August 28, 2008


J.G. Trautmann's version of the fall of Troy, courtesy of wikipedia.

Welcome to Goat Rope's ongoing series on the Odyssey of Homer. You'll also find news and links about current events. If you like the classics, click on earlier posts.

As mentioned before, the Odyssey is in part about what it takes for someone who has spent years in warfare--ten in the case of Odysseus--to go home and be fully integrated into peacetime life. Then as now, lots of people never make it home and Odysseus himself is an example of how not to do it.

Imagine for a moment that you have spent that many at a war you didn't particularly want to participate in and it's finally over. Most people would probably picture themselves taking the shortest possible route back home.

Not our boy. When the wind blows his ships to Ismarus, he engages in a gratuitous raid on the Circones, a people who did nothing to provoke the attack. In his own words,

...There I sacked the city,
killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder,
that rich haul we dragged away from the place--
we shared it round so no one, not on my account,
would go deprived of his fair share of the spoils.

To put it mildly, he's stuck in combat mode and clearly not ready for a peaceful homecoming. Not surprisingly, the situation goes south from there. His men get drunk and disorderly:

there was too much wine to swill, too many sheep to slaughter

Soon other Circones rally to support the raided village and drive them off, after Odysseus' men suffer significant casualties.

As Jonathan Shay, author of Odysseus in America, puts it,

...Homer shows us the first way that combat soldiers lose their homecoming, having left the war zone physically--they may simply remain in combat mode, although not necessarily against the original enemy.

Shay knows whereof he speaks, having spent many years working with Vietnam combat veterans traumatized by their experiences. He has found both that the epics of Homer shed light on the experiences of veterans and vice versa. Some of the people he worked with, like Odysseus, have trouble turning off the switch.

While the military sometimes presents itself as a vast vocational school, the skills learned in prolonged combat--such as controlling fear, cunning, skill in using lethal force and weaponry, etc.--are very real and highly specialized--they just sometimes don't transfer well to civilian life.

He quotes the World War I veteran Willard Waller:

Most of the skills that soldiers acquire in their training for war are irrelevant to civilian life...The picture is one of men who struggle very hard to learn certain things and to acquire certain distinctions, and then find that with the end of the war these things completely lose their utility...Digging a fine fox-hole or throwing hand grenades with dexterity, they are entirely valueless...

The boss, who hired and fires him, writes recommendations for him, raises or lowers his pay, and otherwise disposes of his destiny is nothing but a soft civilian. The foreman thinks he is tough...While the veteran was risking his life for his country, the boss and the foremen were having an easy time of it...The veteran cannot help reflecting that a smash of a gun-butt, ore even a well-directed blow at the bridge of the nose...might easily dispose of such a man forever.

Shay gets the last word today:

Homer put first the pirate raid on Ismarus. I take this as a metaphor for all the ways a veteran may lose his homecoming by remaining in combat mode...Everyone knows that war can wreck the body, but repeatedly forget that it can wreck the soul as well. The sacrifice that citizens make when they serve their country's military is not simply the risk of death, dismemberment, disfigurement, and paralysis--as terrible as these realities are. They risk their peace of mind--please hear this familiar phrase, "peace of mind," fresh again in all its richness! They risk losing their capacity to participate in democratic process. They risk losing the sense that human virtues are still possible. These are psychological and moral injuries--war wounds--that are no less of a sacrifice than the sacrifice of the armless, or legless, or sightless veteran. One of my former patients, a combat medic in Vietnam, has said, "Just acknowledge the sacrifice!"

WITH MY MIND ON MY MONEY AND MY MONEY ON MY MIND, I might not play nicely with others. Here's an interesting item by Peter Singer on some recent experiments showing how money affects human interactions. Holy alienation, Batman!

WHAT THE CENSUS DATA DIDN'T SHOW. Here's an item from McClatchy about disturbing economic trends.

SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURS are trying to combin welle doing with doing good.

URGENT GIANT SQUID UPDATE. The largest one ever caught has been described by a scientist as "a giant, gelatinous blob."


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