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Reviewed by Major Robert L. Bateman, U.S. army
By Jonathan Shay
Scribner’s, New York, 2003

A timeless book links the Classical Greek experience of war with the more recent experience of Vietnam.

Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (Scribner’s, New York, 2003, paperback $14) is Jonathan Shay’s second book on the general topic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Vietnam veterans, the past and the future. It tells the story of the Odyssey, from ancient Greek literature, and draws lessons from it for the combat veteran. In the interest of full disclosure I should note that I know Jonathan Shay, and I like him. I believe that he represents the best in America. I also think that at least some of his evidence here — and in his previous book, Achilles in Vietnam — is based upon the testimony of men who were lying to him, or to themselves, or both. But in the end, and despite a few of his sources, I believe that he may save our collective soul. That makes this an important book. It is also well-written, understandable to the layman and forceful in its recommendations, which makes this a good book. But because of some of the mud that was spattered upon Shay’s last book, I should make something clear up front: Odysseus in America does not rely heavily on the accounts by Vietnam veterans that came under such intense scrutiny in Achilles in Vietnam. Moreover, where it does, this does not detract from the book’s importance or quality.

I once wrote an article about S.L.A. Marshall, the (in)famous sportswriter turned military historian. That article carried the title, “Not Factual, but the Truth.” Marshall lied about his personal history, and in some cases he lied about his historical sources. Yet despite that, sometimes Marshall hit upon the “big-T” truth about the nature of war, and of combat on the ground at the tactical level. He may have been working with some slightly suspect materials, but in the end a vast majority of men who experienced combat themselves believe that Marshall, more than anyone writing nonfiction analysis before him, got it right. That is Truth.

The same phenomenon is at work in Odysseus in America. This point bears repeating, because the veteran sources Shay relied upon for both his first book and this one have been skewered in the past — and in some cases, I believe, deservedly so. This circumstance does not, however, detract significantly from Shay’s newer book.

Odysseus in America is divided into three parts. The first is an analysis of the story of Odysseus, the Greek warrior-hero who went off to fight at Troy, stayed 10 years through the war and then, due to the whims of the gods, spent 10 more years trying to get home. Shay examines each chapter of the Odyssey as a psychologist, commenting on passages and relating them to the experiences of veterans returning home throughout time. At 144 pages, this section represents more than half the text.

The second part of the book deals more with the present, while the third part of the work deals with actions the nation (and the armed forces in particular) may take to prevent or mitigate psychological damage to combatants in the future. The last chapter alone makes this a book worth its cost for every serving professional officer of the modern military, let alone those interested in (or afflicted with) the postbattle traumas it describes.

Shay himself is no neophyte in military affairs. He is not the kind of mental-healthcare professional who is off in some dream world of academic theory. Although he has never served in uniform himself, during the past 15 years he has become steeped in the culture, the theory and even the emerging doctrine of ground combat forces of the U.S. military. Shay’s day job is as a psychologist with a support group for veterans afflicted with PTSD. During the decade and a half he has spent working with veterans, he has also developed a graduate-level understanding of military history. So when Shay starts tossing out references to ancient Greek literature and drawing serious parallels to the present day, I listen.

In Odysseus in America, Shay makes some obvious points when he sketches out those parallels. For example, he notes: “Combat soldiers in war struggle with the enemy in a two-dimensional world. Those two dimensions are bie, violent force, and metis, cunning, tricks, and strategy.” But the third part of Shay’s book is based upon his own addition to this formula: “For things to go well for a soldier, a third dimension must be added to his own army’s bie and metis: trust that those people who wield official power will do it in accordance with themis, [which is the Greek word for] `what’s right.'” In the wake of recent events in Iraq, this may be important.

The book is timeless. Although it explicitly deals with a hypothetical connection between the Greek experience of war, as found in the classic tale of Odysseus, and the more recent experiences of veterans of the Vietnam War, it goes without saying that the lessons learned are applicable to today’s military as well. This, in fact, is the author’s ultimate goal.

As Shay puts it, when talking about placing the right resources at the disposal of the modern warrior: “…elite formations get the right resources — of stability, competent leadership, and prolonged, cumulative, realistic (state-dependent) training. My personal fire-in-the-belly mission is to see these good resources provided to every combat arms and direct combat support service member in all parts of the U.S. armed services.” Toward that end, Shay is not shy about making concrete recommendations for reform in the modern military. It is a sentiment that I ardently second.

Therefore, while I don’t necessarily agree with all of his suggestions, the underlying motive is a goal that should be supported widely, inside and outside the military. The writing is crisp and clear. The message, too, is clear. Since we are in this new fight for at least a generation, the contents of this book are something that every citizen of the republic should at least think about.