Achilles in Vietnam
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Achilles in Vietnam

Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character

Jonathan Shay

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eBook - ePub

Achilles in Vietnam

Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character

Jonathan Shay

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An original and groundbreaking examination of the psychological devastation of war through the lens of Homer's Iliad in this "compassionate book [that] deserves a place in the lasting literature of the Vietnam War" ( The New York Times ). In this moving and dazzlingly creative book, Dr. Jonathan Shay examines the psychological devastation of war by comparing the soldiers of Homer's Iliad with Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A classic of war literature that has as much relevance as ever in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Achilles in Vietnam is a "transcendent literary adventure" ( The New York Times ) and "clearly one of the most original and most important scholarly works to have emerged from the Vietnam War" (Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried ).As a Veterans Affairs psychiatrist, Shay encountered devastating stories of unhealed PTSD and uncovered the painful paradox—that fighting for one's country can render one unfit to be a citizen. With a sensitive and compassionate examination of the battles many Vietnam veterans continue to fight, Shay offers readers a greater understanding of PTSD and how to alleviate the potential suffering of soldiers. Although the Iliad was written twenty-seven centuries ago, Shay shows how it has much to teach about combat trauma, as do the more recent, compelling voices and experiences of Vietnam vets.A groundbreaking and provocative monograph, Achilles in Vietnam takes readers on a literary journey that demonstrates how we can learn how war damages the mind and spirit, and work to change those things in our culture that so that we don't continue repeating the same mistakes.

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Betrayal of “What’s Right”

Every instance of severe traumatic psychological injury is a standing challenge to the rightness of the social order.
—Judith Lewis Herman, 1990 Harvard Trauma Conference
We begin in the moral world of the soldier—what his culture understands to be right—and betrayal of that moral order by a commander. This is how Homer opens the Iliad. Agamémnon, Achilles’ commander, wrongfully seizes the prize of honor voted to Achilles by the troops. Achilles’ experience of betrayal of “what’s right,” and his reactions to it, are identical to those of American soldiers in Vietnam. I shall describe some of the many violations of what American soldiers understood to be right by holders of responsibility and trust.
Now, there was a LURP [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol] team from the First Brigade off of Highway One, that looked over the South China Sea. There was a bay there…. Now, they saw boats come in. And they suspected, now, uh—the word came down [that] they were unloading weapons off them. Three boats.
At that time we moved. It was about ten o’clock at night. We moved down, across Highway One along the beach line, and it took us [until] about three or four o’clock in the morning to get on line while these people are unloading their boats. And we opened up on them—aaah.
And the fucking firepower was unreal, the firepower that we put into them boats. It was just a constant, constant firepower. It seemed like no one ever ran out of ammo.
Daylight came [long pause], and we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.
What got us thoroughly fucking confused is, at that time you turn to the team and you say to the team, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.” Because that’s what you’re getting from upstairs.
The fucking colonel says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” Y’know, uh, “We got body count!” “We have body count!” So it starts working on your head. So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that’s okay then, right? This is part of war. Y’know? Gung-HO! Y’know? “AirBORNE! AirBORNE! Let’s go!”
So we packed up and we moved out.
They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation—them fucking maggots. A lot of medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y’know, I’d be standing like a fucking jerk and they’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians.
This veteran received his Combat Infantry Badge for participating in this action. The CIB was one of the most prized U.S. Army awards, supposed to be awarded for actual engagement in ground combat. He subsequently earned his CIB a thousand times over in four combat tours. Nonetheless, he still feels deeply dishonored by the circumstances of its official award for killing unarmed civilians on an intelligence error. He declares that the day it happened. Christmas Eve, should be stricken from the calendar.
We shall hear this man’s voice and the voices of other combat veterans many times in these pages. I shall argue throughout this book that healing from trauma depends upon communalization of the trauma—being able safely to tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community. So before analyzing, before classifying, before thinking, before trying to do anything—we should listen. Categories and classifications play a large role in the institutions of mental health care for veterans, in the education of mental health professionals, and as tentative guides to perception. All too often, however, our mode of listening deteriorates into intellectual sorting, with the professional grabbing the veterans’ words from the air and sticking them in mental bins. To some degree that is institutionally and educationally necessary, but listening this way destroys trust. At its worst our educational system produces counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists who resemble museum-goers whose whole experience consists of mentally saying, “That’s cubist! … That’s El Greco!” and who never see anything they’ve looked at. “Just listen!” say the veterans when telling mental health professionals what they need to know to work with them, and I believe that is their wish for the general public as well. Passages of narrative here contain the particularity of individual men’s experiences, bearing a different order of meaningfulness than any categories they might be put into. In the words of one veteran, these stories are “sacred stuff.”
The mortal dependence of the modern soldier on the military organization for everything he needs to survive is as great as that of a small child on his or her parents. One Vietnam combat veteran said, “The U.S. Army [in Vietnam] was like a mother who sold out her kids to be raped by [their] father to protect her own interests.”
No single English word takes in the whole sweep of a culture’s definition of right and wrong; we use terms such as moral order, convention, normative expectations, ethics, and commonly understood social values. The ancient Greek word that Homer used, thémis, encompasses all these meanings.1 A word of this scope is needed for the betrayals experienced by Vietnam combat veterans. In this book I shall use the phrase “what’s right” as an equivalent of thémis. The specific content of the Homeric warriors’ thémis was often quite different from that of American soldiers in Vietnam, but what has not changed in three millennia are violent rage and social withdrawal when deep assumptions of “what’s right” are violated. The vulnerability of the soldier’s moral world has increased in three thousand years because of the vast number and physical distance of people in a position to betray “what’s right” in ways that threaten the survival of soldiers in battle. Homeric soldiers actually saw their commander in chief, perhaps daily.


Book 1 of the Iliad sets the tragedy in motion with Agamémnon’s seizure of Achilles’ woman, “a prize I [Achilles] sweated for, and soldiers gave me!”(1:189)2 We must understand the cultural context to see that this episode is more than a personal squabble between two soldiers over a woman. The outrageousness of Agamémnon’s behavior is repeatedly made clear. Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, makes her case to Zeus: “Now Lord Marshal Agamémnon has been highhanded with him, has commandeered and holds his prize of war [géras, portion of honor]….” The prize of honor was voted by the troops for Achilles’ valor in combat. A modern equivalent might be a commander telling a soldier, “I’ll take that Congressional Medal of Honor of yours, because I don’t have one.” Obviously, Achilles’ grievance was magnified by his attachment to the particular person of Brisêis, the captive woman who was the prize, but violation of “what’s right” was central to the clash between Achilles and Agamémnon.3
Any army, ancient or modern, is a social construction defined by shared expectations and values. Some of these are embodied in formal regulations, defined authority, written orders, ranks, incentives, punishments, and formal task and occupational definitions. Others circulate as traditions, archetypal stories of things to be emulated or shunned, and accepted truth about what is praiseworthy and what is culpable. All together, these form a moral world that most of the participants most of the time regard as legitimate, “natural,” and personally binding. The moral power of an army is so great that it can motivate men to get up out of a trench and step into enemy machine-gun fire.
When a leader destroys the legitimacy of the army’s moral order by betraying “what’s right,” he inflicts manifold injuries on his men. The Iliad is a story of these immediate and devastating consequences. Vietnam has forced us to see that these consequences go beyond the war’s “loss upon bitter loss … leaving so many dead men” (1:3ff) to taint the lives of those who survive it.


In victory, the meaning of the dead has rarely been a problem to the living—soldiers have died “for” victory. Ancient and modern war are alike in defining the relationship between victory and the army’s dead, after the fact. At the time of the deaths, victory has not yet been achieved, so the corpses’ meaning hovers in the void until the lethal contest has been decided. Victory—and the cut, crushed, burned, impaled, suffocated, frozen, diseased, drowned, poisoned, or blown-up corpses—mutually anchor each other’s meaning.4 Homeric participants in warfare understood a very simple relationship between civilians and the soldiers who fought to protect them: In defeat, all male civilians were massacred and all female civilians were raped and carried away into slavery. In the modern world, the meaning of the dead to the defeated is a bitter, unhealed wound, where defeat rarely means obliteration of the people and civilization. As we recently witnessed in the Persian Gulf War, defeat may not even bring the fall of the opposing government. At the level of grand strategy in Vietnam, the United States had been defeated, and yet American soldiers had won every battle.
For the veterans, the unanchored dead continue to hover. They visit their surviving comrades at night like the ghost of Pátroklos, Achilles’ friend, visits Achilles:
… let me pass the gates of Death.
… I wander
about the wide gates and the hall of Death.
Give me your hand. I sorrow. (23:88)
The returning Vietnam soldiers were not honored. Much of the public treated them with indifference or derision, further denying the unanchored dead a resting place.


During a group therapy session, I once blundered into a casual mention of “our defeat” in Vietnam. Many veterans returned from Vietnam and found themselves outcast and humiliated in American Legion5 and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts where they had assumed that they would be welcomed, supported, and understood. Time and again they were assailed as “losers” by World War II veterans. The pain and rage at being blamed for defeat in Vietnam was beyond bearing and resulted in many brawls.
These feelings reflect not only outrage at the heartless wrong-headedness of such remarks but also a concept of victory in war that left Vietnam veterans bewildered. “We knew that we never lost a battle,” say the veterans. Winning, as far as I have been able to determine, meant to them being in possession of the ground at the end of the battle. So the hit-and-run or hit-and-hide small-unit tactics of the enemy always meant that we had “won” after a given engagement. However, many men experienced a deep malaise that their concepts of victory, of strength embodied in fire superiority and often in great local numerical superiority, somehow didn’t fit, were futile. The enemy initiated 90 percent of all engagements but “lost” them all. Even battles like Dak To and Ap Bia Mountain (Hamburger Hill) were American victories in the sense that Americans held the ground when the last shot was fired.
Larger images of victory seem to have been formed out of newsreel footage of World War II surrender ceremonies and beautiful women weeping for joy at their liberation; defeat was a document signed in a railway carriage and German troops marching in Paris. As I listen to some veterans, there are times when it seems they believe that the Vietnamese cannot have won the war. Therefore, because we won all our battles, our victory was somehow stolen. Many veterans have a well-developed “stab in the back” theory akin to that developed by German veterans of World War I—that the war could have been handily won had the fighting forces not been betrayed by home-front politicians. My interest here is in the soldiers’ experiences and not in the larger historical question of whether they were “sold out” by the politicians somehow brought under the spell of such still-hated figures as Jane Fonda.
Once or twice I have tried to explore with veterans these concepts of victory and defeat. I have abandoned these discussions, because the sense of betrayal is still too great and the equation of defeat with abandonment by God and personal devaluation still too vivid.
To return to my blunder in group therapy, a veteran whose voice is often heard in this book turned black with anger and, glaring at me, said, “I won my war. It’s you who fucking lost!” He got up and left the room to remove himself from the opportunity to physically hurt me. Toward the end of the group session he returned and said, “What we lost in Vietnam was a lot of good fucking kids!”
More than a year after this experience I gingerly approached the subject with another veteran, prefacing what I was about to say (the paradox that we had “lost” the war while “winning” every battle) by saying that I knew that this was a very sensitive subject and that it made many vets very angry. When I had said it, he smiled in a not very friendly way and drew his finger across his throat. “It makes you want to cut my throat?” I asked. “Uh-huh,” he replied.


To grasp the significance of betrayal we must consider two independent dimensions: first, what is at stake, and second, what thémis has been violated.


“To someone who has never experienced danger, the idea is attractive,” wrote the famous nineteenth-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz.6 So it appeared to many young men who volunteered—only about 10 percent of the men I see were drafted—for military service during the Vietnam War. For some it was a way to “prove” themselves to themselves, sometimes to their fathers and uncles who were World War II veterans. For some it was attractive as an expression of patriotic and religious idealism, often understood to be equivalent to anti-Communism:
You get brought up with God an’ country and—y’know, something good turned out bad…. They told me I was fighting Communism. And I really believed in my country and I believed everyone served their country.
Another veteran:
It was better to fight Communism there in Vietnam than in your own back yard. Catholics had the worst of it. We had to be the Legions of God. We were doing it for your faith. We were told: Communists don’t like Catholics.
For some the war was a cause that expressed an heroic ideal of human worth, in the words of one veteran, “the highest stage of mankind, willing to put your life on the line for an idea.” For others it was the excitement, the spectacle of war. One veteran described his motive for joining the Marines: “I was bored. Vietnam was where it was happening, and in the Marines everybody went to Vietnam.”
All knew that war was dangerous, but none were prepared for the “final shock, the sight of men being killed and mutilated [which] moves our pounding hearts to awe and pity.”7 They went to war with the innocence built from films in which war, in Paul Fussell’s words, was
systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied…. In these, no matter how severely wounded, Allied troops are never shown suffering what was termed, in the Vietnam War, traumatic amputation: everyone has all his limbs, his hands and feet and digits, not to mention expressions of courage and cheer.”8
Danger of death and mutilation is the pervading medium of combat. ...


  1. Cover Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Acknowledgments
  6. PART I
  7. PART II
  9. NOTES
  11. INDEX
Zitierstile für Achilles in Vietnam

APA 6 Citation

Shay, J. (2010). Achilles in Vietnam ([edition unavailable]). Scribner. Retrieved from (Original work published 2010)

Chicago Citation

Shay, Jonathan. (2010) 2010. Achilles in Vietnam. [Edition unavailable]. Scribner.

Harvard Citation

Shay, J. (2010) Achilles in Vietnam. [edition unavailable]. Scribner. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Shay, Jonathan. Achilles in Vietnam. [edition unavailable]. Scribner, 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.