Achilles in Vietnam Cover

Achilles in Vietnam

Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character

Jonathan Shay

Antheneum Books, New York, 1994, 246 pages

Book Review published on: September 13, 2019

Although this book was published some time ago, it is relevant today considering many veterans have recently returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Author Jonathan Shay is a psychiatrist who treated a group of Vietnam combat veterans diagnosed with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The book’s purpose is to help the public understand how war can affect our citizens who participate in war. Yet, Shay concentrates on the negative psychiatric effects and the ruining of good character that often results from some military experiences. It is obvious from reading the book that the author is an advocate of measures that will prevent these negative effects. In writing this book, Shay relies on knowledge gained from his association with Vietnam veterans who have combat experience.

The author makes the obvious point that the Vietnam War was a different kind of war—especially when compared to World War II—and cites some examples of these differences. For instance, upon returning home, many Vietnam veterans did not receive the same favorable treatment from the public as their fathers did who served in World War II. Some Vietnam veterans also felt that they were accused, in part, for being responsible for losing the war. The support that these veterans needed upon completion of their military duty was just not there. In fact, the reality is that there was often criticism of their actions (as is the case today with some of our veterans who are returning from the Middle East). Large numbers of Vietnam veterans have suffered from PTSD, and many are still suffering today. Of course, the same can be said today for many of our returning military personnel, which makes this book current reading.

In the introduction, Shay cites key symptoms of PTSD. Some examples include chronic health problems, destruction of social trust, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, despair, and a feeling of meaningless. He notes that such conditions can exist for a long time and devastate a person’s life. They can cause a veteran to have domestic, social, and economic problems that impair their ability to function in our society and to become a high cost to society.

In view of the resulting psychiatric problems from combat experiences, the author has some interesting suggestions about how to prevent them. For example, he suggests a rotation of units from a war zone rather than rotation of individuals. This would have the psychological advantage of allowing a veteran the opportunity to share experiences with a larger number of individuals who have had similar wartime experiences rather than being a single person who does not have this opportunity to do so. The author also notes that it is natural for some veterans to grieve over their experiences, and that grief should be accepted and understood as resulting from war. In other words, do not be surprised by its presence among some veterans.

Additional recommendations include the discouragement of berserking, or excessive tendencies, among military personnel when involved in a combat situation. One example of berserking cited in the book is being cruel, which could come about in a stressful situation such as seeing friends die in combat. Another recommendation made by the author is having respect for the enemy as a human being, because in many cases, the enemy is just like you. Finally, it is recommended that there be recognition that psychiatric casualties are a fact of war, and that their presence will persist as long as wars occur.

One may ask, “Why is a work of this type relevant today since it is concerned with Vietnam veterans?” Perhaps the answer, in part, is that we have new veterans with serious problems coming home today from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the suggestions made in this book about how to react to these veterans are pertinent in our contemporary society.

Book Review written by: William E. Kelly, PhD, Auburn University