Achilles in Vietnam: Traumatic Stress and the Undoing of Character

Overview

The number of books on the Vietnam War is, by now, vast and varied. Until recently, however, there has been very little for the public to read about the psychological effect of that conflict on the men who fought in it. Gradually, it has come to be known that the combat veterans of Vietnam suffer, in appalling numbers, from what is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Indeed, of the three quarters of a million surviving combat veterans, one quarter of a million suffer from this disorder and the ...
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Overview

The number of books on the Vietnam War is, by now, vast and varied. Until recently, however, there has been very little for the public to read about the psychological effect of that conflict on the men who fought in it. Gradually, it has come to be known that the combat veterans of Vietnam suffer, in appalling numbers, from what is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Indeed, of the three quarters of a million surviving combat veterans, one quarter of a million suffer from this disorder and the personal costs it imposes. (For a full discussion of PTSD and its symptoms, see the Introduction and Chapter 10.) In Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay casts new, challenging, and irrefutable light on the lives of these men and the ravages of combat trauma on their minds and spirits. For many years, Dr. Shay has been the psychiatrist for a group of Vietnam veterans. In that time, he has come to see an overwhelming and undeniable similarity between their experiences and those of the soldiers in the Iliad; after all, this centuries-old epic is about soldiers in war and its disastrous consequences for their character. More specifically, the elements of Achilles story - the betrayal by his commander, the shrinking of his moral and social world to a small group of friends, the death of one or more of these comrades, the accompanying feelings of grief, guilt, and numbness followed by a "berserk" rage - are heard over and over in the stories of these men who were once soldiers and are still caught up in that old struggle. Drawing at length on these men's vivid and heart-rending words, as well as on Dr. Shay's own close, ingenious, and persuasive reading of Homer's classic story, Achilles in Vietnam has already been acclaimed by soldiers, writers, classicists, and psychiatrists. It should transform any and all future discussions of the Vietnam War.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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. (May)
Library Journal
Narratives from Vietnam veterans, excerpts from Homer's Iliad, and quotes from the Bible are here used to compare combat during the Vietnam War and the time of the Iliad, providing a scholarly book about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is estimated that a quarter of a million Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD today. Although this work will be a bit difficult for those not versed in Homer's epic poem, the comparisons vividly show the effects of PTSD. For serious researchers on the psychology of PTSD, this book provides an intriguing approach. Educated lay readers, students, and scholars interested in the Vietnam war will want to consider this extraordinary perspective on the problem of PTSD. Recommended for serious psychology and literature collections.-- H. Robert Malinowsky, Univ. of Illinois, Chicago
William Beatty
Psychiatrist Shay has learned from his own patients that, with treatment, a Vietnam veteran can usually overcome horror, fear, and grief--but not when "what's right" has been violated. Betrayal by superiors in the field or, more likely, by officers or politicians in comfortable surroundings is the one unforgivable action. Currently, 250,000 Vietnam veterans meet the accepted criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, so this is not a minor matter. Shay, who knows both his Homer and his combat soldiers, has done a remarkable job of comparing and contrasting the Greek soldiers before Troy and U.S. grunts in Vietnam. Group loyalty and support were vital to individuals in both groups, while the major differences involved grief work and the image of the enemy. Shay also explores the concept, emotions, and actions of the berserker (of which he takes Achilles as the model), and he discloses that one of his major treatment goals is to make remembering possible. This is a profoundly human book and a strong, realistic argument against modern warfare.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780689121821
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 5/26/1994
  • Pages: 256

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
1 Betrayal of "What's Right" 3
2 Shrinkage of the Social and Moral Horizon 23
3 Grief at the Death of a Special Comrade 39
4 Guilt and Wrongful Substitution 69
5 Berserk 77
6 Dishonoring the Enemy 103
7 What Homer Left Out 121
8 Soldiers' Luck and God's Will 137
9 Reclaiming the Iliad's Gods as a Metaphor of Social Power 149
10 The Breaking Points of Moral Existence - What Breaks? 165
11 Healing and Tragedy 183
Notes 211
Bibliography 233
Index 237
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