Book Review: Odysseus In America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming


by Dr. Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.

New York: Scribners, 2002. 352. . $25.00. ISBN:0-7432-1156-1

In America has a foreword by Senators John McCain and Max Cleland, and acknowledgments from everyone from Greg Nagy of Harvard's classics department to Ralph Peters, to the head of the Naval War College, to the man who wrote On Killing, to the woman who has organized a web community of Vietnam veterans, to people whose names I remember from the War College (including Col. Charles Dunlap of the Judge Advocates). This in itself, as Shay points out, represents one major change. When he wrote Achilles in Vietnam (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), he couldn't get any serving officers or veterans at the policy level to read and comment, although he got -- and has retained – plenty of classicists.

Now, he has spoken at a variety of places from DC to USMA. And "his" veterans in his practice at the VIP (Veterans Improvement Program), largely in South Boston, are -still- eyeing him to make sure he doesn't leave them now that he's accomplished a major set of career objectives. He points this out as an example of how he thinks veterans, especially those who have PTSD (which he calls a psychological injury), give loyalty to people on a -personal-basis and how their trust may be impaired, often with justification.

The book is simultaneously more of an "insiders'" book and a more daring book than Achilles in Vietnam for reasons I'll make clear. It consists of the Foreword by Senators McCain and Max Cleland (D, very gravely injured during Vietnam), an impressive page of acknowledgments that people who've done some reading will be able to take as an indication that he's done his homework other than psychotherapy, an introduction, and three parts (before appendices, index, explanation of jargon, etc. Incidentally, as Shay points out, there are no "etc." on the Wall; this is the last time I'll use the abbreviation in this review).

Part I is a run-through of The Odyssey as an analysis of Odysseus as a company commander, a warrior, and a case history, with chapter headings like "Odysseus Among the Rich Civilians"; "Pirate Raid: Staying in Combat Mode"; "Cyclops: The Flight from Boredom"; "Odysseus Gets a Let Up -- and Falls on His Face—The Workplace." Shay interprets The Odyssey allegorically as a story of Odysseus' imperfect homecoming and a type of every veteran's homecoming, and shows how he is a brilliant fighter and staff officer, but how his traumatic experiences at Troy lead him to make disastrous decisions that result in the deaths of all his companions (who are then blamed for getting themselves killed), how he fails to trust them, turns advantages into failures, goes hyper-vigilant, proves untrusting of outsiders with whom he has nothing in common, and in the end, erupts in violence and takes off, even though Penelope, as intelligent as he, is fully his match.

I am not crazy about allegorical interpretations, but classicists with far better backgrounds than I seem to think he knows what he's doing, and my being "not crazy" about allegory doesn't deny its validity. Certainly, he's easily at Dante's third level of moral allegory, and it works as that -- and as case history.

The second section, always referring to the Odyssey, deals with restoration of the veteran to the larger community. According to Shay, reintegration takes at least three to achieve: you don't do it alone; you don't manage it even with a good therapist; you need a community. He sees the Vietnam-era practice of rotating troops in and out away from their units as disastrous. It gave them no community and no one to grieve with or decompress with. Outside that community, he sees significant problems due to PTSD in reintegrating veterans to civilian life.

Part of the problem -is- civilian: civilians tend not to understand. Work experience does -not- translate, and very stupid things can be said. At the same time, some veterans' trust has been significantly impaired, and they can be contemptuous of the civilians

Reviewer: --Susan Shwartz   

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