'The Iliad' as illustration of epic struggle with post-Vietnam stress

September 04, 1994|By Wayne Karlin

Title: "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character"

Author: Jonathan Shay

Publisher: Atheneum

Length, price: 246 pages, $20

In "Achilles in Vietnam," Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist for the Boston Department of Veterans' Affairs and a member of the faculty of Tufts Medical School, uses "The Iliad," and particularly the saga of Achilles, as a model to help us understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among combat veterans of the Vietnam war.

Using comparisons of portions of "The Iliad" to his patients' vivid narratives of their combat experiences and their feelings about those experiences, Dr. Shay shows us how that ancient epic of war can bring to light the traumatic reaction of the warrior to the process of killing and witnessing death, mutilation and destruction -- and can also suggest methods of healing and prevention.

"Achilles in Vietnam" is a brilliant and brave book by a compassionate writer. It is also deeply flawed.

Dr. Shay, who for years has been a psychiatrist for Vietnam veterans, traces what he sees is similarities, and important differences, between Achilles' story in "The Iliad" and the combat and post-combat experiences of these veterans -- and by extension most Vietnam combat veterans who suffer from PTSD.

The crisis he addresses is a very real one. Almost 20 years after the war, a quarter of a million men still suffer from disorders that run from constant states of alertness and stress to the inability to form love relationships to alcohol and drug abuse. According to a 1987 study by the Centers for Disease Control, Vietnam veterans had a 72 percent higher suicide rate than those soldiers who did not serve in Vietnam. Combat veterans make up a disproportionate number of the homeless and prison % 5/8 populations.

The pattern of the Achilles narrative that Dr. Shay finds occurring over and over in accounts from Vietnam combat veterans involves rage at unfairness and incompetence at the command level, the shrinking of the soldier's "moral and social worlds" to a small group of trusted comrades, the "berserk rage" caused by the death of comrades, and subsequent feelings of grief. The use of a literary comparative to show the timelessness of these reactions is compelling.

It's what Dr. Shay doesn't chose to address -- the extent of the brutalization, murder and rape of civilians and the key role of such atrocities in PTSD, both national and individual, from the Vietnam War -- that troubles me about his book.

While he writes of the traumatic effect on the veterans he treats caused by their devaluing of Vietnamese lives, the Vietnamese he writes about for the most part are enemy soldiers. The enemy, he maintains, unlike the Trojan enemy of the Greeks, was not respected, and of regarding the enemy as "subhuman vermin or nonhuman matter endanger[ed] soldiers' physical ,X survival during war and moral recovery after it." His interpretation of "The Iliad" shows us "that it is possible to regard the enemy as human and honorable like oneself and still fight with fierce tenacity."

The cost of dehumanizing others is to dehumanize oneself, and certainly many soldiers did dehumanize the enemy in the Vietnam War, as in all wars. Yet in my own experience, reinforced by many conversations and several narratives (see Gusford Hasford's "The Short Timers" or Phillip Caputo's "A Rumor of War"), many American G.I.'s regarded the enemy, at least that part of the enemy represented by the regular North Vietnamese Army, with utter hatred but with more respect, as fellow combat soldiers, then they accorded either their allies in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or the Vietnamese civilian population.

In fact, the more common dehumanization that occurred in Vietnam was dehumanization of the Vietnamese population, which led to incidents of atrocity both large and "small," with the massacre at My Lai seen by many analysts as not an aberration but an inevitability. As Mr. Caputo has it: "There is an aspect of the Vietnam war that distinguished it from other American conflicts -- its absolute savagery. I mean the savagery that prompted so many American fighting men . . . to kill civilians and prisoners."

Atrocities against civilians and prisoners didn't occur in every American unit, and even though in those in did, there were always men who didn't participate or resisted. Still, as D. Michael Shafer states in "The Vietnam Combat Experience: The Human Legacy": "To a degree unparalleled in our earlier wars, combat in Vietnam involved the killing of women, children and the elderly . . ."

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