Laura's Reviews > Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character

Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay
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Jan 22, 11

bookshelves: war, literary-criticism
Read in September, 2010

Jonathan Shay is a psychotherapist – and impressive amateur classicist – who has spent decades treating Vietnam veterans with severe PTSD. In this fascinating book, he analyzes what he sees as the moral breakdown of Achilles in terms of factors common to the Vietnam War. The first section of the book outlines these factors: a betrayal of “what’s right”; the shrinkage of the social and moral horizon; grief at the death of a special comrade; guilt and wrongful substitution; and going berserk (a clinical condition, not slang). In each of the chapters he describes these conditions as revealed through years of treating veterans, often quoting transcripts of therapy sessions, and analyzes their presence in The Iliad. In the second section he goes through soldiers’ common reactions to these conditions, again drawing from Vietnam veterans’ accounts, and demonstrates the same reactions in Achilles. It’s convincing and utterly compelling.

I’m no classical scholar, but I have read The Iliad many times and can appreciate his deep understanding and meticulous examination. His book is worth multiple readings. In fact, Achilles in Vietnam has filled a role in my understanding similar to movies of favorite novels, like “Gone With the Wind” – now I can’t read The Iliad without this as context and subtext! I also was stunned by the descriptions of combat in Vietnam — both the conditions of guerilla warfare against the Viet Cong and common U.S. military practices seemed designed to inflict maximum psychological damage on our soldiers. Be forewarned: this is not for the faint of heart. If you’ve studied the Vietnam War then much of this will be familiar. If not, brace yourself; the accounts are from men whose combat trauma was debilitating enough that they sought professional help. Also, Dr. Shay quotes veterans’ words verbatim, and the profanity is almost as stunning as the substance. I have no tolerance for profanity and felt like I needed to wash out my head with a power hose, yet at the same time I couldn’t help feel sorry for both the lack of education that often produces such a low level of language and the obvious crutch that profanity was for these men; if the eloquent can’t find words to describe such horrors, what hope had they? (Not all the interviewees swear four or five times in a sentence; there are distinct levels of language corresponding to levels of education, a fact that the Vietnam veterans I know are quick to assert.) The final section of the book focuses on PTSD and possible healing, with less analysis of Achilles; nonetheless, it’s fascinating reading.
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message 1: by Ebookwormy (new) - added it

Ebookwormy always love your reviews.


Angie A thought on the profanity, even for highly educated troops, it is something that often comes out when discussing things that are extremely upsetting. There are events that defy description. Sometimes, even for educated men, events are so shocking and deeply disturbing that there simply aren't words that will suffice. How else to describe the profane? I think your reaction bears this out. The vile words produce in the reader shock and revulsion. But even with that, we don't even come close to how the veterans feel.


Rage it is kind of odd to me that what you took away from this book is that you should feel sorry for people who lack the education to express their trauma eloquently enough to suit your standards. dang.


message 4: by Ebookwormy (new) - added it

Ebookwormy I read your review again after "R's" comment. It strikes me that in Ken Burns' excellent documentary on WWII, or was it another documentary I watched around that time? One thing often leads me to another. Anyway, there was this lovely Southern gentleman who had a segment on how difficult it was to discuss his awful combat experience without "coarse language". His thought was that it was so deeply awful, and so difficult to explain to those who had not been there, that when the men congregated together, it became a way of processing their grief that all could enter in - but he said he would never use that language in another context. While I'm not big into profanity myself, it helped me to see that in these contexts, it's not so much about lack of education as the absolute overwhelming of the human capacity to communicate, almost the inability find "civilized" words strong enough for the horrors they experienced. This soldier also explained that this played into the resistance of the soldier to discussing his battle experience with others.

(If you want to search for it, I remember his name was Sidney Phillips from Mobile, Alabama! That's how much of an impact his insights had on me!)


Joshua Paul Fussell's Wartime: Understanding and Behavior during the Second World War has a chapter on the soldier's vocabulary.

I have to agree with R. If your take away from this book is that you should pity soldiers who lack the "education level" to express themselves without profanity, then you have fundamentally misunderstood Shay's purpose, and in fact have walked away with views counter to his intended purpose. Shay argues that trauma exists because veterans cannot communalize their grief and traumatic experiences. In fact, Shay evidences numerous veterans whose efforts to communalize grief were stymied by wives and relatives who could not deal with coarse language or unsettling descriptions of combat! To be sure, some veterans that Shay worked with lacked college education, or were high-school dropouts, but he indicates that many patients were well-read and intelligent.


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