuals were deployed and sent to join a unit that was already there. When a soldier’s 365 days in country were complete, the man redeployed. He did not redeploy with his unit. There was no opportunity to debrief with his comrades. So PTSD can be lessened by deploying units and redeploying units. Some leaders in Vietnam used the berserk state of a man with PTSD to encourage his rage, to act it out by killing the enemy. They also use humiliation and unjust treatment to enrage recruits, to make them aggressive. This is not healthy or necessary or beneficial. There are good, effective armies that don’t do it.
Shay mentions the Bible in a couple of places, but he could have mentioned Numbers 31:19 and 24, which tell the soldiers, who have killed, to be purified for seven days before entering camp. 13 And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp. 14 And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle. 15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? 16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. 19 And do ye abide without the camp seven days: whosoever hath killed any person, and whosoever hath touched any slain, purify both yourselves and your captives on the third day, and on the seventh day. 20 And purify all your raiment, and all that is made of skins, and all work of goats' hair, and all things made of wood. 21 And Eleazar the priest said unto the men of war which went to the battle, This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord commanded Moses; 22 Only the gold, and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead, 23 Every thing that may abide the fire, ye shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean: nevertheless it shall be purified with the water of separation: and all that abideth not the fire ye shall make go through the water. 24 And ye shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and ye shall be clean, and afterward ye shall come into the camp. KJV
Shay has worked with so many Vietnam veterans who are afflicted with PTST, that he would like to see the end of all wars, so that there will be no more soldiers with PTSD. He is realistic, knowing that this is not going to happen any time soon, so he looks for ways to minimize the frequency and intensity of PTSD. I think his recommendations make a lot of sense. I would like to see this book widely read, by officers and politicians and everyone else.
The Kindle version is pretty good, but there are long quotes of Vietnam vets or Homer, extending several paragraphs. The paragraphs are supposed to be indented to show that they are quotes, but only the first quoted paragraph is indented. So you get to the second paragraph and it is not indented, so you might think that the quote is over, but after you read a few words it is apparent that it is still Homer, or it is still the Vietnam vet. About a third of the way through the book I started seeing quite a few errors – “typos.” The ones I saw, I highlighted and reported to Amazon. I don’t know how to find out if they have been fixed. Most of these errors are a letter missing in a word or a wrong letter. Not a big deal but I am seeing them about one every five pages.