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Review of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by Dr. Jonathan Shay

By Remy Benoit

According to the American Psychiatric Association ( 1987) Post Traumatic Stress disorder's clinical criteria a person exhibiting symptoms of this syndrome " has experienced an event that is outside the range of usual human experience."

War, most certainly, falls into that basic categorization.

One of the greatest misunderstandings concerning our Veterans of Vietnam is that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder originated with them. The implications that they are constantly confronted with are that they should " just get over it, " " get on with things," and " stop moaning." Our Vietnam Veterans have suffered immensely because of this attitude.

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome has been called many things.

In the War Between the States it was designated as Soldier's Heart. In 1914 British doctors termed it Shell Shock. World War II brought the term Battle Fatigue.

It is true that Vietnam Veterans as a group have been more vocal about the problems connected with this disorder than any other previous group. That vocalization has been important and led to much research on it.

Dr. Jonathan Shay's seminal work, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, shines as a bright star in this field of research.

Dr. Shay has chosen to show us, quite specifically and clearly, that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is nothing new, and most definitely did not originate with our Veterans of Vietnam; that, in fact, it runs all through the history of those engaged in combat.

To accomplish this monumental task he takes us through Homer's Illiad, showing us the progression of the disorder in the behavior alterations in the character Achilles. The words of the epic are juxtaposed with the words of those we sent into combat in Vietnam.

Dr. Shay shows us the common ground of soldiers facing combat and combat related issues centuries apart, while importantly noting that cultural differences, as well as religious beliefs and expectations, impact on reactions to the combat stresses. He explains what can push a combatant into a step by step breakdown of previous behavior and morality. He traces the origins of the crossing of the line into the berserk state of combat.

Importantly, Dr. Shay makes clear the absolute dependence that the modern combat soldier has on those behind the lines and at home. He emphasizes the impact when that support, be it in material or moral justification, is not where combatants need it to be.

From flashbacks, to radical evil, to memory loss; from isolation to demoralization and suicidal tendencies, through persistent mobilization, Dr. Shay takes us step by step along the nightmare journey that has persisted through all these daylight hours and tormented nights.

If you truly, Veteran or concerned countryman, want to understand the temporal, moral, and social horizons of the combat veteran, I, without reservation, recommend this book written so conspicuously with real heart, and real concern.

Find the roots of why specificity is so important to the Veteran, how general rules and going by the book became the enemy; how what seems to be isn't necessarily so.

Perhaps some of the most revealing and unsettling words in this tremendous work respond to why it is so very difficult, if not impossible, for a Veteran with PTSD to interact with the very system of democratic government that he was sent to uphold.

Understanding of past encounters, and reactions to them, help to pave the way to the future. If you are Veteran, this is a must read. If you are one of their countrymen, this is a must read.

What are the possibilities of recovery?

Can we learn to truly listen, to absorb the realities of trauma narratives- are we capable of opening up our safe little worlds to their realities?

Can we learn to hear their silent screams and help them, simply by real listening, true hearing, turn them into healing words?

Answers, directions, wait for you in the Chapter, "Healing and Tragedy."

Dr. Shay concludes this part of his work with a final section entitled Species Ethic. These few brief pages deserve planetary attention.

Be aware: coming in November is: Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.

Thank you, Dr. Shay, for your very great service, and your way of helping with the Welcome Home that is still out there awaiting its special day.

Achilles in Vietnam.


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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