Jonathan Shay

Shay on the grief of soldiers. Shay is psychiatrist for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in Boston, Shay treats combat veterans with severe psychological injuries and is the author of "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character," and "Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming."


Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

 This conversation is reproduced from Jonathan Shay's interview for the film Voices in Wartime.   

Tell us about PTSD: What is it, and how is it caused?

We have from the American Psychiatric Association official diagnostic terminology, and frankly I hate it. The terminology is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I prefer “psychological injury.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sounds like an illness.

It’s not an illness; it’s an injury. It’s a result of something bad that has happened to you. In the case of combat veterans, it is the experience of having people trying to kill you, or witnessing them killing people that you know and care about, as well as the vast array of terrifying and despairful things that happen to people in a long fight.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as the American Psychiatric Association defines it, is the persistence into civilian life of valid adaptations [to combat]: the shutting down of emotions that don’t immediately serve survival. In a fight, anger is an emotion that is very effective support to fighting for your life. Unfortunately, anger doesn’t get shut down. So there is the persistence of anger into civilian life.

Willard Waller, a World War I combat veteran, wrote one of the great books on the subject of veterans returning to civilian life, The Veteran Comes Back. He says, “The veteran comes home angry.” And that is something that we need to remember and have some compassion for because [veterans] don’t like that. They don’t like being angry all the time.

How destructive is PTSD?
Simple Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is like any other war injury. It can be small or enormous or anything in between, but it does not automatically destroy a person’s capacity for a good human life.

I use a physical analogy that an artillery shell that goes zooming by might take off this part of my little finger on my left hand and I’m right handed. That is a traumatic amputation, but unless I’m a concert violinist, that’s not going to lead to a major disability. I might even cease to notice the absence of that last digit of my little finger very quickly.

However, the soldier standing next to me might loose both of his arms/hands right here in the middle of the forearm as that shell goes zooming by that took off this on me.

A third person: it might graze his head and [sustain] a permanent brain injury that absolutely devastates his capacity for rehabilitation. [He] is just a permanently deranged, demented from total loss of the capacity for a human life.

Now this is an analogy to physical injury. Simple Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can have the kind of extreme range from someone who just sort of seasonally has some nightmares, and maybe startled reactions. [There] might be certain emotions [that] are just difficult for them to reach. [They] may be unable to go into an open space in a crowd because of the fear of snipers or mortar-men even though he can rationally tell you that here in the corner there are no mortar-men.

So it can range anywhere from mild to devastating. I’ve had a patient who at every moment of every day—he said—in his peripheral vision he could see scenes from combat that were constantly playing. He could bring himself with great effort into the here and now, but sometimes that reality would close in so that no matter how much effort he made, he was in that past reality.

And every part of his life—when he sat back in his sofa in his living room, he said, “It’s like when we were humping the boonies and we got a chance to rest, and I’d lean back on my pack.” The past was just constantly there for him.

So the severity matters. The fact is [that] once the capacity for social trust has been destroyed, once the injury has invaded good character, any possibility of a flourishing human life is lost. Unfortunately, [it’s] one of the most accessible kinds of change that can happen to a combat veteran.

And I emphasize we’re talking about a combat veteran. In modern forces in a war there are usually 10 people in the rear in support capacities for every one who is at the point of spear. So there were 3.1 million veterans who served in and around Vietnam in the whole 10 years of that war.

Are war trauma, PTSD, shell shock, and combat fatigue all simply expressions for the same phenomenon?

The names have changed, but the phenomena have not changed. In the Civil War, the neurologists—some of them very wonderful medical scientists—called it nostalgia. They had some theories that somehow produced that term. In World War I it was called shell shock. In World War II it was called combat neurosis. And now it’s called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it’s all the same phenomenon. This isn’t something that was invented during the Vietnam War or by Vietnam veterans. It’s something that’s been with us since the beginning of the human species.

Are these psychological injuries long-term?

The persistence of these adaptations can actually last a lifetime. They don’t always. Most of the time they don’t.

I don’t believe that they are the most destructive and damaging part of what some soldiers come back to civilian life with. The seriously destructive part in this simple PTSD is the persistence. If they’re unable to get good sleep, if the body is still so keyed up that they cannot get good sleep.

If you’re not getting good sleep, and enough sleep—chronically—everything begins to go to pot. People lose their emotional self-restraint. They lose their social judgment. They’re very irritable. It’s really bad news not to be able to sleep.

Another thing is the [emotional] shutting down. If that switch that has turned off the tender, softer, sweeter, more nuanced capacities for emotion remains jammed in the ”off” position—if someone is just emotionally numb to all of those emotions—then negotiating a life with a family with a sweetheart or a wife or with children becomes extraordinarily difficult.

Emotion is an essential part of reason. We’ve all been raised with a kind of folk stoicism that says that reason is over here and emotion is over here, and the less emotion you have, the more reason you have. We’ve also been taught the same thing about virtue: [the] more emotion you have, the less virtue you have.

Well it turns out that they’re both wrong. Without some degree of emotion, people become moral morons. And someone with no emotions—literally no emotions and no ability [for] emotions—is incapable of the simplest kind of social conduct that is free of harm to other people. People become moral morons when all of their emotions are shut down.

How many soldiers suffer from PTSD in any given war?
The truth is that except for the Vietnam War, where very good epidemiological work was done, twenty years after the war we really don’t know. We can’t say with a sharp pencil that the rate in World War II was such and such, the rate in Korea was such and such, and the rate in Vietnam was such and such.

In Vietnam, we can say that of the 750,000 who had high war-zone exposure—that is, those who did get shot at and did shoot at people, the 750,000 who really were in harm’s way—about 35% met the full diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder twenty years later. If you take the whole 3.1 million who were in-country during that period, it’s about 16% - 17%, in that neighborhood.

Why does one person become psychologically injured and another not?

About a third of all people in actual combat will have long-lasting psychological consequences. There are two-thirds that don’t, and I can’t explain it like that [snaps fingers] what the difference is between those who are injured and those that aren’t. But even within this broad umbrella of in-combat or not, there are enormous differences in what the experiences are.

I had a patient who was in a platoon of tanks in Vietnam that was knocked out in an ambush within 90 seconds. All five tanks were knocked out. Of the seventeen people in the five tanks, only two of them walked away; the rest were either dead or had to be evacuated in litters.

Of the two who walked away, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the other guy has no Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today. They were both in the same fight at the same time. Are they the same? I don’t know.

What I know is that my patient witnessed the platoon commander, the lieutenant, essentially shoot himself in the foot. About an hour before this ambush, my patient witnessed [the commander] in the copula of his own tank—for no observable reason—throwing grenades ahead of his tank, one after another.

And then he took a splinter from one of these grenades in his upper lip and called in a medi-vac and was medi-vac’ed, and was not there when the ambush took place. My patient subsequently read in the divisional newspaper that he had put himself in for a Bronze Star, for this battle, and had been awarded the Bronze Star for this battle that he wasn’t even at.

So, did the other person, who walked away and who, according to our hypothetical example does not have PTSD, know these facts about the leader? Is that what makes the difference? I don’t know.

The fact is that just as two people who are brother and sister or two brothers in the same family, don’t have the same experience of growing up in that family, we don’t know how to say, “These are the experiences that we have to count, measure, detect, and those are the ones that we can ignore.” This is still an area of developing knowledge, and we don’t know everything about it, and there are mysteries.

Clearly, robustness counts. It would be absurd to say that some people aren’t more vulnerable to injury than others. You take a stone the size of a golf ball, and you drop it on the shin of an elderly person and that shin breaks. You drop the same stone from the same height on the shin of the circus strong man, and it bounces off without leaving a bruise.

So it would be absurd to say that differences in robustness don’t matter. Of course they matter, but we don’t know exactly how; we don’t know the range of tolerance. If you take a two-ton boulder and drop it on the leg of the circus strong man, that leg turns to mush.

There are some challenges—some traumas—that nobody is robust enough to survive without injury. And there’s a whole vast range of [traumas] that some people can survive without injuries, and others not.

How can we protect soldiers from PTSD?

My message to the military is that cohesion, leadership, and training greatly increase the robustness and resiliency of the troops going into danger.

That is the fire in my belly:  preventive psychiatry. The fire in my belly is to help the military modify its practices and policies and cultures so as to best protect the people that we send into danger to protect us.

The primary prevention of combat trauma is the elimination of the human practice of war. Barring that, the best way to reduce the frequency and severity of injury is to attend to the qualities of our military institutions: keeping people together, cohesion; expert, ethical, and properly supported leadership; and prolonged, cumulative and highly realistic training.
These three things—cohesion, leadership and training—are demonstrated protective factors against both physical and psychological casualties because they’re combat strength multipliers and psychological injuries. My pitch when I talk to military audiences is “Let’s do these things.” Help win fights more handily, and you’ll be protecting the forces. You’ll be protecting their spirit, their soul, their mind.


What Happens to Soldiers in Combat?

This conversation is reproduced from Jonathan Shay's interview for the film Voices in Wartime.  

What is the effect of being in combat? What is the experience of the soldier? What happens to them?

A soldier in a fight, especially one that goes on for a period of time, undergoes a series of psychological and physiological adaptations to this situation where people really are trying to kill him. That’s not his imagination. The enemy is real and the enemy IS the enemy because the enemy really is trying to do that.

The body and the mind make adaptations for survival. These are alternatives that the mind has already pre-adapted because our predecessors were constantly engaged in fights, in warfare, in raiding. In Homer’s Odyssey, we learn that Odysseus became a rich man entirely by raiding. He was a pirate.

You’re in this fight, and people are really trying to kill you. What do you do? Number one, you pay attention. That sharpening of the senses—that focus of alertness people think of as jumpiness, being on edge, nervousness—is actually part of the adaptation.

In a fight, unfortunately, to survive you have to shut down large parts of yourself. [You shut down] all the sweetness, all the attention to subtleties and to gradations of things—unless they happen to be subtleties and gradations that let you know there’s an ambush that’s prepared a few steps ahead because you see trampled grass or other signs of disturbance. So [you shut] down all emotions that do not directly serve survival.

Two things: the mobilization of the mind and body for danger; and the shutting down of those things that you don’t need to survive this danger. These are [the two] things that basically every one who is going to live through a real fight—a fight to the death—is going to do. We’re basically wired to do this.

How does the experience of having one’s comrades killed affect the soldier?

The deep grief that soldiers experience when their closest comrades have been either severely injured or killed comes from the intensity of the prior bonding that happens to people when they are together in this situation.

They have trained together, they have drilled together, and they go into this terrible danger together. That bonding is a phenomenon of nature. It is incredibly intense. In my book Achilles in Vietnam, I said that I don’t believe that the metaphor of the brotherhood of arms is strong enough—that in combat men become each other’s mothers.

We are talking about a clicking in of some very deep emotional mechanisms that bond soldiers to each other. The grief that a soldier feels when a comrade is killed or severely maimed is akin to the grief of a mother whose child has just been killed—very much akin to it, and sometimes as intractable.

I cannot explain why one mother whose child has been killed in a house fire or in an auto accident can eventually come to a place where, yes, they certainly remember the child that was lost. Yes, they certainly still feel a sorrow, but they are now able to reconnect to other parts of their lives, to the other children that they had before or after the child who had died.

I can’t explain the difference between that traumatic loss that in some sense has healed and another where the mother is totally fixated on the child who was dead and cannot even see the other children she has. They have just sort of ceased to exist for her. Of course this is an enormous tragedy.

Some veterans returning from war appear to be like that mother who cannot even notice the other children in her family. It is a terrible, terrible experience for the wives, the parents, the children of the veteran who comes back that way.

They usually try to figure out what did I do wrong? He doesn’t love me anymore. Or, these heart-breaking stories from veterans who have heard their mothers say, “This isn’t my son, I don’t know who this is, but it’s not my son. This is not the same person that I raised.” Or even worse to hear a mother say: “Better [for] you to [have] died over there than to come back like this…”

It just twists my guts to even imagine such a thing. And, yet, some veterans with these terrible psychological injuries hear just such words from their close family.

If what the soldier thinks is right is betrayed, what is the result?

Themis is the Homeric word for what’s right. If that is betrayed, first of all, it physiologically jacks up the person who’s been betrayed. They’re in a rage, they can’t sleep, they’re restless, they’re irritable, they’re just a mess. There’s this enormous desire for revenge, to get payback. If you bring that back to the civilian world, boy there’s real trouble.

The trouble is that if themis, or what’s right, has been betrayed in a high-enough-stakes situation, you get a deformity of character afterwards that can be best understood as destruction of the capacity for social trust. When I say destruction of social trust, I mean not blind nave child-like trust: “Oh, here, hold my wallet”.
I’m talking about a patient goes into a hospital with a stomach pain and the need to get a diagnosis and treatment for this stomach pain. In the absence of social trust, the person going in to the hospital expects people to hurt him, to exploit him, or to humiliate him. That is a fixed expectation of someone whose capacity for social trust has been destroyed.

A lot of people say, “Oh, they’re paranoid.” Well, the word paranoid doesn’t add anything to our knowledge here. It is the expectation of harm, exploitation, and humiliation. That is what is left when social trust has been destroyed. So, someone who comes back from war with that kind of injury becomes intensely character deformed.  

Their character undergoes a severe deformity because every interaction they enter into is framed for that person as “I have to strike first.” Or “I have to figure out how you’re trying to get over on me because I know that if you express any good intentions like ‘I’m doctor so-and-so; I’m going to examine your belly and find out why you’re having so much pain.’ What’s your gain, doctor so and so? How are you deceiving me by expressing these good intentions?”

It totally wrecks the lives of people who have this kind of injury. It wrecks their lives much more than nightmares, much more than a startled reaction, much more than a shutting down of some emotions. It wrecks their lives much more than just being alert to who’s on rooftops or who’s between parked cars. The destruction of social trust and the deformities of character that come from it are truly what wreck the lives of veterans.

What does it mean, to go beserk?
One of the most lurid and dramatic psychological changes that can happen to people in war is for them to totally lose any care, interest, concern, or attention to their own safety, [and for them to] just want to rain down destruction, just kill, kill, kill, destroy.
It’s not a practical military thing; it’s just a personal berserking, a personal state of being totally wild with vengeance. This seems to leave an imprint in the physiology of the person who’s been that way in that they can be triggered again years later, and repeatedly.
The word “berserk” comes from the Norse and Icelandic saga world. It is a state of iciness, and I refer to it as “burning ice” because of this paradox that it’s an emotional coldness and yet a fierce and burning energy.
One of my patients described it. He said it’s like, “electricity coming out of the top of my head.” And this is a guy would have these spikes of blood pressure when his physiology got aroused this way. People were afraid he was stroke out, just boom! The berserk state seems to bring about an irreversible readiness to be triggered, and it can be very dangerous.

Your books present the idea that for many veterans, nothing seems to equal the purity of the group that existed in the war. Is this something that is common?

Well, the primary group in war assumes this enormous emotional and spiritual importance to the person who is fighting in it. And that isn’t necessarily saying that these were all heroes and all wonderful. People do remember each other’s failures and shortcomings, moments of selfishness and cruelty and everything else.

But, that primary group is primal and is likely to be remembered as the closest relationships that the veteran has ever experienced before or after in his whole life. For some veterans they’re continually seeking this closeness and that in itself is a form of injury.

Have you been contacted by soldiers in Iraq?

I have had some e-mails from soldiers and their wives in Iraq, or who are back from it. And, this is neither worse nor better than other wars. There will always be psychological injuries in war just like there are always physical injuries. And the historical record is that they rise and fall together. What spills blood, spills spirit.


The Role of Leadership in Recovery

This interview is reproduced from the film Voices in Wartime.

What is involved in recovering from trauma?

Narrative is central to recovery from severe trauma. It’s not simply the telling of the story, it is the whole social process. If I have suffered some terrible experience, I have to be socially empowered to tell the story. You have to be socially empowered to hear it.

If I’ve been tortured by the state in a tyranny, I have to keep my mouth shut about it or they’re liable to put me right back into the torture prison. If you listen to my story and that becomes known to the authorities, you can be put into that same prison. This has happened in tyrannies around the world; people have been thrown into jail for attending to the injuries of the spouse of an enemy of the state.

The first steps in the communalization of trauma—what I call this process—is to be empowered to tell the story. You have to be empowered to hear and to believe and to remember it. The final step that closes the loop—and this is one place where artists have played a role from the beginning of time—is to retell the story to others.

Homer retells the story of the Trojan War, which he wasn’t present at; his poems were composed hundreds of years after this war happened. [You need] to retell the story in a form that contains enough of the truth [so that] the person who experienced it says, “Yes, you were listening, you heard, you heard at least some of it. And you retold it with the truthfulness, with the emotion, that I can recognize.”

That’s the whole cycle of communalization: the telling, the hearing, the leaving and remembering, and then the retelling. That is the whole circle. The artist, the poet, can play a role in any one of these steps or in all of them. But it’s not necessary for the artist personally to have been the trauma survivor, or to personally witness it.

What happens to people with no chance of counseling?
We tend to forget that the fate of most of the human race throughout history and in most parts of the world, even today, is to be ridden down again and again by the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Whether it’s famine (related to war, or not), plague or pandemic (related to war or not), or war itself, the normal experience of the human race is to be ridden down by the horsemen of the apocalypse.

The consequences of this are that people shut down. They become numb, they are in it, they’re impulsively explosive. The pre-modern world was not a pretty world and I’m convinced that a lot of historical mysteries are best solved by understanding the dynamics of trauma.

For instance, the mentality of peasants is the mentality as portrayed in medieval times of people who’ve been repeatedly traumatized. They can’t think very well. They don’t have very much spirit, which is to say they’re numb, shut down.
[In countries such as Liberia] there is a vast amount of psychological and social pathology that is generated by the pathogenic load of the civil wars that have been going on there for decades.

And this is one of the fundamental problems in both modernization, in an economic sense, and democratization in that if you cannot be here in the present, it’s very hard to do productive work in the economy. If you cannot believe that the future is real, and that words are at least possibly trustworthy, you cannot engage in democratic process. If you think that every struggle and every conflict is a matter of either kill or be killed, how can you engage an election?  It just doesn’t compute.
I think that there is enormous work to be done in understanding how to rebuild—or build for the first time—the invisible social and psychological substructure of democratic process and of higher level economic activity.

You can’t just bring those things into existence by the snap of a finger, especially when they’ve been destroyed by war or where they’ve just never existed to begin with because it was a constant tyranny. Tyranny is a state of war. To come from tyranny to a democracy is not something that you just [make happen] by saying, OK, we’re going to have it now.

Were there times built into ancient warfare to mourn? Do we have that now when, for example, we’re not being allowed to see the bodies brought back?

In ancient war, the fighting was suspended at night. It’s only a very recent and a modern thing to be fighting round the clock. Night fighting, which has become a hallmark of very recent fighting, is a modern invention.

There’s only one night action in the whole of The Iliad, and that’s basically a reconnaissance, not really an action. So in the ancient world, people slept during war.

If it’s safe enough to sleep, it’s safe enough to grieve. The Iliad gives several examples of truces to both collect the dead and perform the religious rites of cleansing and burying: cremating and burying the cremated remains.

Do we have that opportunity to mourn now?

As it stands now, there is enormous pressure—both practical time pressure, as well as cultural pressure—to just move on, keep on trucking. Clearly you cannot, in the middle of a firefight, stop to hold a funeral service. I offer as the rule of thumb that if it’s safe enough for people to sleep without doing rotating watches, it’s safe enough to grieve and that units should grieve as units.

There are some military—both line leaders and chaplains—who are thinking about something they are calling grief leadership, where the commander actually takes the lead in showing that this is the time to mourn and that the deaths of those in his command matters. It matters to him and some of them are even willing to let other people see them weeping for the dead.

In The Iliad, everybody weeps. Everybody weeps enormously for Patroclus. If you ask the question in The Iliad “Who weeps?”, the answer is everyone. Simple. No discount. Everyone.

Should soldiers should be honored?

The love and sacrifice that soldiers bring to their comrades in war is a phenomenon of astounding beauty and preciousness. It is painful that so much love can be mobilized and squandered for often such foolish and venal and wrong-headed reasons by the political leaders who caused the wars to begin with.

I make no hesitation in talking to military audiences—which I do often—in displaying my animosity to the phenomenon of war, and I’ve discovered that the people in uniform don’t love war.
I’ve met plenty of civilians who seem just excited by war. They regard it as some grand form of entertainment, but the people who’ve actually been in war hate it far more than I do. I’ve never been in uniform. I’ve never been in a fight except a schoolyard fight, and not many of those.

So, the soldiers themselves are not what keeps war going. It is states. It is the dynamics of state hatred, of nationalism, of religious hatred. It’s those group hatreds. It’s not [soldiers], at least not in my experience with American military people, NATO military people, Canadian, and German forces. These [soldiers] are not what keeps war going.


"The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"

This essay is reproduced from Jonathan Shay's interview in the film Voices in Wartime.

The Iliad and The Odyssey are two enormous poems composed by Homer, whoever he may have been. They are very, very different. The Iliad really is a war story, and is about this straight-ahead guy, Achilles. What you see is what you get. Achilles says at one point, “I hate like the gates of hell someone who says one thing, and means another thing in his heart.” Well in one word, that’s Odysseus, cunning Odysseus.

Odysseus introduces himself to the Phaeacians, who give him his final ride home when he has washed up naked on their shores, having lost all of his ships, all of his men, even the raft that he was floating on. He introduces himself: “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, famous to the ends of the world for my tricks.”

What a way to introduce yourself at somebody’s dinner table: “I’m a famous con artist. I’m a famous for being a scammer.” And what’s more, your hosts have even heard of you already. Odysseus is the quintessential embodiment of cunning, trickery, strategy, deception, concealment, and camouflage.

These two figures, Achilles and Odysseus, are sort of the two poles of Greek thinking about what it takes to win in war. One is bie, which connotes armed, might, fire-power. The other is metis, which connotes strategy, cunning, trickery, intelligence. The Iliad and Achilles embody bie, force, might, fire-power. And The Odyssey and Odysseus embody metis.

The question is which is more important in war? Well, when you’ve finished reading The Iliad, you’re certain that Achilles won the Trojan War for the Greeks; he killed their main man, Hector. And everybody agrees that with Hector down, Troy can’t survive for much longer.

And then you read The Odyssey, and you’re equally convinced that it’s Odysseus’s trickery—the hollow horse filled with fighters that got smuggled inside the walls of Troy—that was responsible for its fall. So you read these two epics and it’s bie or metis, force or cunning: which one?
The answer is both. Both epics are equally persuasive. Odysseus is really not a lovely person. Achilles, for all of his frightening majesty, has a quality of humanity to him when you soak in the picture of his character. You say, “Boy, he’s somebody that I would like to know, that I would like to be like.”

Odysseus is this sleaze ball. He is so slippery and so slimy. He is very eloquent, but boy! The poets of the tragic theater in Athens, like Sophocles, absolutely hated [Odysseus]. They thought he was an ass-kisser. You really couldn’t believe anything he said. “Where’s the trick in his words?” you’re always wondering.
The Odyssey is really a portrait of Odysseus, warts and all. Odysseus is incredibly cruel to his aged father, and people have always wondered why. The fight is over, he’s killed all the suitors, and he needs his father to help him get free of the lynch mob that has come after him for killing all the suitors.
This man, after all, has killed off two generations, not just one generation of the youth of Ithaca. The 600 men that went with him to Troy are all dead. They’re the sons and the brothers of the fathers and the brothers of the people Odysseus kills off in his house when he slaughters the suitors 20 years later. He’s killed off two generations of the youth of Ithaca. No wonder the lynch mob wants his hide.

In this context, he’s gratuitously cruel to his father, Laertes. In my book Odysseus in America I try to answer this rather famous critical question because scholars have always wondered why.

In Odysseus in America, I said that we can read The Odyssey… as an allegory of the obstacles that any combat veteran [encounters in] returning to civilian life. Trust is the biggest and the most over-arching part, but there are details there, like making a mission out of everything.

Odysseus at one part is given a straight shot for home by the King of the Winds. The King of the Winds says, “I’m going to bottle all the hurricane winds in a magic bag and give you a perfect following wind, you got it.” Well, the least capable sailor in Odysseus’s flotilla could steer the ships under those conditions. But, no, Odysseus insists on controlling the tiller and the sail himself, and he stays awake for nine days and nine nights. He is within sight of Ithaca when he falls asleep.
Does this magical story have anything to do with real veterans? I’ve had a patient who got a plum job as a result of being a veteran, a plumb job for the Bridge Toll Authority. He made a mission out of it. He stayed awake, he did extra shifts, and he stayed awake for days on end. Eventually he just lost it.
I think he may have assaulted a motorist, mostly out of pure sleep deprivation. But he made a mission out of this simple job, and that is characteristic of combat veterans when they return to the civilian economy. They turn every detail of their job into a life-or-death mission issue, and the people who are working with them say, “What’s with this guy?”

In my view, Homer saw that. [Take] the siren song. [It is a] magical, fairy-tale-like detail, but Homer tells us what the siren song was. The sirens knew the complete truth of what went on in the war at Troy, the complete and final comprehensive truth.

And that is what the soldiers returning from Troy—the veterans—felt was worth interrupting their voyage for, climbing up on this meadow, and literally dying of starvation. They couldn’t interrupt hearing the complete truth of what happened in the war at Troy long enough to eat.

Again, I have a patient who, for two years, his life [essentially] ended. He walked around with a gym bag full of Xerox copies of the unit diaries and after-action reports of his Marine unit during a specific slice of days during the Tet Offensive.

He was obsessed with finding the final and complete truth of what really happened in this village during that period of days. His life [essentially] ended. To me, this metaphor—of the meadow with the moldering bones of veterans who had starved themselves to death rather than miss a word of this song of the complete truth—rings very true.

You can decode every one of those adventures in wonderland in a similar fashion. And you know allegory: it’s a hard sell. But people are buying it. People are buying the allegory that Homer did see these things.


Using Literature to Illuminate War

This interview with Jonathan Shay is reproduced from the film Voices in Wartime.

What attracted you to writing about The Iliad and using it as a way of talking about soldiers’ experiences in Vietnam?  

When I went to work for the Veteran’s Administration 16 years ago, I knew very little about this subject. I had never really heard about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By luck, I fell into work with this group of Vietnam combat veterans, whom I still work with today. I realized within a few weeks or a few months of starting that work that I was hearing the story of Achilles over and over and over again. That story is the through-line of The Iliad:

[Achilles experiences the] betrayal of what’s right by his commander. He withdraws. And then his closest friend and comrade in arms, Patroclus, who is also his foster brother, is killed in the battle. Achilles is devastated. He says: “It should have been me. I should have died instead. Better that Patroclus had survived this war than me.”

[Achilles] acts and feels like he has died, like he is already dead. And then he goes berserk and commits atrocity after atrocity. And again, this isn’t Jonathan Shay putting this on the ancient text; the god’s say that they’re atrocities. The other Greek officers say “Enough already!”

I was hearing these elements, sometimes even in this sequence: the betrayal of what’s right leading to the death of a closest comrade, [and then] the sense of “I died. It should have been me,” and then going berserk. I heard this sequence or its elements over and over again.

Talk a little about how literature illuminates the psychological injuries inflicted by war.

I have been fascinated by the whole subject of character and how character can change as a result of severe trauma.

American psychiatry basically does not accept the idea that bad experience can change somebody’s previously good character. They buy into the idea that we first see in Plato’s writings: that good character is sufficient unto itself, and that no bad thing that happens to someone with good character can shake that. If it turns out that somebody has been shaken, then it proves that they were damaged goods to begin with.

Well, in Plato’s time, the man on the street and even the best educated people thought he was a crank. They said that the real philosophers were the tragic poets of the Athenian theatre. And these poets said loud and clear: BALONEY, if things are bad enough, truly ugly and bad enough, even the noblest character will be wrecked by it.

In Euripides’ play Hecuba, the title character, Hecuba, was the Queen of Troy. The scene opens on the plains of Troy after it’s been burned to the ground by the victorious Greeks.

Hecuba is now a slave. She used to be the Queen, and she is now a slave. She maintains her dignity, she maintains her ethics, and she maintains her capacity to care about other people. All of those [are] markers that we associate with a good character.

She even retains them when Polyxena, one of her two surviving daughters, is sacrificed on the funeral pyre of Achilles. The war is over and both of them are alive as slaves, and the ghost of Achilles appears and demands that Polyxena have her throat cut on his funeral mound. She survives even that.

But then her one surviving son—who had been sent, just a child, off to another place for safety during this war so that somebody in the family would survive if Troy fell—this child’s body washes up on the shore. It’s clear that he’s been murdered. She understands immediately that the person that she and King Priam had entrusted this child to had betrayed them.

When this supposed friend had seen that Troy had fallen, he had no use whatsoever for this child, who possibly was even a danger to him. She cracks, she absolutely cracks, and Euripides says that she becomes like a dog. (We’re very affectionate about dogs, but in that culture, a dog was not a beloved companion.)

In Homer’s The Iliad we get this incredible portrait of someone with previously outstanding character. Homer gives us so much information in the course of this monster poem of Achilles’ good character.

First, what a fine leader he was of other Greek soldiers. He was the commander of the maneuver force. Achilles has conquered dozens of neighboring cities in the course of the 10 years of the Trojan war up to that point. All of the booty in the camp is stuff that he’s collected, and the army’s being fed from the exchange of this booty for food and wine with these commercial contractors that are constantly showing up on the beach head, the exchange of the stuff that Achilles and his people have collected. Now, so he’s a fine leader whose courage and skill as a fighter are absolutely the best in the Greek forces.

Second, he is famous among the Greek forces as a healer. He knows special remedies for wounds. He knows which herbs to rub between his hands into a bleeding wound to stop the blood flow. What an incredibly valuable thing. He’s revered for his abilities as a healer. He has the heart to do this, as well as the knowledge.

And, when there is this horrific plague that ravages the Greek forces. Achilles doesn’t just say, “Well, so far my troops, the Myrmidons, haven’t been affected by this, and I don’t care what happens to the rest of them.” He goes after what it is that’s causing the plague and tries to figure out what to do about it. Unfortunately, that leads to the whole tragic sequence that we have in The Iliad.

The Iliad opens with a thunderclap of this—of Achilles and his boss, Agamemnon. Agamemnon is the coalition commander, the top commander of the Greek forces. Achilles and he collide over the question of this plague and its cause. It turns out that the cause is a gross impiety that Agamemnon has committed against the priest of Apollo, and the plague is a punishment brought on the Greeks by Apollo in response to the prayer of this offended priest.

The point is that Achilles cares about the whole army. He has broad other-regarding commitments. He’s a healer, he’s a leader, and within the terms of the culture evoked by this poem there is no question that prior to the events of The Iliad book I [he] has good character.

Then he is betrayed by his commander Agamemnon. Agamemnon is forced to give back the daughter of Apollo’s priest, whom he has had as his share of the booty, this captive woman Chryseis.

This is not a squabble between Achilles and Agamemnon over Chryseis, Achilles has no claim or interest in Chryseis, the priest’s daughter. Agamemnon is forced to give her back to the priest of Apollo with some compensation for the wrong done by holding her to begin with.

But he now has it in for Achilles. And he says, “I’m going to take your prize of honor—Briseis, your captive woman—to replace the captive woman that I’ve had to give up because you meddled in these affairs that were none of your business.

This is what sets off the tragedy of The Iliad. And The Iliad  is a tragedy. It is the tragedy of Achilles. It is the tragedy of this formerly wonderfully- formed and excellent character. He’s not an adolescent kid who just goes into a snit. The Iliad  is full of data about what he was like before.

Prior to the opening of The Iliad, Achilles took many Trojan prisoners but he didn’t just murder them. He either accepted ransom for them from the prisoner’s parents in the city of Troy. Or he sold them abroad as slaves, which in that time and culture was not merely an acceptable thing to do, but it was a humane thing to do. He didn’t just kill them.

After the tragedy of The Iliad, we see Achilles killing prisoners, which he never did before. So Homer presents us with evidence in numerous ways as to how his character has changed.

Is The Iliad the story of the destruction of Achilles’ character?

The Iliad is an epic, but it is the tragedy of Achilles. Achilles is betrayed by his commander. His commander betrays what is the moral consensus as to what’s right. He seizes Achilles’ geras, his prize of honor. This isn’t a case of “rank has its privileges.” It’s not that Agamemnon could just say, “That’s a pretty girl. I’m going to take her. I’m the boss, and you’re one of my subordinate officers. You’re going to have to keep your mouth shut. “

This was no more justified than if a modern regimental colonel had a sergeant in his regiment who had won the Medal of Honor, and this colonel—at a parade or at a review—looked at this sergeant’s tunic, saw the Medal of Honor ribbon on his tunic and said, “Well I don’t have one of those. I’m going to take that off of your tunic and put it my own because I’m your colonel, and you’re a sergeant, and you’re just going to have to suck it up.”

What Agamemnon did to Achilles in seizing his prize of honor, his geras, which was voted to him by a claim of the whole army, was no more justified in that moral world than this imagined regimental colonel in our modern world.

In the course of The Iliad, the other Greek officers say to Agamemnon, “You shouldn’a done that.” The gods say up on Mount Olympus, “He shouldn’a done that.” Eventually Agamemnon says himself, “Ah, I shouldn’a done that.” This isn’t Jonathan Shay putting his Twenty-first-Century values back into a poem that was composed 26, 27, 28 centuries ago. Within the terms of the poem itself, what Agamemnon did was a betrayal of what’s right. This has enormous consequences.

There’s nothing higher than the stakes in war, and when there is a betrayal of what’s right in a high-stakes situation, it is like a body blow. I believe that our physiology codes betrayal of what’s right in a high-stakes situation as a physical attack: the adrenaline surges; the body is mobilized to kill.

When Agamemnon says I’m going to take your geras, your prize of honor, Achilles actually starts to draw his sword and this is the first literary reference to fragging. Achilles is ready to frag Agamemnon for this betrayal of what’s right. He doesn’t do that, but what he does is still something that is very much part of the picture: he withdraws.

Legally, socially, and culturally, Achilles can actually withdraw from the Trojan War at this point. He is the independent head of an independent component of the coalition.

The analogy I make is that if the commander of the Australian contingent in Vietnam said, “General Westmoreland, what you did there just stinks and we’re out of here.” Westmoreland could not turn to his Chief of Staff and say get the M.P.’s and arrest this man. Westmoreland would not have been within his legal, social, or political power to arrest the independent head of the Australian contingent.

Achilles is entirely free to withdraw if he chooses. And so he does withdraw.  Hence, [we have] the famous image of Achilles sulking in his tents. This is the standard image that has been portrayed of Achilles: an adolescent who goes into a snit and makes a big mess. He pulls out because of a fight with his boss over a girl. That’s the way it is often presented.

That is an interpretation that I reject. I reject it on the basis of the text of The Iliad itself, and not just [because] I don’t think it’s as good a story.