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Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  1,504 ratings  ·  139 reviews

In this strikingly original and groundbreaking book, Dr. Shay examines the psychological devastation of war by comparing the soldiers of Homer's Iliad with Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the Iliad was written twenty-seven centuries ago it has much to teach about combat trauma, as do the more recent, compelling voices and experience
Paperback, 272 pages
Published October 1st 1995 by Scribner (first published 1994)
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May 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Homer is ever present in modern culture, but his power is often reduced to a kind of cartoon. The Iliad becomes a sword-and-sandals Hollywood cliche and the Odyssey becomes the original road movie. Shay brings the Iliad back to reality by shining a new light on the ferocious pain of Achilles, pain that today might be called PTSD, but which Shay calls "moral injury."

Shay reads the Iliad as a psychologist and observes in Achilles some of the same symptoms that he sees in his patients, many of who
Jan 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 cl ...more
Dec 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Adolescents and adults
A powerful study of the impact of PTSD on the human personality, using the Iliad and other classic literary portraits of traumatized warriors to illustrate the timelessness of this problem with special emphasis on the reasons that the Vietnam war was a more shattering experience for many veterans than other wars have been.
May 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: war-vietnam
This book was published in 1994. For some reason it slipped through the radar for me and my reading about Vietnam. That date also means one needs to be careful about using the material to help a veteran. Also I did have some doubts about the veracity of some stories, but who am I to judge.

I was totally immersed in the book which accounts for the many notes I took.

The cover photo is known as "Reaching Out." It brings tears to my eyes every time I look at it. I can get lost in the tiny details o
Janell Rhiannon
May 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book changed the way I saw Achilles. It helped me see the "human" side of the hero birthed by a nymph. Jonathan Shay did two things: described how modern soldiers are affected by war and how Achilles was affected by war. Chapter by chapter, he connects Achilles emotions and actions with the modern warrior. You understand how grief manifests into rage...for today's soldier, as well as yesterday's warrior, using the Iliad and Achilles as the touchstone. It's a fascinating read. I highly recom ...more
David Litwack
Jun 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The definitive work on Vietnam era post traumatic stress. The Author compares the way warriors (soldiers) dealt with the hardship of war in Vietnam and in the Trojan war, based on the Odyssey. The book is filled with moving vignettes, dialog from the Odyssey compared with actual discussions between Vietnam vets and the author.
David Sarkies
Sep 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Polticians, Managers, Bureaucrats
Recommended to David by: Amazon (That is where I first discovered it)
Shelves: sociology
Failures of the American Army
30 September 2012

This is one of the toughest books that I have read to date and pretty much halfway through the chapter on grief I found that my brain had been reduced to slush. Now, I have never been to war and never experienced war, but when Shay says in his introduction that this book will have a tendency to bring flashbacks to combat veterans he was not kidding. As I suggested, I am not a combat veteran and I found this book very hard going myself, and in a way,
Dec 07, 2009 rated it liked it
Achilles in Vietnam is a study of the impact of PTSD on the human personality, using The Iliad to illustrate the impact of this problem with emphasis on the reasons why Vietnam was more traumatic for many veterans than other conflicts have been. This was a good book to read along with The Iliad and helped me bring out some of the underlying themes throughout Homer’s text.
This book contained some very keen observations in it. You just have to fight through all of the boring psychology jargon and
Nov 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This was a great book in conjunction with The Iliad. He compares PTSD symptoms in Viet Vets he counsels to descritions in The Iliad. Very intense depictions of modern PTSD copied verbatim from transcripts with the vets. One man describes leaving his house at night carrying a steak knife, walking down dark alleys hoping someone will threaten him. This is real.
Joe Green
Jul 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I was writing a paper about Bill Anderson and his Civil War experience when I stumbled upon this work. Completely changed the direction of the paper, and my relationship with a friend who recently returned from combat in Iraq.
Aug 16, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 20th-century
This book was somewhat disappointing to me, and I almost abandoned it two-thirds of the way in, but the concluding chapters somewhat redeemed the book.

The basic problem is that the book starts with what seems a very intriguing premise: We can learn a lot about combat trauma and Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder by reading the Iliad, and we can understand the Iliad better by learning about combat trauma, particularly as it affected Vietnam combat veterans. Several interesting ideas are introduced e
I've read the Iliad multiple times and taught parts of it on several occasions. The comparisons to modern soldiers in combat situations brings new life and immediacy to the ancient characters and their actions.

The reader should be aware, though, that Shay in his interpretation of the Iliad in an historical context regards 'Homer' as the single author of a unified text, a bard living in the 8th century BCE; thus he explains, e.g., the immediate deaths on the battlefield (as opposed to drawn-out
May 25, 2022 rated it really liked it
This book is emotionally very difficult, but as the author points out, we owe it to these combat veterans, especially those from Vietnam, to listen, and to do better by them in every single possible way. War is traumatic for everyone involved, and as a society we have failed our soldiers in nearly every conceivable way.

Shay accurately points out that the Iliad is a tragedy- it’s a war story, and a story about the tragedy of Achilles and the undoing of his moral character. We typically see Achil
Emily Murphy
Note: All of these ratings are based on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best.

Writing Quality: 7
Literary criticism and medical nonfiction can be some of the most boring books on the market. Not so with this one. It's written at an accessible level. It is rather dry, befitting its genre, but definitely makes apt comparisons and keeps a good balance between example and explanation.

Setting: 7
Usually nonfiction books don't have a setting, but this one paints such a vivid picture of culture that I consi
May 19, 2021 rated it really liked it

". . . the Iliad can be legitimately read as a text concerning the human experience of combat."

Great read for anyone interested in PTSD/combat trauma, what causes it, how it affects soldiers, and what is at stake when we go to war. This is also a good companion piece for those interested in how PTSD plays a role in the story of The Iliad, particularly for Achilles’ character. Reading “The Iliad” with an understanding of combat trauma adds much more context to the story in my opinion.

Keep in
Jan 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shay's account of PTSD among Vietnam veterans is eye-opening to the horrors faced by soldiers both during and after the war. His juxtaposition of quotes from his patients and lines from The Illiad are well done and includes insightful analysis of the two. I found a frightening similarity between many of the Vietnam experiences and those of the recent wars in the Middle East. The military has learned, since Vietnam, to drastically curtail what the media can show of the war. In recent wars, this s ...more
Sep 12, 2021 rated it liked it
Great information and personal accounts of combat PTSD, but the information is slightly outdated due to the publication date (1994). The use of DSM III-R diagnostic criteria was appropriate for the year of publication, but is now outdated. Those using this book as a resource need to look up the diagnostic criteria for PTSD in the DSM 5.
Jon Thompson
Nov 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
We enjoy scant few opportunities to read our recent history in the light of more ancient examples. This pairing of Vietnam combat experience with the narrative of The Iliad is a wonderful exercise. I hope for more interrelation of the classics to come.
Elizabeth Arnold
Apr 07, 2018 rated it liked it
I feel like this book needs an up-front disclaimer. While it is fair and accurate to describe the book as an interesting academic comparison of the the experience of soldiers in the Illiad (though the caveat must be added: the experience *as related by Homer*) and modern-day soldiers in Vietnam, as well as an argument for a particular framework to understand the 'failure mode' of humans under extreme wartime stress, there are also moments of 'throw you entirely out of the book' revulsion while r ...more
Hank Hoeft
May 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is more about Vietnam than it is about the Iliad, the story of the "Wrath of Achilles." That is, the book uses the story of Achilles and the fall of Troy to explain the experience of thousands of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. More immediate to me, it specifically explores the phenomenon of post-traumatic stress disorder, and why it manifests itself in some but not in others. The author's thesis is that PTSD isn't just from enduring a stressful situation--in Vietnam, it was most ...more
Aug 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Terrific book
Lucy Pearlman
May 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Incredibly compassionate and moving.
Steve Woods
Sep 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a really interesting and valuable book. The author is a classicist, who is very familiar with Homer's Iliad dealing with the Trojan wars, an a psychiatrist who has had extensive experience dealing with Vietnam veterans who suffer from chronic combat related ptsd, (as I do). It has been very difficult to work my way through the effects of my war experience on my psyche and as a result on my life. There have been many admissions to veterans' facilities and many hours of work with psycholog ...more
Aug 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I picked this up after hearing Jonathan Shay give a presentation in Washington. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Shay has used a brilliant medium for discussing the foundations of PTSD in combat veterans, interpreting Achilles’ actions in the Iliad as a manifestation of severe psychological trauma resulting from the death of his friend and foster brother Patroklos, made worse by Agamenon’s disrespectful seizure of Briseis. Shay argues that PTSD results from a violation of “what’s right” foll ...more
May 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This book is strong antidotal medicine for those who are prone to generalize about what makes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) a universal phenomenon among afflicted combat veterans, rather than a conflict-specific condition. The war in Vietnam, like all wars, was universal in this respect: the ways it destroyed lives were as unique as the lives it destroyed. Jonathan Shay explores these specifics by comparing them to the descriptions of combat trauma poetically rendered in Homer's epic of ...more
Sep 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This is a somewhat difficult book to review, but I would go so far as to say this is an absolute must-read for understanding combat trauma. The Achilles argument was enlightening because it contextualized war within the scope of thousands of years of history and thousands of years of soldiering. Shay's treatment of the morally wounded is quite respectful and profoundly thoughtful. The book is peppered with the raw experience of combat survivors, so it is sometimes difficult to read; however, thi ...more
Aug 07, 2008 rated it really liked it
I recently accepted a fellowship in the treatment of PTSD among combat veterans and decided to read Dr. Shay's book in preparation for this position. But first, I read The Illiad, upon which Shay bases his book (I recommend this before you read Achilles in Vietnam so that you can compare your take on the classic to Shay's). Basically, Shay is considering the traumas endured by Vietnam (and other combat) veterans within the context of Homer's classic. He effectively compares and contrasts the cur ...more
Jun 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Because of this book, I am more alive to the *Iliad*, and the truths it tells about war. But what stays with me most from *Achilles in Vietnam* are the individual narratives of suffering and loss. In the last days I have thought constantly of one man's tender description of his "goofy" friend, the meal they'd planned to share, and how in the next moment that friend "disappeared" on a mine. There is a profound analysis of human experience-- of how much friendship means, and how devastating a stro ...more
Dec 06, 2013 rated it it was ok
Synopsis: "In this strikingly original and groundbreaking book, Dr. Shay examines the psychological devastation of war by comparing the soldiers of Homer's Iliad with Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the Iliad was written twenty-seven centuries ago it has much to teach about combat trauma, as do the more recent, compelling voices and experiences of Vietnam vets."

My Review: I have been a huge fan of The Iliad since reading it in college and I have tried to
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158 likes · 40 comments
“As beasts are beneath human restraints, gods are above them... It would be foolish and untruthful to deny the appeal of exalted, godlike intoxication....We have seen the paradox that these godlike exalted moments often correspond to times when the men who have survived them say that they have acted like beasts....Above all, a sense of merely human virtue, a sense of being valued and of valuing anything seems to have fled their lives....However, all of our virtues come from not being gods. Generosity is meaningless to a god, who never suffers shortage or want. Courage is meaningless to a god, who is immortal and can never suffer permanent injury. The godlike berserk state can destroy the capacity for virtue. Whether the berserker is beneath humanity as an animal, above it as a god, or both, he is cut off from all human community when he is in this state.” 5 likes
“Melodramas of moral courage provide satisfaction through the comforting fantasy that our own character would hold steady under the most extreme pressure of dreadful events. [But we must face] the painful awareness that in all likelyhood one's own character would not have stood firm.” 5 likes
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