A while back on the list, there were several posts from Carrol and Robert
regarding a book called "Achilles in Vietnam" by Jonathan Shay. Based on
their strong recommendation of the book I bought a copy and just finished
I just wanted to thank Carrol and Robert on-list for bringing this book to
my attention. The book is intensely moving, shocking, and insightful, as well
as deeply compassionate. I have no personal experience with the military, but
I am from the Vietnam era and had several friends who went to Vietnam and
returned with major emotional problems. Jonathan Shay's book helped me
understand a bit of what happened to my friends.
The book's focus is on Vietnam veterans and post traumatic stress disorder
and one of Shay main theses is that PTSD originates in the trauma of living
through a situation in which one's notion of "what's right" is violated.
Without taking anything away from that focus, I'd like to add that I think
the effects of living through non-war situations that violate one's notion of
"what's right" creates reactions that have an eerie parallel to the reactions
of the veterans described in the book. I would not be surprised if PTSD
turns out to be a universal human reaction to "bearing the unbearable".
A brief except from the book appears at the end of this email. More
excerpts can be found on-line at the Amazon.com web site.
The book is an amazing achievement, a "must read".
-- Steve --
-- excerpt from Jonathan Shay's "Achilles in Vietnam" --
The Betrayal of "What's Right"
We begin in the moral world of the soldier - what his culture understands to
be right - and betrayal of that moral order by a commander. This is how Homer
opens the Iliad. Agamemnon, Achilles' commander, wrongfully seizes the prize
of honor voted to Achilles by the troops. Achilles' experience of betrayal of
"what's right," and his reactions to it, are identical to those of American
soldiers in Vietnam. I shall describe some of the many violations of what
American soldiers understood to be right by holders of responsibility and
Now, there was a LURP [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol] team from the First
Brigade off of Highway One, that looked over the South China Sea. There was a
bay there. ...Now, they saw boats come in. And they suspected, now, uh-the
word came down [that] they were unloading weapons off them. Three boats.
At that time we moved. It was about ten o'clock at night. We moved down,
across Highway One along the beach line, and it took us [until] about three
or four o'clock in the morning to get on line while these people are
unloading their boats. And we opened up on them-aaah.
And the fucking firepower was unreal, the firepower that we put into them
boats. It was just a constant, constant firepower. It seemed like no one ever
ran out of ammo.
Daylight came [long pause], and we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and
What got us thoroughly fucking confused is. at that time you turn to the team
and you say to the team, "Don't worry about it. Everything's fucking fine."
Because that's what you're getting from upstairs.
The fucking colonel says. "Don't worry about it. We'll take care of it."
Y'know, uh, "We got body count!" "We have body count!" So it starts working
on your head.
So you know in your heart it's wrong, but at the time, here's your superiors
telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that's okay then, right? This is
part of war. y'know? Gung-HO! y'know? " AirBORNE! AirBORNE! Let's go!"
So we packed up and we moved out.
They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation-them fucking maggots. A lot of
medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel
got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y'know, I'd be
standing like a fucking jerk and they'd be handing out fucking medals for
This veteran received his Combat Infantry Badge for participating in this
action. The CIB was one of the most prized U.S. Army awards. supposed to be
awarded for actual engagement in ground combat. He subsequently earned his
CIB a thousand times over in four combat tours. Nonetheless. he still feels
deeply dishonored by the circumstances of its official award for killing
unarmed civilians on an intelligence error. He declares that the day it
happened. Christmas Eve, should be stricken from the calendar.
We shall hear this man's voice and the voices of other combat veterans many
times in these pages. I shall argue throughout this book that healing from
trauma depends upon communalization of the trauma-being able safely to tell
the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it
truthfully to others in the community. So before analyzing. before
classifying. before thinking. before trying to do anything-we should listen.
Categories and classifications play a large role in the institutions of
mental health care for veterans, in the education of mental health
professionals, and as tentative guides to perception. All too often. however.
our mode of listening deteriorates into intellectual sorting. with the
professional grabbing the veterans' words from the air and sticking them in
mental bins. To some degree that is institutionally and educationally
necessary, but listening this way destroys trust. At its worst our
educational system produces counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and
therapists who resemble museum-goers whose whole experience consists of
mentally saying, "That's cubist! ...That's El Greco!" and who never see
anything they've looked at. "Just listen!" say the veterans when telling
mental health professionals what they need to know to work with them, and I
believe that is their wish for the general public as well. Passages of
narrative here contain the particularity of individual men's experiences,
bearing a different order of meaningfulness than any categories they might be
put into. In the words of one veteran, these stories are "sacred stuff."
The mortal dependence of the modern soldier on the military organization for
everything he needs to survive is as great as that of a small child on his or
her parents. One Vietnam combat veteran said, "The U .S. Army [in Vietnam]
was like a mother who sold out her kids to be raped by [their] father to
protect her own interests."
No single English word takes in the whole sweep of a culture's definition of
right and wrong; we use terms such as moral order. convention, normative
expectations, ethics, and commonly understood social values. The ancient
Greek word that Homer used, 'themis', encompasses all these meanings. A word
of this scope is needed for the betrayals experienced by Vietnam combat
veterans. In this book I shall use the phrase "what's right" as an equivalent
of themis. The specific content of the Homeric warriors' themis was often
quite different from that of American soldiers in Vietnam, but what has not
changed in three millennia are violent rage and social withdrawal when deep
assumptions of "what's right" are violated. The vulnerability of the
soldier's moral world has increased in three thousand years because of the
vast number and physical distance of people in a position to betray "what' s
right" in ways that threaten the survival of soldiers in battle. Homeric
soldiers actually saw their commander in chief, perhaps daily.
AN ARMY IS A MORAL CONSTRUCTION
Book 1 of the Iliad sets the tragedy in motion with Agamemnon's seizure of
Achilles' woman, "a prize I [Achilles] sweated for, and soldiers gave
me!"(I:189) We must understand the cultural context to see that this episode
is more than a personal squabble between two soldiers over a woman. The
outrageousness of Agamemnon's behavior is repeatedly made clear. Achilles'
mother, the goddess Thetis, makes her case to Zeus: "Now Lord Marshal
Agamemnon has been highhanded with him, has commandeered and holds his prize
of war [geras, portion of honor]. The prize of honor was voted by the troops
for Achilles' valor in combat. A modern equivalent might be a commander
telling a soldier. "I'll take that Congressional Medal of Honor of yours.
because I don't have one." Obviously, Achilles' grievance was magnified by
his attachment to the particular person of Briseis, the captive woman who was
the prize, but violation of "what's right" was central to the clash between
Achilles and Agamemnon.
Any army, ancient or modern, is a social construction defined by shared
expectations and values. Some of these are embodied in formal regulations,
defined authority, written orders, ranks, incentives, punishments, and formal
task and occupational definitions. Others circulate as traditions, archetypal
stories of things to be emulated or shunned, and accepted truth about what is
praiseworthy and what is culpable. All together, these form a moral world
that most of the participants most of the time regard as legitimate,
"natural," and personally binding. The moral power of an army is so great
that it can motivate men to get up out of a trench and step into enemy
When a leader destroys the legitimacy of the army's moral order by betraying
"what's right," he inflicts manifold injuries on his men. The Iliad is a
story of these immediate and devastating consequences. Vietnam has forced us
to see that these consequences go beyond the war's "loss upon bitter
loss...leaving so many dead men" (I :3ff) to taint the lives of those who
-- end of excerpt --