Trial of the Returning Soldier

Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming - Jonathan Shay, Max Cleland, John McCain

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 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 [book: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 multiple 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).