Title: "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character"
Author: Jonathan Shay
Length, price: 246 pages, $20
In "Achilles in Vietnam," Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist for the Boston Department of Veterans' Affairs and a member of the faculty of Tufts Medical School, uses "The Iliad," and particularly the saga of Achilles, as a model to help us understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among combat veterans of the Vietnam war.
Using comparisons of portions of "The Iliad" to his patients' vivid narratives of their combat experiences and their feelings about those experiences, Dr. Shay shows us how that ancient epic of war can bring to light the traumatic reaction of the warrior to the process of killing and witnessing death, mutilation and destruction -- and can also suggest methods of healing and prevention.
"Achilles in Vietnam" is a brilliant and brave book by a compassionate writer. It is also deeply flawed.
Dr. Shay, who for years has been a psychiatrist for Vietnam veterans, traces what he sees is similarities, and important differences, between Achilles' story in "The Iliad" and the combat and post-combat experiences of these veterans -- and by extension most Vietnam combat veterans who suffer from PTSD.
The crisis he addresses is a very real one. Almost 20 years after the war, a quarter of a million men still suffer from disorders that run from constant states of alertness and stress to the inability to form love relationships to alcohol and drug abuse. According to a 1987 study by the Centers for Disease Control, Vietnam veterans had a 72 percent higher suicide rate than those soldiers who did not serve in Vietnam. Combat veterans make up a disproportionate number of the homeless and prison % 5/8 populations.
The pattern of the Achilles narrative that Dr. Shay finds occurring over and over in accounts from Vietnam combat veterans involves rage at unfairness and incompetence at the command level, the shrinking of the soldier's "moral and social worlds" to a small group of trusted comrades, the "berserk rage" caused by the death of comrades, and subsequent feelings of grief. The use of a literary comparative to show the timelessness of these reactions is compelling.
It's what Dr. Shay doesn't chose to address -- the extent of the brutalization, murder and rape of civilians and the key role of such atrocities in PTSD, both national and individual, from the Vietnam War -- that troubles me about his book.
While he writes of the traumatic effect on the veterans he treats caused by their devaluing of Vietnamese lives, the Vietnamese he writes about for the most part are enemy soldiers. The enemy, he maintains, unlike the Trojan enemy of the Greeks, was not respected, and of regarding the enemy as "subhuman vermin or nonhuman matter endanger[ed] soldiers' physical ,X survival during war and moral recovery after it." His interpretation of "The Iliad" shows us "that it is possible to regard the enemy as human and honorable like oneself and still fight with fierce tenacity."
The cost of dehumanizing others is to dehumanize oneself, and certainly many soldiers did dehumanize the enemy in the Vietnam War, as in all wars. Yet in my own experience, reinforced by many conversations and several narratives (see Gusford Hasford's "The Short Timers" or Phillip Caputo's "A Rumor of War"), many American G.I.'s regarded the enemy, at least that part of the enemy represented by the regular North Vietnamese Army, with utter hatred but with more respect, as fellow combat soldiers, then they accorded either their allies in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or the Vietnamese civilian population.
In fact, the more common dehumanization that occurred in Vietnam was dehumanization of the Vietnamese population, which led to incidents of atrocity both large and "small," with the massacre at My Lai seen by many analysts as not an aberration but an inevitability. As Mr. Caputo has it: "There is an aspect of the Vietnam war that distinguished it from other American conflicts -- its absolute savagery. I mean the savagery that prompted so many American fighting men . . . to kill civilians and prisoners."
Atrocities against civilians and prisoners didn't occur in every American unit, and even though in those in did, there were always men who didn't participate or resisted. Still, as D. Michael Shafer states in "The Vietnam Combat Experience: The Human Legacy": "To a degree unparalleled in our earlier wars, combat in Vietnam involved the killing of women, children and the elderly . . ."
The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his landmark work "Home From the War: Vietnam Neither Heroes or Villains" (none of the above works appears in Dr. Shay's bibliography) described the Vietnam War as an "atrocity-producing situation." He wrote that it occurred, necessarily, when a counterinsurgency struggle is waged in a country where guerrillas are indistinguishable from -- the rest of the population, waged by 19-year-olds trained to kill and often without the time or maturity or encouragement by authority to develop what Mr. Caputo called "the net of a man's inner moral values."
When Gen. William Westmoreland initiated a policy of attrition -- success measured by body count -- he ensured, as some senior military men warned, that soldiers would come to regard the people themselves as the enemy and the murder and abuse of civilians would become all too common.
In other words, the "berserk" rage that Dr. Shay identifies was often a rage directed against civilians seen as harboring or aiding the enemy, or in fact as being -- man, woman or child -- the enemy.
Dr. Shay explains in his after notes that he does not deal with a number of reasons for guilt, including guilt from committing atrocities, because he's limited himself only "to the guilt that Homer portrays."
Yet he includes a chapter titled "What Homer Left Out," in which he briefly discusses the murder and abuse of civilians as portrayed in "The Iliad," without any extension to Vietnam -- an extraordinary omission. To discuss PTSD from Vietnam combat without any discussion of this issue is like Homer writing about the Trojan War and leaving out the sack of Troy except in a footnote. To treat atrocities against civilians as peripheral is to ignore the deepest and darkest pit the war dug into the human heart. It's a deception.
When his veterans' narratives do mention agonized feelings about the murder of civilians, Dr. Shay tends to emphasize that the distress is primarily caused by feelings of betrayal by the moral authority of command-- officers who told their men that the killings were justified. But while rage at the denial of one's experience by authority certainly exists, Dr. Shay seems to deny the veterans' feelings of personal responsibility.
There are, of course, atrocities against civilians committed in all wars, and certainly the other side in Vietnam committed its share. But this misses the point, which is that we, as Americans, see ourselves as basically idealistic and -- to use a word perhaps not commonly brought into a psychological discussion -- good; we do not see ourselves as people who commit atrocities. Mr. Shafer wrote: ". . . the guilt [about committing atrocities] is a
particularly heavy burden to bear, since perhaps more than any other aspect of the Vietnam legacy, both it and its origins repel the average American."
My Lai veterans kept describing the massacre as "this Nazi kind of thing." As Mr. Shafer pointed out: "Regardless of the circumstances, and even in situations where the veteran had to kill to save his life, guilt over such killing is profoundly disturbing to most veterans and plays, in comparison with other wars, a far more significant role in the stress disorders of Vietnam veterans."
With the compassion of a healer, Dr. Shay finds "his" veterans -- and by extension all of us -- innocent victims of a vicious war. "American soldiers," he writes, "felt literally tortured by their Vietnamese enemy," and therefore the combat veteran can be compared to a "victim of torture." He also makes the very valid point that forgetting and denial are ways that human beings tend to protect "the fragility of goodness" -- but that fragility must be confronted in order for healing to begin.
Excellent advice. But Dr. Shay engages in his own form of denial by not discussing the fact that many American combat veterans have been traumatized not only because they have been through an experience which can be accurately compared to torture, but because they were the agents of torture to others. Until this truth is faced -- by the country and by the individual -- neither healing nor prevention, Dr. Shay's stated aims, will take place.
It is uncomfortable to deal with that reality -- perhaps because it goes into areas of guilt and innocence and complicity, crime and punishment. These are areas that psychiatry can still learn a great deal about from literature.
Mr. Karlin teaches at Charles County Community College. He is the author of four novels and served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam.