Book of

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, by Jonathan Shay

The Iliad as a guide to the precipitating factors for PTSD: death of your best friend, a sense of betrayal by higher-ups, instability. Alas, not at all out-of-date.

Some reading notes:

Shay’s list of “factors pre-disposing to combat PTSD” (written in 1995, remember) reads like a checklist for the Iraq war. In particular, you’ve got “can’t tell the civilians from the enemy”, “no set battlefield”, “disconnect from REMFs*”, and “unclear or impossible objectives”.

One element that Shay thinks increased PTSD for Vietnam vets was that soldiers were rotated in and out as individuals, not as whole units. I assume this was to reduce the overall casualty rate — in traditional armies, “green” units have shockingly high casualties. But one consequence to radically reduce unit cohesion for Vietnam vets.

Shay also strongly argues for the necessity of grieving ceremonies for active service personnel, ways for the group to acknowledge that someone has died and that it’s important.

He talks about berserker behavior, how it’s a form of traumatic stress response, and how it is dangerously admired and even encouraged by some forces (units, officers).

*Rear-Echelon Mother F*ckers. Shay argues persuasively that the Greek gods of the Iliad correspond to the REMFs, politicians, and star officers of modern warfare: distant, inscrutable, and arbitrary.

actual post date: 11/12/09.

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  1. technathene
    Posted November 12, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    A classics professor, inspired by this book, recruited me into doing an Odyssey reading group with a group of Vietnam vets at the local VA (incidentally, the WRJ, Vermont VA, which is the National Center for PTSD).

    It was a really awesome experience. Particularly for me, as the academic/military bridge, the only woman, and the only Iraq war vet. There was an amazing amount of resonance in the epic with our experiences, though there were some interesting conflicts.

  2. The Librarian
    Posted November 13, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for commenting, technathene.

    What were the conflicts? Were there important differences between your experience and that of the Vietnam vets?

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