August 04, 2006


Caption: These warriors have already strapped on their armor.

"Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
Now the living timber bursts with the new buds
And spring comes round again. And so with men:
One generation comes to live, another dies away."--Iliad, Book 6

This is the fifth and final post in series about Homer's Iliad and what it has to say to us. First time visitors are encouraged to scroll down to see previous entries.

Dr. Jonathan Shay has written two very powerful books that deserve urgent attention today. These are Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002).

A student of the classics, Shay found in his work with Vietnam combat veterans with severe post traumatic stress disorder that the Iliad and the Odyssey helped in understanding their sufferings and vice versa.

He found in the case of Achilles the ingredients of post traumatic stress disorder (assuming he survived to go home), beginning with Agamemnon's bad leadership and indifference to the well-being of his soldiers. This moral betrayal of soldiers and their sense of "what's right" by their leader in the Iliad was "identical to those of American soldiers in Vietnam."

Another ingredient was what he calls the "shrinkage of the social and moral horizon:"

Prolonged exposure to danger and the profound strain of battle compel this contraction of loyalty to some degree in every war. However, soldiers sometimes lose responsiveness to the claims of any bonds, ideals, or loyalties outside a tiny circle of immediate comrades. An us-against-them mentality severs all other attachments or commitments.

With these intense attachments, the loss of a special comrade can be especially devastating, especially when no time is taken to grieve. This was one thing Homer's warriors got right, as they would recover, lovingly clean, communally mourn, and properly dispose of the remains of their friends.

The loss of companions in battle can lead not only to guilt but to losing it or going berserk, a rage that, like Achilles', transgresses all boundaries. This can cause disaster not only for the opposing forces but for noncombatants, one's own comrades, the person who "loses it" and those who will interact with him in the future.

Another thing that the Iliad's warriors did better than many modern ones was not to dehumanize their enemies. Though they fought to the bitter finish (to the ultimate regret of all), for the most part, they spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods, exchanged courtesies and other signs of respect. The enemy was not labeled as some utterly alien, evil and subhuman group. Shay found that when this does happen, it can do serious harm to those who do so, even beyond the usual harm of war:

The impulse to dehumanize and disrespect the enemy must be resisted, whether its basis is religious, nationalistic, or racist. The soldier's physical and psychological survival is at stake.

In the concluding pages of Achilles in Vietnam, Shay makes a number of recommendations aimed at preventing the endless repetition of tragedy. One that's pretty obvious is trying to work to end war: "Primary prevention of combat trauma requires an end to the social institution of war."

While we're working on that one (which may take some time), he offers several others, one of which is especially important for the opponents of war: "Support on the home front for the soldier, regardless of ethical and political disagreements over the war itself, is essential."

To conclude, perhaps the Iliad, rather than being a relic of the barbaric past, contains the wisdom needed to make a better future, if that is possible. Simone Weil put it best:

...nothing the peoples of Europe have produced is worth the first known poem that appeared among them. Perhaps they will yet rediscover the epic genius, when they learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate. How soon this will happen is another question.

Note: this series is dedicated to the memory of Carol Sharlip, a fallen friend, comrade and coworker:

"Patroclus...I never will forget him,
Not as long as I'm still among the living
And my springing knees will lift and drive me on.
Though the dead forget their dead in the House of Death,
I will remember, even there, my dear companion."--Iliad, Book 22


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