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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.
From Publishers Weekly
Shay is a psychiatrist specializing in treating Vietnam veterans with chronic post-traumatic stress syndrome. In this provocative monograph, he relates their experiences to Homer's portrait of Achilles in The Illiad. War, he argues, generates rage because of its intrinsic unfairness. Only one's special comrades can be trusted. The death of Patroklos drove Achilles first into passionate grief, then into berserk wrath. Shay establishes convincing parallels to combat in Vietnam, where the war was considered meaningless and mourning for dead friends was thwarted by an indifferent command structure. He convincingly recommends policies of unit rotation and unit "griefwork"--official recognition of combat losses--as keys to sustaining what he calls a moral existence during war's human encounters. The alternatives are unrestrained revenge-driven behavior, endless reliving of the guilt such behavior causes and the ruin of good character. Shay's ideas merit attention by soldiers and scholars alike.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Something like that seems to happen to Combat Veterans when they read this book. Shay is neither the bard telling the story nor the warrior who lived it, but he takes the stories of those who were there and presents them in such a way that, reading them, "the old soldier weeps and weeps again...".
The truth is here. Another reviewer has viewed some of the stories with a measure of skepticism -- and there are some "red flags" in some of the stories -- but that is the nature of "War Stories" and those who know what "the facts on the ground" were can see therough all that to the essential truth that Shay so eloquently presents.
I bought this book because it was recommended to me by readers of my own book, "Aftermath: A Song For Tyrone..." and I am glad I did! I wish I had read it years ago!
If you are a Veteran -- or if there is a veteran who means a lot to you -- or if you just want to understand more about war and what it does to the soldier and to those who love him and to society in general -- buy this book! Buy it -- read it -- give it as a gift!
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.
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.