Achilles in Vietnam – J. Shay

“The painful paradox is that fighting for one’s country can render one unfit to be its citizen.” 

Sometimes, a book surpasses your expectations. In this week’s book, that was definitely the case. It is without a doubt the most interesting and thought-provoking book I have read in a while.

The author, Jonathan Shay, is a psychiatrist for a group of American veterans of the Vietnam War who have severe, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And in this book, he compares their experiences in combat and in dealing with trauma to Homer’s epic Illiad.

I do understand that this is pretty niche. Ancient literature and combat trauma. But what a great idea. Because both help us understand the other better. The Illiad profits from being placed in a modern context, with all that entails.

And by showing that the experiences of combat veterans have ancient roots, Shay places their suffering into an ancient context.

It is a beautiful piece of art, one of the most original approaches to both literature and psychology that I have ever read.

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Did Achilles and Patroklos do the do? Shay says no, but the audience is not convinced.

While reading it, there were three points that stood out to me in particular.

  1. Trauma cannot be healed, only be dealt with. 

The Vietnam War ended forty years ago. The men who fought in this conflict are still coming to term with it. This war left an entire generation of Americans traumatized, deeply suspicious of the government, and psychologically scarred.

Shay’s patients are probably on the extreme end of the spectrum – not every person who served in Vietnam experienced trauma. However, Shay makes a compelling argument that we underestimate the impact the war had.

In the late 80s, roughly 36% of male Vietnam combat veterans met the full American Psychiatric Association diagnostic criteria for PTSD. That means that almost twenty years after their war experience, hundreds of thousands of men had grossly unhealed psychological injuries.

And this matters, because these men are more likely to resort to violence, to be homeless, to be hospitalized. They are less able to hold a steady job, less likely to live in a stable family configuration, and, quite simply, be happy with their life.

Shay writes: “The past, like the future, becomes too painful to bear, for memory, like hope, brings back the yearning for all that has been lost. Thus (veterans suffering from PTSD) are eventually reduced to living in an endless present.

The ramifications of war on a society aren’t limited to wartime. These are wounds that will never heal.

Just contrast this ongoing suffering with how casually the US slipped into this conflict, and how little they had to show for all this pain, and it makes my heart ache.

And one final thought on this – the US has been at war for the last 20 years, producing yet another generation of veterans to which all of the above apply. At this point, there are millions of Americans who suffer from PTSD. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Soldiers aren’t the only ones suffering from PDSD.

This is where I leave Shay behind and walk off on my own adventures. (Good books tend to do that.)

Shay describes the causes and symptoms of PTSD in a military context. However, combat isn’t the only cause of PTSD. In fact, it isn’t even the most common.

Roughly speaking, any distressing and frightening event can cause PTSD. This could be serious road accidents, sexual assaults or a physical assault. According to the NHS, PTSD develops in about 30% of people who experience severe trauma.

But there is no reason why all the consequences that Shay mentions – higher drug use, less stable social life, sleep deprivation – would not apply to those non-combat PTSD sufferers.

Which means that this problem is even bigger than Shay thinks. (Well, I’m sure he thought about it, he just doesn’t mention it in his book.)

One of the biggest problems for trauma survivors, Shay writes, is their lack of social trust and the destruction of the capacity for democratic participation.

Democracy is a safe struggle. Two sides with opposing views meet in an arena (usually a parliament or another public space) and discuss their ideas until they reach an agreement.

However, people who were left traumatized tend to not participate in this process. It’s easy to see why – it requires commitment and trust that the other party will respect boundaries. Trauma survivors lost their trust in society and its norms, so they opt out of this process.

This is important because democracy loses everytime a group of citizens decides not to participate. It is vital that the voices of those who suffered, those who survived, are heard.

(In a not-quite-perfect parallel, think about how the media reports on the #metoo movement, where often, the stories of the perpetrators feature more prominently than the voices of the victims.)

3. The influence of biblical storytelling on trauma

This is where this book goes from great to excellent. All good books tell you something you didn’t know, but excellent books tell you something you didn’t know about yourself.

Sometimes, it is something that is so obvious that you ask yourself how you didn’t notice it earlier.

In one part of the book, Shay talks about the relationship between the two armies and how they viewed each other, both in the Illiad and in Vietnam.

Whereas Homer describes both sides as full of honor and worthy of respect, the fighting parties in Vietnam had not an ounce of good feelings for each other.

(If there is one small criticism I could give Shay, it’s that he focuses entirely on the American perspective of the war. But then again, those are the patients he works with.)

Suffice to say that Americans did not share the appreciation of the enemy that the Greeks and Troyans displayed.

Aided by a healthy dose of racism, they describe the enemy as ‘vermin’, as something ‘not human.’

One of the astounding aspects of Homer’s epic is his hesitancy to make anyone a villain. Both sides are shown as worthy of respect and redemption.

This rings weird to us because we are steeped deeply in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture, which insists on making every story into a war of good and evil and a drama of blame and punishment.

The enemy cannot have any redeeming characteristics because he is the enemy and therefore absolutely bad.

This is a trap that we all fall into constantly – we tend to only view our point of view, and furthermore, we do not give our counterpart the benefit of the doubt. “They don’t agree with me, hence they must be wrong.”

This sounds so painfully obvious that it makes me a bit ashamed that I didn’t notice this earlier.

All the stories we tell ourselves, all the movies we watch, even the newspapers – they are full of fights between two sides, where one is clearly good and one is clearly bad. There is a danger in this incapacity to see virtues in the enemy, not at least because it prevents us from making peace and walking away feeling satisfied when a compromise had been reached.

And in the same way that Vietnam Veterans feel that their war against subhuman vermin ‘had no honor’, we today feel that reaching a compromise with the other side taints our own ideals.

This is where this loops back into politics and the increasing partisanship, especially in the US. By discrediting every single idea, simply because it comes from the other side of the aisle, everyone loses.

And another thing – us children of the biblical tradition have another chip on our shoulder – the thought that we are made in God’s likeness, but cannot ever be as perfect as God is.

Well, Shay says –

“However, all of our virtues come from not being gods: Generosity is meaningless to a god, who never suffers shortage or want; courage is meaningless to a god, who is immortal and can never suffer permanent injury; and so on.

Our virtues and our dignity arise form our mortality, our humanity.”

Which is such a fantastic and uplifting thought, isn’t it?

Next week – we are going back to easier topics!

2 thoughts on “Achilles in Vietnam – J. Shay

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