Achilles in Viet Nam

I am about 40 pages into the most shattering book. The book is called Achilles in Viet Nam. It’s written by Jonathan Shay. Shay is a psychiatrist specializing in treating Vietnam veterans with chronic post-traumatic stress syndrome.

If you remember the Iliad from high school literature class, you will recall that Achilles, betrayed by his commander (Agammemnon), falls into a rage that alienates him from all but the other soldiers closest to him. His rage and his alienation lead him to commit acts that he would normally not consider acceptable. Shay likens Achilles rage and disenfranchisement to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He uses the Iliad to illuminate the profound changes and suffering that combat veterans endure.

I am only 40 pages into the book, but already I have found it very affecting. I think that everyone, whether they supported the war or not, needs to read this book, before the next wave of sad, hurt, confused and lost boys starts coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. We sent them over there, even those of us that were opposed to their going. If past performance is any indication, they deserve more than they are going to get from us, the army, and the V.A.

I live just about next door to the largest infantry base in the world. I have been out at the bookstore, the microbrewery downtown, the movies. I have talked to guys, watched soldiers interact. Some of these guys are here among us already and some of them are suffering. PTSD is more common than most folks know. Men like Timothy McVeigh and John Allen Muhammad (the Beltway sniper) were both veterans of Gulf War One. Is it possible that they might not have done such monstrous things if they had been treated for PTSD?

Before you take this and run dead in the wrong direction with it, let me clarify that statement- I am not saying that these men are monsters just because they are veterans. I am saying that they came back to the United States with pain in their hearts, because people aren’t really equipped to see other people’s heads burst or to see other people burn to death so close that they can smell it. These guys came back to the “real world” and there were people beating each other up to get Tickle Me Elmo dolls. Tim McVeigh said as much in his writing before he set off the bomb- He wanted to bring the suffering home to Americans.

For every angry guy that comes back and acts out, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of guys that are quietly unable to sleep, to concentrate at work, to show affection to their families, or just to reintegrate to society. They suffer and suffer and suffer. You have to read this book. We owe these guys, even those of us that thought this war was specious and unnecessary.

  1. I’m glad to hear that someone has written about this difficult subject in a useful way. PTSD has been noted, by different names, in all wars. During WWI, it was called “battle fatigue,” and there were even movies post WWII about the symptoms of returning veterans. But it has been only relatively recently that any useful study has been done on the matter. I look forward to reading this. Thanx.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.