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Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming

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In this ambitious follow-up to Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay uses the Odyssey, the story of a soldier's homecoming, to illuminate the pitfalls that trap many veterans on the road back to civilian life.

Seamlessly combining important psychological work and brilliant literary interpretation with an impassioned plea to renovate American military institutions, Shay deepens our understanding of both the combat veteran's experience and one of the world's greatest classics.

352 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2002

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Jonathan Shay

12 books24 followers

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Profile Image for David Sarkies.
1,813 reviews319 followers
July 9, 2016
Trial of the Returning Soldier

Back in the days when I was working in personal injury I was fascinated with the idea of how the Greek writers knew so much about the psychological impact of war and how troops dealt with the horrors not just on the battlefield but with how they were able to reintegrate into society. However, since that time my interests have shifted elsewhere and this book ended up sitting on my shelf unread. Having glanced over it a number of times while choosing the next book to read I decided to pull it off my shelf and move it from by TBR pile to my read pile, if only to slowly reduce the number of books on that ever growing pile (though it isn't growing as fast as it used to, particularly since I have become a lot more disciplined in my purchasing of books – though of course my virtual TBR pile on Goodreads still seems to be growing at an exponential rate, however that list isn't anywhere near as daunting as the number of books sitting on my TBR shelf).

Anyway, Shay's earlier book Achilles in Vietnam looked at how the Iliad dealt with the soldier's experience on the battlefield and how the lessons therein could be brought into our society to assist in helping soldiers handle the trauma of war. He also looked a numerous flaws in the social structure not only of our society, but also of our military – one of the major ones being the expectation that men, especially soldiers, do not show any signs of grief, and grief, at least in our society, and especially with the modern concept of what it means to be a man, and a soldier, is a sign of weakness. The other issue is that while we live in a democracy, the military is anything but, and the rigidity of the chain of command, is one of its greatest flaws. Well, while Achilles in Vietnam dealt with the battlefield, Odysseus in America uses The Odyssey to explore how soldiers can reintegrate into society after returning from war, and how our modern society has yet to effectively deal with the returned soldier.

Personally, I didn't like this book as much as I did the previous book, but a part of that was because I have moved on somewhat since I read his first book, though a part of me still wanting to see his thoughts on Homer's Odyssey. Mind you, the Odyssey is more like an adventure, structured as a tale that Odysseus tells his listeners of his adventures as he tries to get home to his kingdom and to his wife Penelope. Much of what Shay looks at is more allegorical than his previous book, particularly since much of what Homer tells us, through the mouth of Odysseus, is little more than a tall tale where the truth is probably being sacrificed for the sake of a great, and entertaining, story. However, despite the dubiousness of the events, Shay still believes there is a lot in the Odyssey that can help us understand the struggles that soldiers face when they return home. The other thing about this book is that it is more of a clinical text targeted professionals working with returned Veterans as opposed to something for the average punter on the street (like myself).

One thing that Shay seems to constantly remind us is that as a commander Odysseus is pretty appalling. This came as a bit of a shock, especially since my extended exposure to the world of the Ancient Greeks seems to focus mainly on Odyssey's good points, or at least the points that made Odysseus a character that many of us will recognised, particularly with his guile and his cunning. Odysseus is famous for his trick in getting the Greeks into Troy through the use of the wooden horse, and bringing the war to a quick, and satisfactory, conclusion after a ten year stalemate. However, while Shay points out that as a special forces operative, and a spy, Odysseus excels, while as a commander he is pretty appalling. The main reason that he says this is because, out of all the ships, and men, that he took to Troy, he is the only one to return – every other man under his command was killed on the way back, and while the suggestion is that they were responsible for their own deaths, Shay is quick to point out that this is an argument being put to us and that if we ignore the narrative, and look at the facts behind the story, it is clear that Odysseus could have done more, in fact he could have done a lot more, to make sure that his men made it home alive.

The interesting thing is that many of us, or me at least, never viewed Odysseus in this manner, probably because there is a difference in the society at the time. Most Greek plays, in fact most literature before the contemporary era, really only deals with the movers and shakers of the world. Take Shakespeare for instance – his heroes are always kings and princes and the only commoners that tend to appear are generally treated with scorn and mockery. Even in plays like Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, whose main characters are all commoners, the characters are all a bunch of untrustworthy cretins. So is the case with the Odyssey – here we have Odysseus, the hero, who is fraught at every turn by a group of untrustworthy men while being tormented by gods who he has inadvertently offended. However Shay turns this interpretation on its head, suggesting that Odysseus is in fact the author of his own misfortune, and that to blame the men for their deaths, and Odysseus' bad luck, is not only the sign of a flawed commander, but also a sign of a flawed narrative.

This is no doubt one of the biggest issues facing the Vietnam vets when they returned Stateside. In fact it was a similar narrative facing those returning from the Korean War (and possibly even those returning from the Middle East). The problem arises is that when the troops returned home from World War II, and even World War I, they returned home to a heroes welcome – the war had been won and the soldier's who fought in the war were heroes. In fact many of them went on to become presidents and captains of industry, and even though who went into unskilled manufacturing jobs ended up having a pretty good life. However the next generation – the baby boomers – faced a different world. In fact there were two types – those who went to Vietnam and those who didn't, and if you compare the two you will no doubt see a massive difference between them.

The thing with Vietnam was that the war was lost, not officially, but it was, and many people saw it as such. Like Odysseus' men, it was the troops that shouldered the biggest burden. In fact it was decades before they were actually recognised as actually participating in a war. I remember that for most of my childhood the Vietnam vets didn't participate in the ANZAC day parades, and weren't recognised among their fellow veterans. It was as if the war itself was an embarrassment, and the soldiers who fought in the war were blamed for it's loss. There was no heroes' welcome for them, no victory day parade, just an empty feeling for those who had been forgotten.

This is more so when we are dealing with people coming back with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Even today people shy away from accepting mental illness as being not only an actual illness, or condition, but also debilitating. Mind you there are a lot of conditions that fall under that category and people who suffer from these debilitating conditions are mocked and ridiculed, told to get on with their life and to get over it. To many of us on the outside these conditions, as debilitating as they are, do not register as such because we cannot actually see it – it isn't as if they had lost a leg, or an arm, or are even blind. To many of us a condition can only be debilitating if we can actually see it as being debilitating.

Another interesting thing that Shay raises as being one of the problems with soldiers reintegrating in society is with regards to the skills that they have learnt in war. The thing is that most of the skills one picks up in the army, especially if one is a grunt, don't really transpose over into civil society. Even being a policeman is not really an option, particularly since the skill set of a policeman is vastly different from the skillset of a soldier (or even a special forces operative). In fact many of these soldiers, who all they knew how to do was to kill people, found it very difficult using their skills to return to society. Some of them were successful, many of them weren't. In fact, for quite a lot of soldiers the only occupation that was open to them was crime.

Mind you, there are a number of films, in particular the A-Team, where there is a romanticised version of the Vietnam Vet returning home and running off into the Los Angeles underground to live a life of crime. Okay, the A-Team weren't actually living a life of crime, they were simply running around, firing off lots of guns, and scaring away bad guys so that innocent people weren't terrorised. However I have seen other films that are vastly different, including one called Dead Presidents. This is a classic example of the returning Vietnam Vet getting caught up in crime because there was no other avenue open to him. In fact the final lines of the film (and I really didn't like the film by the way, but that is another story) was a judge, who had fought in World War II, heaping scorn on the Vietnam Vet, which was been involved in an armed robbery that resulted in mutliple deaths, simply because the judge had made something of his life, while the Vietnam Vet hadn't. Mind you, the fact that the vet was black didn't help either.

The final thing that I wish to touch upon, other than the fact that the United States is not a combat zone, which makes it very hard from soldiers to re-adapt to civilian life upon returning home (and it wasn't like in the pre-industrial world where soldiers simply when back to their plots of ground, but still lived in a pretty brutal world). Mind you, while there may be parts of the United States considered a war zone, this is not the same as Vietnam. In fact most of the United States is pretty peaceful (which doesn't necessarily mean I feel safe there, especially with the events that occurred this week), and a soldier who has spent at least one tour wondering if he is going to return from his patrol, and even not knowing who is the friend and who is the enemy (as well as repeatedly being betrayed by the powers that be), is going to have a pretty difficult time to adapt – it wasn't as if the enemy in Vietnam actually wore uniforms.

While I haven't yet watched the series Band of Brothers (I have it on DVD, but time restraints, and other things that I would prefer to do keep on pushing it back) Shay suggests that the modern system of moving individuals constantly around and replacing lost people with individuals is another of the major flaws with the modern American military. It is interesting how he regularly looks to the Israeli Defence Force for inspiration because he believes there are a lot of things that they do that actually help their troops readjust to civilian life. When it comes to Israel, whether we agree with their actions on Palestine or not, the one thing that they have perfected is they way that they are able move their soldiers from the military back into the civilian world. We must remember that not only do they have conscription, but they are also in a constant state of war. The thing that they do is that they don't look at their soldiers as individuals but as teams, and that is one thing the American military could learn. The fact that soldiers are treated as individuals, when in a war the unit needs to see themselves as a Band of Brothers, is one of the major reasons why the soldiers have a lot of trouble adjusting to civilian life after they return from war (or even being able to perform their best while in war).
Profile Image for David Lentz.
Author 17 books313 followers
August 13, 2016
This well written work of non-fiction is about the homecoming of warriors like Odysseus after the Trojan War and the brutal impact that war has upon their being when they return home. The writer is a VA staff psychiatrist at an outpatient clinic in Boston and he knows his Homer. Shay saw that the trials and tribulations of Odysseus on his 20 year return to Ithaca had distinctive parallels to the experiences of veterans from the Vietnam War based upon his first-hand outpatient experience. Each of the chapters of the "Odyssey" capture a wounding experience for Odysseus, which name translates to "man of hate" or "he who sows trouble." The alternate name used by Joyce, Ulysses, in Greek is Oulixes, which comes from his scar, "oule." If you've read the "Odyssey," then you may recall that upon his return to the shores Ithaca he appears as a wizened, ragged beggar. He is unrecognized except by his dog, Argos, who was a pup when Odysseus left for war and dies upon seeing his master at his return from Troy. Even the swineherd, Eumaeus, from the estate of Odysseus doesn't recognize him, at first, when he returns but his old nurse, Eurycleia, does remember a scar from a wound upon his leg from hunting a wild boar as a child. The point is that courageous veterans have all been wounded deeply by the brutal trauma of their combat for years after their return home. There is really no forgetting the savagery of war: Shay mentions that "amnesty" at its roots means a "forgetting" of past grievances by both sides in war. This book gave me a new perspective of Odysseus, whom I had always considered one of the most agile, fit, courageous, resourceful and intelligent of the Greek warriors. However, Shay is highly critical of Odysseus as a warrior because his leadership decisions resulted in the loss of so many men under his command: indeed, he lost two generations of men from Ithaca after returning home alone from Troy after 20 years. Shay also writes to set straight a common misconception about the Sirens and their songs: it is commonly understood that their wailing was a seduction meant to lure sailors onto shoals but Shay writes that the reason that the Siren songs drove Odysseus and his crew nearly insane is because they knew and sang the truth about the Trojan War, which was unbearable to hear after the war had ended. "Woe to the innocent who hears that Sound! / He will not see his lady nor his children/ in joy, crowding about him, home from war/ the Sirens will sing his mind away." The seductive power of the Siren's song was the "musical reenactment of his own past, his own self, his own reflection, his own narcissism," Shay writes. There are the famous women of the Odyssey in Calypso, Nausicaa and Circe, all of whom symbolize major potential post-war problems for returning veterans. Shay is hard on Odysseus for his leadership decisions at Scylla & Charybdis, the island of the Laestrygonians and in killing the cattle of the Sun King. Homer has been described by Shay as a collection of writers who put onto paper the oral tradition of those poets who sang the old songs about the Trojan War. There is no peace for Odysseus and too little joy, even after the war ends in victory for the Greeks, the scars of Odysseus remain with him and are born by him with as much grace as the love and kindness of those around him enable him to manage. This is a book about the tragedy of war and how ultimately it solves nothing even for victors like Ulysses.
Profile Image for Debbie.
3,277 reviews61 followers
March 17, 2009
This book discusses how soldiers, both in ancient Greece and in Vietnam, coped with what they'd seen and done during the war once they came home. Ingrained behaviors that once kept them alive now had no place, and civilians (even family) often denied them the emotional safety needed to express their pain and trauma so that they could come to a place of healing.

The first part of the book breaks down the various adventures in Odysseus and shows how each demonstrates an experience or coping behavior of military personal who have returned from war. (A summary version of the epic poem is provided in the appendix for those who haven't read it lately.) The author then gives examples of similar problems and coping behaviors that he's seen in his work with Vietnam veterans with severe PTSD.

The second part of the book briefly discusses several methods the author has successfully used to help restore veterans with severe PTSD to healthy, useful lives.

The last part of the book shows how the current military practices (in organization and incentives) could be changed to help prevent PTSD while also making our forces more effective as fighting units. Frankly, I was appalled to discover that some effective, life-saving military organizational practices were discarded for very petty reasons. I hope things have changed in this regard since 2002.

The author has a very different worldview than I do. He believes that war and subsequent coping behavior come from how we evolved. He also seems to believe that all religions are equally able to help veterans cope with their feelings of guilt. Because of our different worldviews, I was not entirely convinced by several of his conclusions throughout the book.

Overall, this book was interesting and easy to read. The veteran's story's were often heart-rending. This book was a valuable source of information about the struggles of Vietnam veterans, some ways these struggles can be won, and some ways PTSD can be prevented in future generations of military personal. I'd recommend this book to anyone who has served in the military during a war (though there may be better books out there for those who are actually struggling with severe PTSD) or to anyone who wants a better understanding of what Vietnam veterans went through upon their return from war.
587 reviews1 follower
March 19, 2021
Superb! I had to take breaks because this book was so intense. The author is a psychiatrist/therapist for Vietnam veterans with PTSD-- which is an injuries of combat just as much as an amputated leg. Simple PTSD is "the persistence into civilian life of adaptations needed to survive battle" while complex PTSD is that and "the destruction of the capacity for social trust." The author also is an amateur classicist with a deep understanding of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In this book, he uses the character of Odysseus and his experiences returning from war-- as a lens into how challenging it is for veterans to return to war and what types of challenges they face. (See also his first book Achilles in Vietnam). Below I will describe some of the most striking moments of the book for me.

First, we revisit the Odyssey as an analogy for the typical challenges soldiers face when returning home from war, told by Odysseus himself to a bunch of wealthy complacent civilians. I 100% am convinced by this masterful analysis that the Odyssey absolutely IS an allegory for soldiers returning from war. Consider!

(1) Phaeacian Court: Odysseus returns to the civilian world by washing up on shore amidst wealthy courtiers. He finds the civilians hard to relate to, with their interest in games and luxuries. He has "more on [his] mind than track and field...". Odysseus also loses it during a banquet when a bard sings honestly of war-- he starts crying and trying to hide his face, to the discomfort and confusion of the Phaeacian king. All of these feelings and happenings are paralleled in real life soldiers returning to civilian life.

(2) Raid on Ismarus: Odysseus and his men are pirates who conduct a brutal raid. This is bizarre at first glance. The pirate raid represents that soldiers remain in combat mode when they come home; they cannot just flip of the "combat" switch that has kept them alive at war.

(3) The Lotus Land: Odysseus and his men are sorely tempted to stop in the Land of the Lotus where inhabitants live in drugged-out bliss. Odysseus cautions his men "No one taste the Lotos, or you lose your hope of home." This represents the "flight from pain" by which veterans self medicate with alcohol or harder drugs.

(4) Cyclops: Odysseus perplexingly leads his men into the lair of the cyclops, out of a sort of boredom, leading to the brutal deaths of many men (and one of the most tole and retold adventures of the Odyssey, by which cunning Odysseus escapes by clinging to the bellies of the sheep and taunts the cyclops by saying "I am Nobody.") Odysseus's taunting and foolhardy decisions come against the pleadings of his crew and further doom them when Poseidon, the cyclops' father, takes revenge. This foolhardy adventure represents the thrill-seeking taken by veterans (and also is part of the basis for the author's strong critiques of Odysseus as a terrible military leader, albeit a cunning individual operative).

(5) King of the Winds: Aeolus helps Odysseus by giving him contained wind and a clear voyage home, bottling up all of the winds that would blow him off course. But Odysseus doesn't trust his crew and doesn't tell them what is in the bag/trunk (a second side of his poor leadership, where he does not share enough information nor responsibility); they loose the winds, expecting treasure, and the ship is blown widely off course. Aeolus declines to help Odysseus again. This serves as a metaphor for veterans trying to find employment, getting a leg up, but not successfully gaining from a "leg up" for one reason or another. For example, veterans may call off of work to go help a fellow veteran but then be fired for it (whereas a similar action for a spouse or parent would be better understood by civilian society).

(6) Laestrygonian Fjord: Here Odysseus does not trust his men enough to share his concerns about mooring in a calm looking fjord. Forthwith, a bunch of his men get eaten by the Laestrygonians. This both reveals Odysseus's lack of trust and shows how veterans learn to distrust their superiors and other when they are treated badly.

(7) Circe: At many points in the Odyssey, women are presented as mistrustful, dangerous, and dehumanized. Circe turns Odysseus's men into pigs. The author argues that this theme, of women luring and harming men, recurs again and again through the epic. Once Odysseus intimidates Circe, she responds with "sex, baths, food, wine as therapy for a haggard, sere spirit"-- perhaps a form of unattainable wish fulfilment for veterans.

(8) Hades: Among the dead, Odysseus wrestles with memory and guilt in poignant, anguished scenes which are true to the reality for veterans with PTSD.

(9) The Sirens: Many know the story of Odysseus lashed to the pole listening to the siren's song. Why were the sirens so enticing? They do not sing about sex, but they do sing about the TRUTH OF WAR. They sing "We know everything the [Greeks] and Trojans did and suffered in wide Troy". The author notes that many veterans become consumed by the "unattainable, toxic quest" of searching for the absolute truth of what happened in war.

(10) Scylla and Charybdis: Odysseus us warned by Circe NOT to fight Scylla in the normal armed way, but to sail past as fast as possible. He bridles at this and decides to fight, and many of his men die. The author notes that the dual perils of Scylla and Charybdis represent the many perils facing returning veterans, from drug abuse to homelessness to PTSD, and the response they have been trained to do-- armed fighting-- is completely not suitable to the dangers of civilian life.

(11) Sun God's Cattle: Odysseus's crew eat the sun god's cattle against orders, dooming themselves, while Odysseus takes a loooong nap (seemingly absolving himself of guilt). Here again the theme of guilt comes in.

(12) The Whirlpool: Odysseus is nearly sucked in to the whirlpool and barely emerges. Veterans have a strong fear of losing their minds.

(13) Calypso, the Nymphomaniac: Odysseus reports that he is kept prisoner as an unwilling bed partner to Calypso. Some veterans use sex as a "shock treatment" for PTSD.

(14) Back in Ithaca, at Home: Odysseus finally returns home-- but behaves in a bewilderingly dishonest and paranoid manner, testing those close to him, lying freely, and murdering many women of the house who slept with (or were suspected to have slept with) Penelope's suitors. "Coldness and cruelty to nearest and dearest" is a frequent manifestation of PTSD.

The second section of the book deals with online and in person communities of veterans, and their role in helping veterans to heal. It was very interesting reading interchanges between veterans and other veteran-adjacent community members.

The third section of the book offers specific policy prescriptions. Most amazingly, in Vietnam soldiers were swapped out willy-nilly and changed companies, changed social groups at every level of training, etc-- despite substantial evidence that MANY LIVES can be saved, and MANY INJURIES (psychological and non) can be avoided, by training and serving alongside the same Band of Brothers.
Profile Image for Valarie.
162 reviews10 followers
July 19, 2008
My father is a veteran of World War II, not Vietnam, but my friends' fathers are Vietnam vets and I encounter more than my share of such vets when I accompany my dad to the VA Hospital.

This was the first book that gave expression to my belief that, in some way I couldn't quite put my finger on, our soldiers were being shortchanged. It's not just Vietnam, it's all of them. This book helped me set an additional goal to my commitment to pacifism. While I prefer that no one fights a war, if you MUST, you shouldn't be screwed by the government you fought for.

I've found, unfortunately, that a lot of veterans (including my dad) don't feel they deserve to be treated any better than they are. That's a complete shame and it's up to all of us to help them fight for what they deserve at home as well.
Profile Image for Melise.
459 reviews1 follower
October 2, 2020
Since reading Rachel Maddow’s book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, I have tried to be more aware of our country’s current military status, and educate myself about the experience of America’s soldiers and combat veterans. That was the impulse that led me to add this book to my TBR list. I found Shay’s analysis persuasive, and hope that some of the changes that he suggests have been implemented within our current military forces.

However, my personal appreciation for this book arose because his analysis of The Odyssey spoke to me strongly. I read both The Iliad and The Odyssey as a college freshman (nearly forty years ago), and reread The Odyssey just this year. Upon rereading, I was reminded of how confusing I found Odysseus’ behavior throughout this story. Why must he hide his identity from his father? Why doesn’t he share the warnings of the gods with his men, allowing them to make better, more informed decisions, and potentially saving them from many disastrous mistakes. Shay’s interpretation of Odysseus’ behavior as exemplifying all of the worst choices a military commander can make, led me to better understand my own reactions to the epic, and made me more interested in rereading The Iliad again, with Shay’s interpretations in mind.
Profile Image for Martha.
205 reviews7 followers
October 19, 2017
The companion volumes Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America are profound discussions of what war does to men and women who become grunts in the field and then are expected to return to civilian life and come to terms with various levels of PTSD in a world that knows nothing about their experiences. The author is a clinical psychiatrist who works with Vietnam vets who have PTSD in Boston. The books are vivid, gripping, and heartbreaking. Using the Iliad and the Odyssey as metaphors for the universal experience of what it's like to fight a war and then try to return home is inspired. The books make an illuminating accompaniment to Ken Burns's series on the Vietnam War, but they're by no means pertinent only to Vietnam. The news from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and everywhere else flows through your head as you read. They're excellent and valuable for every citizen whose country can't seem to stop sending people to die for unclear reasons and keeps botching the execution.
Profile Image for Colin.
Author 5 books127 followers
June 11, 2018
Just completed my re-read of this work (with a forward by Senators Max Cleland and John McCain) on the difficulties experienced by some traumatized combat veterans in re-integrating with civilian society after coming home from war, with reference to the episodes of the Odyssey as allegories for some of the challenges experienced, and Odysseus' own problematic homecoming as emblematic of that. Like the previous book, Achilles in Vietnam, the purpose is to look for ways to avoid causing trauma and to ameliorate the effects of trauma when it cannot be avoided (which, as the author points out, cannot be completely avoided as long as warfare exists).
Profile Image for Lindsay C-T.
189 reviews
December 8, 2018
I wasn't prepared for how extremely interesting and impactful this book would be; I figured it would just provide excerpts for my Odyssey Unit. However, the subject of trauma is, sadly, all too familiar to many of my students and although this book focuses on Vietnam veterans, it remains as relevant as ever in today's tumultuous climate. I could honestly teach an entire class about trauma in literature, with this as a foundational text.
Profile Image for Michaela Crutcher-Lord.
58 reviews4 followers
November 13, 2018
Excellent analogies to connect modern day combat veterans to the Greek tales, Shay does a fantastic job with comparisons, metaphors and explanations on particularly the atmosphere for Vietnam veterans. Instead of concentrating on one side, Shay exposes the war and its effects as a whole and connects the culture to Homer’s fictional work, which seems more like a truth.
Profile Image for Lex.
95 reviews4 followers
August 19, 2021
I read this without having read its predecessor, Achilles in Vietnam. While the book references its predecessor frequently, I felt it worked well as a standalone book. Overall, this was a very thoughtful analysis of The Odyssey and how the legendary king’s experience might relate to modern day veterans.
54 reviews4 followers
February 2, 2018
Combines medicine, psychology, and classical literature. Easy to read, conversational... you probably don't even need to read Odysseus to read this book, but it is encouraged so you have a background when he's referring to events in the Greek epic.
Profile Image for Kristina Sawyckyj.
14 reviews1 follower
April 19, 2021
Dr. Shay used his knowledge of Greek literature to explain a veterans challenges to returning home. The challenges vets experienced after Vietnam with their homecoming, he compared to Greek/Roman veterans returning.
Profile Image for Robert Devine.
295 reviews6 followers
January 5, 2019
Well-written non-fiction, which creates a parallel between Odysseus' journey back to Ithaca with combat veterans' return home; an important work in field of combat trauma and PTSD
Profile Image for Kelsey.
233 reviews
September 19, 2021
There's no doubt that we can assume Odysseus had some PTSD symptoms, but from what I remember from "The Odyssey" there isn't very compelling evidence for this. I didn't know anything about PTSD during the two times I've read "The Odyssey," and only just picked up on it years later after recently reading Madeline Miller's Circe (and being a mental health professional who was working with active duty and learning how to identify and diagnose PTSD). To find evidence of Odysseus' PTSD symptoms would require looking to other myths outside of how "The Odyssey" ends (from my memory). Yes, Odysseus slaughters all the suitors upon his return, but that as seen as acceptable/honorable so that he can reclaim his throne and his home and family - that is not a PTSD-driven rage in the context of the story and Greek society (to my knowledge/memory). The PTSD symptom evidence (which isn't in "The Odyssey," so I'm assuming is in other myths) per Miller's "Circe" is much clearer in demonstrating PTSD.

I think Shay's analysis was pretty far-reaching in most of the examples he provided to "prove" Odysseus' combat PTSD based only on "The Odyssey." He argues everything Odysseus experiences is a metaphor for PTSD and "the soldier's journey home," which I don't agree with. "The Odyssey" is an adventure story, using Odysseus' pride and cunning as his fatal flaws while simultaneously being his strengths. The whole reason his journey home took so long is because he pissed off Poseidon at the get-go, which again, no evidence he responds the way he does due to PTSD. Odysseus is known for being a cunning, prideful, smart-ass. I don't think PTSD is at the forefront of the story. It can definitely be assumed he would have PTSD and that he struggled with it *after* returning home, which is when the reader actually sees the symptoms, at least per "Circe." (Again, there is no direct evidence of PTSD symptoms upon his return home other than him becoming tearful when hearing about the Trojan War. In fact, the story ends on a happy note, with Odysseus and Penelope reconnecting). Maybe there is firmer evidence *outside* of just "The Odyssey," but Shay doesn't bring those sources into the discussion, if there are any.

Take, for example, the chapter "Calypso: Odysseus the Sexaholic." In it, Shay argues Odysseus is Calypso's sex slave for seven years as some metaphor for veterans escaping their symptoms through sex. Sure... OR, maybe Odysseus is literally held captive by a goddess with no way to get home and does what he has to? There's no evidence that this is some deeper metaphor for a facet of PTSD...

Another issue with Shay's thesis is that some of what he attributes as Odysseus' PTSD symptoms are simply known as some of his character traits - being cunning, selfish, impulsive, etc. There is not evidence in the text (again, per my memory) that these traits developed in response to combat conditions. Odysseus was known before the Trojan war for these qualities. The difference between "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad" is that the latter *is* about combat and the destruction of character through Achilles. The entire book is about combat and it's effects. I'm not saying Odysseus doesn't have or couldn't have PTSD - he very likely does - but I don't think there's enough evidence in the text of "The Odyssey" to definitely say all of his actions and responses are due to PTSD... I might need to *sigh* read "The Odyssey" AGAIN for a dreaded 3rd time to see if I can spot any PTSD symptoms. But not today.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Cameron.
Author 8 books18 followers
July 20, 2014
Companion volume to Shay's 1993 Achilles in Vietnam, these two books should best be published in a single edition, as they deal with the same themes. Shay's brilliant thesis is that the Iliad and the Odyssey represent the universal experiences of soldiers throughout the centuries. His careful and extremely insightful interpretations of the Homeric epics serve to describe a new theory of psychological trauma, its causes, treatment and prevention. The idea alone is genius, but Shay's lucid and elegant prose make the reading itself a sublime experience.

Using the Odyssey as a metaphor is not new. What is new is that Shay interprets each chapter in light of the experiences and behavior of returning veterans, based on Shay's many years of experience treating veterans of the Vietnam War. In the original tale, each adventure further stripped Odysseus of his men, his ships and his dignity; Shay argues that in fact Odysseus was at fault for much of this loss through poor judgement and egoism, stemming from his own history of trauma. Particularly poignant is the relationship of Odysseus (and every veteran) with the dead--comrades, enemies and innocents alike, and how Shay has worked with this by bringing veterans to the Memorial Wall in Washington DC.

Shay ends with a discussion of how combat trauma might be prevented if the US military were reorganized and certain protocols instituted. There is some indication that his advice is being followed, although progress is slow. Nonetheless, Shay's contribution to military mental health is significant and far-reaching.

I couldn't give this book 5 stars because of one error that stood out. Shay argues that military changes that exacerbated combat trauma began during WWII, and refers to "the poor combat performance of American troops against their German army adversaries," saying that "we lost so many of our battles against the Germans" as a result of poor leadership and lack of cohesion. Shay says that American officers "demanded blind obedience" while the Germans practiced "positive leadership" and displayed integrity and sensitivity to the needs of their subordinates. This is totally contrary to historical fact.

Shay is clearly an expert on the US military of the Vietnam era, but these bizarrely inaccurate statements about WWII show that he has much to learn about both the American and German armies of that period. I think he is not above distorting the facts to make a point.

All that aside, I enjoyed this book thoroughly and will refer back to it often in my work with trauma survivors.
Profile Image for Steve Woods.
618 reviews61 followers
August 3, 2015
This together with its companion volume "Achilles in Vietnam" have taught me more about combat related ptsd and its consequences than anything else I have read. Theye are seminal works. A bit quirky given the constant references to the Illiad and the Odyssey and that may make them a little less accessible to some people but in essence those references just show that there is nothing new under the sun and what veterans suffer today they suffered thousands of years ago in the same way. I am a combat veteran, having fought in both Vietnam and Cambodia in the 70's and these volumes are a map of my life both in the service and after I returned. What I saw to be personal failing and flaws were after all simply maladaptive behavior that is consistent across the board for those with similar experiences.

The most valuable contribution made by both volumes was the distinction drawn between simple and complex ptsd. It explains much of what I saw and still see in treat meant centers. In Australia at least most of the professional staff I have encountered are ill informed, ill equipped and often unprofessional in their approach to veterans. Unfortunately the lowest common denominator often prevails and so most treatment if it can be called that is based on experience of people who suffer from simple ptsd and never confronts the more difficult and substantially more extreme behaviors that are typical of complex ptsd and derive from the betrayals so often con-commitant with combat, that completely destroy the capacity for what Shay describes as social trust. This is the core of my own condition and in my experience the so called professionals and the system they serve failed me and everyone like me. Their only response seemingly to drug these veterans out of their mind to keep them manageable.

What's more the cycle that applied to Veitnam veterans is now being repeated for those returning from Afghanistan Iraq and other recent conflicts. Millions of dollars are being wasted and very little is being achieved. If a mental health professional who is dealing with veterans has not read and fully digested these works then they are in my view professionally negligent. Funny, given the many I have met over the years none have been able to say they have done this reading, or in most cases any of the reading I have done and found useful in managing my own condition. Well there ya go ay!
Profile Image for Ron.
761 reviews132 followers
April 24, 2012
Shay's decades of work with Vietnam veterans, as described and explained in this book, helped formalize the syndrome of behavior that came to be known as post traumatic stress disorder. It afflicts soldiers living in mortal danger for long periods of time, leaving them afterwards in a near-permanent state of hyper-vigilance. They have suffered what Shay characterizes as a moral injury, which like other disabling war injuries prevents them from returning fully to civilian life. He calls it a moral injury because what has been injured is the ability to trust - even those closest and dearest - and living in the civilian world is impossible without it.

The ancients, Shay argues, understood the psychological dangers of combat for those who fight, survive, and return home. The combination of both cunning (necessary for survival) and the predictable errors in judgment among those who both give and take orders are reflected in the character of Odysseus, who returns with his men from the Trojan War in Homer's "The Odyssey." There is, Shay asserts, good reason why his name means literally, "he who makes trouble for others." The loss of all of his men and then the bloodbath that follows his arrival in Ithaca, as he eliminates Penelope's suitors, illustrate how violence and death follow him long after the war is over.

The fault lies not in individual men, Shay argues, but in a kind of military command that treats them as replaceable parts of a large fighting machine, instead of as groups of soldiers who train and fight together and then are demobilized together. The communal aspect of this supportive group process helps men and women make the return safely and helps them overcome the aftermath of war's traumatizing impact. Again and again, Shay argues that it is our responsibility as citizens to be sure that those who have risked their lives to serve in the armed forces are provided in turn with the vital services they need to re-enter the world they left behind and to live once again at peace with themselves and others. His argument gives new and urgent meaning to the phrase "Support Our Troops."
Profile Image for Ana-Maria Bujor.
898 reviews61 followers
January 1, 2016
This was a book that really made me think and that should be read (in my view) by anyone dealing with war veterans, be they family, friends or psychologists.
First of all, it challenged me when it comes to literature. I've never been a fan of Homer's epics in their translated form and just saw them as simple mythological tales. The author however shows very convincingly that the Odyssey could actually be a powerful metaphor of the veteran coming home and even of the symptoms of PTSD.
Second, the stories of the people coming back after the horror in Vietnam,their reactions (good and bad),the attempts to reintegrate, all of these are presented without judgment and with plenty of humanity. I think this book is especially good to read in the light of the presidential elections as Vietnam veteran and former senator Jim Webb is currently criticized for some statements. It offers another perspective.
However, don't expect a tear-jerker. There are strong emotional scenes, but for the most part the book is a work of science, tackling topics such as ancient literature, mental health and the reformation of the military system. I will definitely look for the other books of the author.
Profile Image for Mary Gail O'Dea.
141 reviews6 followers
February 2, 2012
Shay uses the myth of Odysseus as a metaphor for a combat soldier's journey home. it took Odysseus ten years to get home, time marked symbolically by violence, sexual acting out, substance abuse...not si different than many vets, especially Vietnam vets with whom Shay has worked for many years. there are very moving passages about trips with vets to the Wall. Shay has been in the trenches for a long time and clearly loves his vets. As we wind down Afghanistan and deal with our sons and daughters coming home from that war and from Iraq, Shay helps us think carefully about the many casualties of wars that perhaps we need not engage. As he and his vets point out, the Wall does not list all the Vietnam casualties, some of which continue to occur today. Was it worth it? What really does make a war worrheile or necessary?
Profile Image for Corinne.
9 reviews1 follower
January 18, 2014
I have read the Odyssey and the Iliad many times as Greek and Roman Mythology are one of my favorite hobbies (NERD ALERT). To be honest, my favorite thing about the Odyssey was the presence of a truly “Good Woman” (one of very few in classic literature) in Penelope. I have always liked the Iliad more, but I was intrigued by the title and the premise that the issues that plagued Odysseus on his return could be compared to the issues that Vietnam Veterans faced upon their return.

Dr. Shay does not disappoint and is true to the text of the Odyssey while providing insightful observations and experiences from his 15 years of treating Vietnam Veterans in the Boston area. The book is a great read for anyone interested in understanding a little more about the post-combat culture and potential pitfalls our returning Veterans may face once "home."
Profile Image for Lindsey.
70 reviews
July 27, 2014
The best book about war and homecoming I've ever read. Shay was highly academic, giving soldiers and their experiences the caliber of intellectual thought they deserved, but also accessible and real, validating the full range of emotions felt. I was surprised at how many of the emotions he mentioned I've felt, as a wife of a chaplain and not a soldier myself (though you could argue that I am, in a different sense). Also, explaining war and homecoming through the lens of Odysseus was pure genius. I'm now even rewatching the Hobbit with new eyes. I think all American citizens should have to read this book. I would give it six stars if I could.
Profile Image for Ryan.
269 reviews
January 18, 2015
The follow-up to Shay's excellent Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. AiV discussed the effects of combat trauma, post-traumatic stress and moral injury in the context of the Iliad; OiA is concerned with how those phenomena affect the post-war experience of veterans returning home, as illustrated by an interpretation of the Odyssey. Good, but I didn't get the same sort of struck-by-lightning feeling as I did from AiV - possibly because the application of the Odysseus story felt a little more stretched than that of Achilles in the first book. Recommended, but certainly read AiV if you're going to read this.
Profile Image for Jon.
983 reviews13 followers
November 2, 2020
Haven't read Dr. Shay's first book, Achilles in Vietnam, which may be written in the same manner, but I really enjoyed the way he weaves the tale of Homer's Odysseus with the experiences of returning combat veterans in modern day America. It's been a long time since high school literature class, and my reading in the classics and mythology, but the details slowly drifted back into my consciousness as the chapters proceeded.

He had to stretch things a bit to make the story fit all of his ideas and experiences dealing with veterans, but it was still a good read, which left me with a better understanding of the long term effects of combat.
Profile Image for Dan.
13 reviews1 follower
April 17, 2013
This book was great. I've given away copies and read it twice myself. As a combat vet I felt like Dr. Shay exposed me to aspects of myself, previously unconsidered, that helped me to face daily life with a more reflective foundation.

He pairs his experience with treating veterans to the experience of Odysseus' own homecoming and finds remarkable parallels that, if nothing else, hammer home the universality of war and the experiences of the war-torn on coming home.

Now I'm going to have to read it again....
Profile Image for Paul.
245 reviews15 followers
September 4, 2014
For anyone wanting to know more about trauma, and combat trauma in particular, Odysseus in America is essential reading. Jonathan Shay draws analogies between the myth of Odysseus and the experiences of combat veterans. I have read the Odyssey twice but without the interpretation offered by Jonathan Shay. Shay also provides a number of recommendations to reduce the occurrences of combat trauma and to help those who have it to heal. I am interested in learning more how behavioral health professionals can use literary themes to help individuals heal from trauma.
Profile Image for Jeff Randall.
53 reviews1 follower
July 12, 2011
Jonathan Shay has done invaluable work toward understanding PTSD, grief and our treatment of veterans already with his superb "Achilles in Vietnam" and now follows it up with "Odsseus in America." Part history, psycho-education, and literary analysis the two books compare the experiences of Vietnam Veterans with the story lines of "the Iliad" and "the Odyssey." It is incredible the similarities with these ancient epics to the experiences soldiers and their families deal with today.
Profile Image for K.
761 reviews3 followers
May 27, 2015
I was surprised there was a "sequel" to Achilles in Vietnam that I hadn't heard of, but I definitely understand why this one comes up less among classicists. This would have been better served as a book that focused entirely on his viewpoints about how to better equip our soldiers -- it formed the bulk of the book anyway, and his connections to the ancient text felt a little forced to meet those points.
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