Wrecked on the Phaeacian Shore
a review of

Odysseus in America (cover)
   Odysseus in America:  Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming
   Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.
   New York:  Scribner, 2002
   ISBN:  0-7432-1156-1

   By Tim Trask

Jonathan Shay's unique insights into combat trauma, gained by comparing veterans' stories to classical literature, have changed the way we look at both combat trauma and Homer's epics.  The publication of Achilles in Vietnam:  Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994), a reading of The Iliad in the context of a PTSD clinic, was so fresh that it both prompted classics professors to re-examine Homer's familiar text from the perspective of combat soldiers and led professors in the service academies to make the book required reading for cadets.  Another indication of the success of Shay's contributions is in this statement by Chris Hedges, appearing without reference to Shay in the New York Times Book Review, July 9, 2000:  “Every recruit headed into war would be well advised to read the ‘Iliad,’ just as every soldier returning home would be served by reading the ‘Odyssey.’''  Now, after a wait of more than eight years, Shay’s Odysseus in America is available, and it proves itself to have been worth the wait.

Achilles in Vietnam, written for the lay reader but valuable to health professionals dealing with trauma victims, connected the classical world and PTSD clinics in a way that was strangely optimistic, even though it dealt with the depths of human suffering.  That same strange optimism—perhaps we could call it faith—is a driving force in Odysseus in America.  It’s the kind of dogged faith that we see in that small group of physician-led workers in The Plague by Camus.  The source of the illness is unseen, but Dr. Rieux never gives up his belief that he can do something constructive, even in the face of almost certain death.  The Plague is to me one of the most inspiring novels ever written for just this reason, and Shay’s books strike me as similarly inspirational because they also tell of a physician who understands the necessity of work to ease suffering and who also leads a small group of willing workers, in this case combat veterans.  Shay's work points to specific ways that suffering can be reduced or eliminated by changes in the way that soldiers are trained and led in combat.

In both books, Shay uses the word "character" to talk about just what is "wrecked" by combat trauma.  The word may seem old fashioned, but being faithful to his source and having become something of a Greek scholar himself, Shay invests the word "character" with new vigor by tying it to the Greek word thumos, a term that keeps appearing in somewhat different guises as a near substitute for "character."  Shay does not quite equate "character" with thumos, though he does say that the words are “closely allied” and even that “thumos is . . . a container for the English word ‘character’” (156-157).

Like Caesar’s Gaul, Odysseus in America is divided into three parts.  Part I, “Unhealed Wounds,” follows The Odyssey pretty closely and weaves contemporary veterans’ narratives along with the tales Odysseus tells to the courtly audience of Phaeacians, on whose shore his raft was wrecked after he left Calypso’s island.  The tall tales told by Odysseus and the reports of Shay's own group of combat veterans both bring light to each other.  Even now, we discover, there are Lestrygonians out there.  There are the temptations of drugs, sex, and violence that keep combat veterans away from their faithful Penelopes and from their Telemachuses in need of fatherly guidance.  There are the dangerous suitors (Jodies, in vetspeak) vying for their ladies and earthly possessions.  The story is complicated, as Shay makes clear, since Odysseus is not much of a hero in our sanitized sense of the term.  He’s a character who uses his wiles to win no matter what.  If he has to cheat, he cheats.  If he has to kill, he kills.  At least once he lets his men anchor their ships in a harbor he knows is dangerous—an area he stays away from himself—with disastrous results.  When he finally returns home, he is alone.  All of the men entrusted to his leadership twenty years earlier have perished, most on the journey home.  Odysseus does not bear himself with honor in the sense that Achilles does.  Our high notions of character are not in his field of vision, though he certainly is a memorable figure whom we mostly admire and cheer along his way.  At the end of the first section, Shay explains that Odysseus is as he is partly because of a childhood trauma, an explanation that helps make connections between combat trauma and other character-killing dangers in life as well as explaining just how it is that Odysseus seems to have had his character largely undone even before the Trojan War.  The main symptom exhibited by Odysseus is his lack of social trust, and it is part of the business of Part II to describe that symptom.

Part II, “Restoration,” deals with attempts to reintegrate combat veterans into the society they risked their lives to protect.  There are valid adaptations to combat that are necessary while a soldier is in danger.  The problem is that in some cases, these adaptations become harmful if they persist when the danger has passed and particularly when the soldier has returned to civilian life.  Changes have occurred in the physiology and anatomy of the central nervous system that apparently disrupt the veteran’s ability to feel safe in situations where most people do feel safe.  This type of injury is what Shay calls “simple PTSD.”  In many cases, veterans can adjust to these injuries just as amputees adjust to the loss of a limb and go on to lead healthy, productive lives.  Issues of readjustment become more complicated when more fundamental social functions are disrupted by "complex PTSD."  Complex PTSD, according to Shay, is an injury to character in which “the capacity for social trust is destroyed” and any “possibility of a flourishing human life is lost” (150-151).

In this second section, Shay tells of his work in the Veterans Improvement Program (VIP) at the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital.  Initially, veterans in the program “saw something” in Shay that he did not see in himself.  They then proceeded to teach him:  “Most of what I know about trauma I have learned from the veterans.”  To learn, he listened.  The stories his veterans told were not mere entertainment to him but carried echoes of the Homeric epics, and it is one of Shay's gifts to have the guts and faith to see in these oft-reviled veterans the level of seriousness that a literary scholar grants to the characters of great literature.  He's trying to help them get home, to help them see that their war is over and that they can—they must—trust others.  Getting there involves a three-stage process of recovery developed by Judith Herman.  First, they have to stop all dangerous behavior, including violence, dependence on weapons, and drug and alcohol abuse.  Secondly, they have to construct a personal narrative and go through a process of grieving.  Thirdly, they have to reconnect "with people, communities, ideals and ambitions."  Shay describes moving and widely varying reactions of some of his group of veterans on encountering “The Wall,” the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a memorial that Shay himself says is "a shrine in the full sense of a sacred precinct, where the power—the fascination and dangerousness—of the holy is present."   The VIP conducts annual visits to the Wall in groups of those who are ready for the experience.  Facing the Wall for most veterans is facing their dead comrades in arms.  Some of the reactions are guilt, feelings of unworthiness, anger, and grief.  "A six-foot-three Marine Corps veteran weeping his heart out in the dark, hugged by other veterans," Shay tells us, "is a profound thing to witness" (165-170).  No less profound is the post to an Internet discussion group by Michael Viehman describing his visit to the Wall (178-179).

Shay ends the second section by describing this informal, self-organized Internet discussion group, VWAR-L, run by Dr. Lydia Fish, an anthropology professor at Buffalo State College.  Shay himself was a member of this discussion group for a number of years, and he includes excerpts from various listmembers as they reacted to the news of Lew Puller's suicide in May 1994.  It was a moment when, thanks to Internet and the discussion group itself, listmembers were able to cope as a group with the loss of one of their trusted and most-admired peers, one who had displayed admirable courage and fortitude.  But while this informal group has often worked as a support group, it also on occasion has become unsafe as threats of violence and problems of trust between veterans and non-veterans have arisen, occasionally prompting spinoff discussion groups that are more private.  Despite these problems, this informal group has often, as in the period following Lew Puller's suicide, been a safe "place" for veterans to share their stories and grief and many members have become supportive, reliable friends in real life, though they physically live in all "corners" of the world, from Great Britain to Hawaii to Hong Kong to New Zealand as well as in many of the United States.

Part III concerns Shay’s main mission during the last several years—“Prevention.”  His passion for this project ("the fire in my belly"), he tells us, comes from his patients, who “don’t want other kids to be wrecked the way they were wrecked” (205).  In this third part of Shay’s narrative, we encounter, well, sermons about the responsibility of military leaders and the American public regarding its soldiers.  We voters, after all, are the people who send our men and women out on perilous journeys to faraway places, and it is our responsibility not to abuse the power we have over the individual citizens who have volunteered or been drafted to serve us.  It's also our responsibility to do everything we can to help them reintegrate themselves into our society when they return to us with their battle scars, both physical and emotional.  It’s in this third section of the book that Shay reveals his own Odyssean capacity as he talks about preventive measures as “combat strength multipliers.”  Although his antiwar sentiments are clear, he knows that his methods for preventing or reducing the risk of PTSD have other side benefits that will appeal to military and government officials who are more likely to be focused on results than on the well-being of individual soldiers.  What can military leaders do?  Shay's prescription:  Cohesion, Training, and Leadership.

Cohesion involves keeping men together throughout the process of induction, training, battle, and return.  With the exception of the Marines, the U.S. military has apparently been quite obtuse in learning this lesson from the Vietnam War.  The process of individual replacement, the practice of sending a new soldier to a combat unit as a stranger, apparently came from the successful industrial model of interchangeable parts of machinery.  The problem is that human beings do not respond well to being treated as interchangeable parts of a large machine, and such treatment exacerbates trauma by isolating individual soldiers when they are most in need of group support.  Shay points out that military leaders know better.  In the 1980s, "the U.S. Army instituted a program called COHORT, an acronym for 'Cohesion, Operational Readiness, Training,' that kept soldiers together from the beginning of recruit training, right through to the end of heir first term of enlistment" (214).  This program, according to Shay and his sources, was hugely successful, though it did not look so according to some of the methods of statistical analysis used at the time.  It was abandoned, and military practice now still closely resembles that of the Vietnam War, despite the obvious problems.

According to Shay, one positive reaction to the failure of Vietnam War practice has been in the quality of Training.  "Excellent training engages the whole person:  mind, body, emotions, character, and spirit."  Training is crucial in the chaos of battle where, without proper preparation, lines between right and wrong disappear.  "Every atrocity strengthens the enemy and potentially disables the service member who commits it" (223-224).  In my opinion, this section of Shay's book is far too brief.  Especially in light of our experience of the Vietnam War, our principles of military responsibility should be clearly defined right down to the lowliest private in an infantry unit.

The third element of Shay's prescription for prevention is Leadership, probably the most elusive of the three principles.  Here, Shay returns to Aristotle and the concept of thumos in basing leadership on the character of  the leader and the quality of trust his troops have in his leadership.  Odysseus gets a mixed review for his leadershp abilities.  His guile and craft were useful to the Greek war effort; indeed, were it not for his contributions, including the Trojan Horse, it is likely that the Greeks would not have won the war.  His failures, however, are pronounced and wreak devastation on the soldiers under his command.  Shay concludes that although he was brilliant "as a staff officer, strategist, independent intelligence operative, and solo fighter," Odysseus was a "catastrophe" as a leader of men, nearly the opposite of Achilles (241).

After reading Shay’s second effort to help us deal with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, I cannot help noting that the plea of Shay’s veterans, who “don’t want other kids to be wrecked the way they were wrecked,” is an indication either of the persistence or recovery of character in these men, who were rotated independently, did not have ideal training, and often fought under commanders who were not prepared well for their leadership responsibilities.

Shay’s patients and their fellow combat veterans around the world are Odysseuses, wrecked on our Phaeacian shore, who are trying through their stories to help us understand just what it means to have risked their all for us.  We modern-day Phaeacians, who listen to or read war stories as entertainment in the luxury of our war-free land, are missing a large part of the message.  One of the values of Shay's book is that he shows us how to listen and how to make things better for future soldiers.  That is work that we as a society have to do.

Chris Hedges was right to say that every returning soldier should read The Odyssey.  So should the rest of us.  We should also read Odysseus in America, which goes a long way toward explaining some of the oddities of The Odyssey and the behavior of men who have seen the elephant and have trouble returning home to what we consider to be normal life.  If you've ever found yourself wondering what is wrong with war veterans, that is a clue that you should read this book.

Now that Shay has covered both of Homer's works, it might seem that his work on connections between classical literature and contemporary veterans is finished, but there is one aspect of Greek culture that Shay has yet to comment on in depth, though he has dropped tantalizing clues here and there.  The greatest Greek tragedian, Sophocles, we learn from these clues, was a general with combat experience.  His great legacy comes to us in the form of tragedies, most notably Oedipus, which is arguably the central literary document of western civilization.  It is an epitome of Athenian tragic theater, "which was a theater of combat veterans, by combat veterans, and for combat veterans" (153).  As Shay's work is used by the service academies to train combat leaders, so was Greek theater a method of training, presenting models of both good and inadequate leadership.  I read Sophocles, especially in Oedipus, Philoctetes, and Antigone, to be dealing with those hard facts of life that most of us tend to avoid but which combat veterans have already had to face.  Another legacy of the ancient Greeks not yet dealt with by Shay is their underlying insistence that mortal life is preferable to immortal life.  Odysseus, after all, does leave Calypso's island to return to Penelope.  The immortals lack what we used to call "high seriousness," a character trait reserved for human beings to whom combat is mortal, as is all of life.  Knowing that we are going to die should change everything in our lives, and in some rare cases, it actually does.  It seems to have done so with Jonathan Shay, and that could be a quality of his own character that his cohort of combat veterans saw in him from the beginning.

Copyright © 2002
Posted December 2002
corrected March 2004