Achilles in Vietnam Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character

  • ISBN13:


  • ISBN10:


  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1995-10-01
  • Publisher: Scribner

Note: Supplemental materials are not guaranteed with Rental or Used book purchases.

Purchase Benefits

  • Free Shipping On Orders Over $35!
    Your order must be $35 or more to qualify for free economy shipping. Bulk sales, PO's, Marketplace items, eBooks and apparel do not qualify for this offer.
  • Get Rewarded for Ordering Your Textbooks! Enroll Now
  • We Buy This Book Back!
    In-Store Credit: $0.53
    Check/Direct Deposit: $0.50
List Price: $16.00 Save up to $14.93
  • Rent Book $4.99
    Add to Cart Free Shipping


Supplemental Materials

What is included with this book?

  • The New copy of this book will include any supplemental materials advertised. Please check the title of the book to determine if it should include any access cards, study guides, lab manuals, CDs, etc.
  • The Used and Rental copies of this book are not guaranteed to include any supplemental materials. Typically, only the book itself is included. This is true even if the title states it includes any access cards, study guides, lab manuals, CDs, etc.


In this strikingly original and groundbreaking book, Dr. Shay examines the psychological devastation of war by comparing the soldiers of Homer'sIliadwith Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Although theIliadwas written twenty-seven centuries ago it has much to teach about combat trauma, as do the more recent, compelling voices and experiences of Vietnam vets.

Author Biography

Jonathan Shay is a Boston-area psychiatrist whose patients are Vietnam combat veterans with severe, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder in the Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic. He is also on the faculty of Tufts Medical School. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Author's Caution to Veterans, Their Families, and Their Friends xii
Introduction xiii
Betrayal of ``What's Right''
An army is a moral construction
Victory, defeat, and the hovering dead
Some veterans' view---What is defeat? What is victory?
Dimensions of betrayal of ``what's right''
On danger in war
The fairness assumption
The fiduciary assumption
Soldiers' rage---The beginning
Shrinkage of the Social and Moral Horizon
One American soldier's social space
Tracking Achilles through social space
Simplification of the social world to a single comrade
Achilles' character before his psychological injuries
Respect for the dead
Taking prisoners alive
Moral luck
War destroys the trustworthy social order of the mind
Combat is a condition of captivity and enslavement
``Don't mean nothin''---Destruction of ideals, ambitions, affiliations
Grief at the Death of a Special Comrade
Soldiers' love for special comrades---Vietnam and Troy
Homer on the relationship between Achilles and Patroklos
The specialness of the special comrade
Portrait of Patroklos
The grief of Achilles
Being already dead
Grief and the warrior's rage
Communalization of grief in the Iliad and in Vietnam
When were the dead brought to the rear?
Who brought the dead to the rear?
When were the dead mourned?
What was the level of trust, safety, and social cohesiveness in the rear during mourning?
Use of mind-altering substances
Who wept for the dead, and how were tears valued?
Who washed and prepared the dead for cremation/burial and shipment home?
The importance of thwarted grief
Guilt and Wrongful Substitution
Abandonment and wrongful substitution
Deserving the death sentence
Homecoming renounced
An unintended outcome of religious education?
Soldier's rage---Fatal convergence and completion
Triggers of the berserk state
``Don't get sad. Get even!''
Characteristics of the berserk state
A beast
A god
Above and beneath---Disconnection from human community
Loss of all restraint
Revenge as reviving the dead
The berserker in the eyes of other soldiers
Flaming ice---Berserk physiology
Aristeiai of American soldiers in Vietnam---The differences
Naked berserkers and Achilles' invulnerability
Clinical importance of the berserk state
Dishonoring the Enemy
The enemy as enemy: Images in common to Vietnam and Troy
Image of the Vietnamese enemy
Homer: Valor does not depend on contempt for the enemy
Enemy soldiers talk to each other at Troy
Soldiers talk about the enemy at Troy
Religious roots of the enemy as vermin: Biblical anti-epic in 1 Samuel 17
Clinical importance of honoring or dishonoring the enemy
Abuse of the dead enemy
What Homer Left Out
Friendly fire
Suffering of the wounded
Civilian suffering
Suffered by all civilians during war
Suffered exclusively or primarily by women after defeat
Soldiers' Luck and God's Will
The social spectrum of luck
Equipment failure
Attributing blame
Job's paradox and the possibility of virtue
Reclaiming the Iliad's Gods as a Metaphor of Social Power
Armies as creators of social power
Gods as REMFs
Heartlessness of the gods
Readiness to ``waste'' lives
Sunk-costs argument
Sinister demographic agendas
The gods as inconsistent, unreliable, inattentive, distractible
Homeric irony and god's love
The Breaking Points of Moral Existence---What Breaks?
The official diagnostic criteria for PTSD of the American Psychiatric Association
PTSD and the ruins of character
Persistence of the traumatic moment---Loss of authority over mental function
Untrustworthiness of perception
Persistence mobilization for danger
Persistence of survival skills
Persistence of betrayal
Persistence of isolation
Persistence of suicidality
Persistence of meaninglessness
Destruction of the capacity for democratic participation
Healing and Tragedy
Is recovery possible?
Return to ``normal'' is not possible
We don't know if recovery is possible
Yes---Recovery is possible
What is the best treatment?
Why and how does narrative heal?
The law of forgetting and denial
Conclusion 195(16)
Protect unit cohesion by unit rather than individual rotation
Value griefwork
Do not encourage berserking
Eliminate intentional injustice as a motivational technique
Respect the enemy as human
Acknowledge psychiatric casualties
War is not an industrial process
Pissing contests
Species ethic
Notes 211(22)
Bibliography 233(4)
Index 237



Betrayal of "What's Right"

Every instance of severe traumatic psychological injury is a standing challenge to the rightness of the social order.

Judith Lewis Herman,

1990 Harvard Trauma Conference

We begin in the moral world of the soldier -- what his culture understands to be right -- and betrayal of that moral order by a commander. This is how Homer opens theIliad.Agamémnon, Achilles' commander, wrongfully seizes the prize of honor voted to Achilles by the troops. Achilles' experience of betrayal of "what's right," and his reactions to it, are identical to those of American soldiers in Vietnam. I shall describe some of the many violations of what American soldiers understood to be right by holders of responsibility and trust.

Now, there was a LURP [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol] team from the First Brigade off of Highway One, that looked over the South China Sea. There was a bay there....Now, they saw boats come in. And they suspected, now, uh -- the word came down [that] they were unloading weapons off them. Three boats.

At that time we moved. It was about ten o'clock at night. We moved down, across Highway One along the beach line, and it took us [until] about three or four o'clock in the morning to get on line while these people are unloading their boats. And we opened up on them -- aaah.

And the fucking firepower was unreal, the firepower that we put into them boats. It was just a constant, constant firepower. It seemed like no one ever ran out of ammo.

Daylight came [long pause], and we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.

What got us thoroughly fucking confused is, at that time you turn to the team and you say to the team, "Don't worry about it. Everything's fucking fine." Because that's what you're getting from upstairs.

The fucking colonel says, "Don't worry about it. We'll take care of it." Y'know, uh, "We got body count!" "We have body count!" So it starts working on your head.

So you know in your heart it's wrong, but at the time, here's your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that'sokaythen, right? This is part of war. Y'know? Gung-HO! Y'know? "AirBORNE! AirBORNE! Let's go!"

So we packed up and we moved out.

They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation -- them fucking maggots. A lot of medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y'know, I'd be standing like a fucking jerk and they'd be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians.

This veteran received his Combat Infantry Badge for participating in this action. The CIB was one of the most prized U.S. Army awards, supposed to be awarded for actual engagement in ground combat. He subsequently earned his CIB a thousand times over in four combat tours. Nonetheless, he still feels deeply dishonored by the circumstances of its official award for killing unarmed civilians on an intelligence error. He declares that the day it happened, Christmas Eve, should be stricken from the calendar.

We shall hear this man's voice and the voices of other combat veterans many times in these pages. I shall argue throughout this book that healing from trauma depends upon communalization of the trauma -- being able safely to tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community. So before analyzing, before classifying, before thinking, before trying todoanything -- we shouldlisten.Categories and classifications play a large role in the institutions of mental health care for veterans, in the education of mental health professionals, and as tentative guides to perception. All too often, however, our mode of listening deteriorates into intellectual sorting, with the professional grabbing the veterans' words from the air and sticking them in mental bins. To some degree that is institutionally and educationally necessary, but listening this waydestroystrust. At its worst our educational system produces counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists who resemble museum-goers whose whole experience consists of mentally saying, "That's cubist!...That's El Greco!" and who neverseeanything they've looked at. "Just listen!" say the veterans when telling mental health professionals what they need to know to work with them, and I believe that is their wish for the general public as well. Passages of narrative here contain the particularity of individual men's experiences, bearing a different order of meaningfulness than any categories they might be put into. In the words of one veteran, these stories are "sacred stuff."

The mortal dependence of the modern soldier on the military organization for everything he needs to survive is as great as that of a small child on his or her parents. One Vietnam combat veteran said, "The U.S. Army [in Vietnam] was like a mother who sold out her kids to be raped by [their] father to protect her own interests."

No single English word takes in the whole sweep of a culture's definition of right and wrong; we use terms such as moral order, convention, normative expectations, ethics, and commonly understood social values. The ancient Greek word that Homer used,thémis,encompasses all these meanings. A word of this scope is needed for the betrayals experienced by Vietnam combat veterans. In this book I shall use the phrase "what's right" as an equivalent ofthémis.The specific content of the Homeric warriors'thémiswas often quite different from that of American soldiers in Vietnam, but what has not changed in three millennia are violent rage and social withdrawal when deep assumptions of "what's right" are violated. The vulnerability of the soldier's moral world has increased in three thousand years because of the vast number and physical distance of people in a position to betray "what's right" in ways that threaten the survival of soldiers in battle. Homeric soldiers actually saw their commander in chief, perhaps daily.


Book 1 of theIliadsets the tragedy in motion with Agamémnon's seizure of Achilles' woman, "a prize I [Achilles] sweated for, and soldiers gave me!" (1:189) We must understand the cultural context to see that this episode is more than a personal squabble between two soldiers over a woman. The outrageousness of Agamémnon's behavior is repeatedly made clear. Achilles' mother, the goddess Thetis, makes her case to Zeus: "Now Lord Marshal Agamémnon has been highhanded with him, has commandeered and holds his prize of war[géras,portion of honor]...." The prize of honor was voted by the troops for Achilles' valor in combat. A modern equivalent might be a commander telling a soldier, "I'll take that Congressional Medal of Honor of yours, because I don't have one." Obviously, Achilles' grievance was magnified by his attachment to the particular person of Brisêis, the captive woman who was the prize, but violation of "what's right" was central to the clash between Achilles and Agamémnon.

Any army, ancient or modern, is a social construction defined by shared expectations and values. Some of these are embodied in formal regulations, defined authority, written orders, ranks, incentives, punishments, and formal task and occupational definitions. Others circulate as traditions, archetypal stories of things to be emulated or shunned, and accepted truth about what is praise-worthy and what is culpable. All together, these form a moral world that most of the participants most of the time regard as legitimate, "natural," and personally binding. The moral power of an army is so great that it can motivate men to get up out of a trench and step into enemy machine-gun fire.

When a leader destroys the legitimacy of the army's moral order by betraying "what's right," he inflicts manifold injuries on his men. TheIliadis a story of these immediate and devastating consequences. Vietnam has forced us to see that these consequences go beyond the war's "loss upon bitter loss...leaving so many dead men" (1:3ff) to taint the lives of those who survive it.


In victory, the meaning of the dead has rarely been a problem to the living -- soldiers have died "for" victory. Ancient and modern war are alike in defining the relationship between victory and the army's dead,after the fact.At the time of the deaths, victory has not yet been achieved, so the corpses' meaning hovers in the void until the lethal contest has been decided. Victory -- and the cut, crushed, burned, impaled, suffocated, frozen, diseased, drowned, poisoned, or blown-up corpses -- mutually anchor each other's meaning. Homeric participants in warfare understood a very simple relationship between civilians and the soldiers who fought to protect them: In defeat, all male civilians were massacred and all female civilians were raped and carried away into slavery. In the modern world, the meaning of the dead to the defeated is a bitter, unhealed wound, where defeat rarely means obliteration of the people and civilization. As we recently witnessed in the Persian Gulf War, defeat may not even bring the fall of the opposing government. At the level of grand strategy in Vietnam, the United States had been defeated, and yet American soldiers had won every battle.

For the veterans, the unanchored dead continue to hover. They visit their surviving comrades at night like the ghost of Pátroklos, Achilles' friend, visits Achilles:

...let me pass the gates of Death.

...I wander

about the wide gates and the hall of Death.

Give me your hand. I sorrow. (23:88)

The returning Vietnam soldiers were not honored. Much of the public treated them with indifference or derision, further denying the unanchored dead a resting place.

Some veterans' view -- What is defeat? What is victory?

During a group therapy session, I once blundered into a casual mention of "our defeat" in Vietnam. Many veterans returned from Vietnam and found themselves outcast and humiliated in American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts where they had assumed that they would be welcomed, supported, and understood. Time and again they were assailed as "losers" by World War II veterans. The pain and rage at being blamed for defeat in Vietnam was beyond bearing and resulted in many brawls.

These feelings reflect not only outrage at the heartless wrong-headedness of such remarks but also a concept of victory in war that left Vietnam veterans bewildered. "We knew that we never lost a battle," say the veterans. Winning, as far as I have been able to determine, meant to them being in possession of the ground at the end of the battle. So the hit-and-run or hit-and-hide small-unit tactics of the enemy always meant that we had "won" after a given engagement. However, many men experienced a deep malaise that their concepts of victory, of strength embodied in fire superiority and often in great local numerical superiority, somehow didn't fit, were futile. The enemy initiated 90 percent of all engagements but "lost" them all. Even battles like Dak To and Ap Bia Mountain (Hamburger Hill) were American victories in the sense that Americans held the ground when the last shot was fired.

Larger images of victory seem to have been formed out of newsreel footage of World War II surrender ceremonies and beautiful women weeping for joy at their liberation; defeat was a document signed in a railway carriage and German troops marching in Paris. As I listen to some veterans, there are times when it seems they believe that the Vietnamesecannothave won the war. Therefore, because we won all our battles, our victory was some-how stolen. Many veterans have a well-developed "stab in the back" theory akin to that developed by German veterans of World War I -- that the war could have been handily won had the fighting forces not been betrayed by home-front politicians. My interest here is in the soldiers' experiences and not in the larger historical question of whether they were "sold out" by the politicians some-how brought under the spell of such still-hated figures as Jane Fonda.

Once or twice I have tried to explore with veterans these concepts of victory and defeat. I have abandoned these discussions, because the sense of betrayal is still too great and the equation of defeat with abandonment by God and personal devaluation still too vivid.

To return to my blunder in group therapy, a veteran whose voice is often heard in this book turned black with anger and, glaring at me, said, "I wonmywar. It'syouwho fucking lost!" He got up and left the room to remove himself from the opportunity to physically hurt me. Toward the end of the group session he returned and said, "What we lost in Vietnam was a lot ofgood fucking kids!"

More than a year after this experience I gingerly approached the subject with another veteran, prefacing what I was about to say (the paradox that we had "lost" the war while "winning" every battle) by saying that I knew that this was a very sensitive subject and that it made many vets very angry. When I had said it, he smiled in a not very friendly way and drew his finger across his throat. "It makes you want to cut my throat?" I asked. "Uh-huh," he replied.


To grasp the significance of betrayal we must consider two independent dimensions: first, what is at stake, and second, whatthémishas been violated.

On danger in war

"To someone who has never experienced danger, the idea is attractive," wrote the famous nineteenth-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. So it appeared to many young men who volunteered -- only about 10 percent of the men I see were drafted -- for military service during the Vietnam War. For some it was a way to "prove" themselves to themselves, sometimes to their fathers and uncles who were World War Ii veterans. For some it was attractive as an expression of patriotic and religious idealism, often understood to be equivalent to anti-Communism:

You get brought up with God an' country, and -- y'know, something good turned out bad....They told me I was fighting Communism. And I really believed in my country and I believed everyone served their country.

Another veteran:

It was better to fight Communism there in Vietnam than in your own back yard. Catholics had the worst of it. We had to be the Legions of God. We were doing it for your faith. We were told: Communists don't like Catholics.

For some the war was a cause that expressed an heroic ideal of human worth, in the words of one veteran, "the highest stage of mankind, willing to put your life on the line for an idea." For others it was the excitement, the spectacle of war. One veteran described his motive for joining the Marines: "I was bored. Vietnam was where it was happening, and in the Marines everybody went to Vietnam."

All knew that war was dangerous, but none were prepared for the "final shock, the sight of men being killed and mutilated [which] moves our pounding hearts to awe and pity." They went to war with the innocence built from films in which war, in Paul Fussell's words, was

systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied....In these, no matter how severely wounded, Allied troops are never shown suffering what was termed, in the Vietnam War, traumatic amputation: everyone has all his limbs, his hands and feet and digits, not to mention expressions of courage and cheer."

Danger of death and mutilation is the pervading medium of combat. It is a viscous liquid in which everything looks strangely refracted and moves about in odd ways, a powerful corrosive that breaks down many fixed contours of perception and utterly dissolves others. Without an accurate conception of danger we cannot comprehend war and cannot properly value the moral structure of an army. We must grasp what is at stake: lethal danger and the fear of it.

The fairness assumption

Adults rightly think that a sense of proportion about petty injustice is intrinsic to maturity and hear their children shrilling. "It's not fair!" as evidence of their childishness. The culture shock of civilians entering the stratified and ritualized military world is well known. It is also the world of "chickenshit." As Paul Fussell put it:

If you are an enlisted man, you'll know you've been the victim of chickenshit if your sergeant assigns you to K.P. not because it's your turn but because you disagreed with him on a question of taste a few evenings ago. Or, you might find your pass to town canceled at the last moment because, you finally remember, a few days ago you asked a question during the sergeant's lecture on map-reading that he couldn't answer.

Civilians and noncombat veterans often equate complaints about military life to adolescent whining because of the unexamined assumption that its injustices are always of this low-stakes variety. The experiences that Fussell invokes here undoubtedly cause anger and indignation, but the essential element of mortal danger is lacking. However, Fussell, himself a World War II combat veteran, continues the passage without a change in tone:

Or, if you uttered your...[indiscretion] while in combat instead of in camp, you might find yourself repeatedly selected to take out the more hazardous night patrols to secure information, the kind, a former junior officer recalls, 'we already knew from daytime observations, and had reported.'

Because we have entered the realm of mortal danger, the experience of betrayal merits full, respectful attention. Paradoxically, the reader must respondemotionallyto the reality of combat danger in order to makerationalsense of the injury inflicted when those in charge violate "what's right." If the emotion of terror is completely absent from the reader's experience of this book, crucial information about the experience of combat is not getting through.

A veteran recalls,

Walking point was an extremely dangerous job. The decision on who was going to do it was so carefree, so carefree, yeah. The decision was made politically [laughs]. Most of the time politically. Certain people got the shit. Certain people didn't. Certain people on the right side of certain people.

Another veteran:

The CO had his favorites. Two companies, Delta [this veteran's company] and Charlie, always got sent out. The other two always stayed back on the hill at __.

This may sound like a child complaining, "It's not fair!" about taking turns carrying out the trash, unless one grasps what was at stake. During the course of this man's year with Delta Company, it suffered more than 100 percent casualties, taking replacements into account. The companies that were the CO's favorites suffered few casualties. Contrary to what the young men anticipated in training and in watching war films, once they encountered the reality of battle, they fervently wanted to avoid it and wanted risk to be fairly distributed. Many aspects of thethémisof American soldiers cluster around fairness. When they perceived that distribution of risk was unjust, they became filled with indignant rage, just as Achilles was filled withmênis,indignant rage.

Soldiers grow most doubtful about the fair distribution of risk when they see that their commanders shelter themselves from it. Writing of the Vietnam War, a respected military historian commented:

Officers in every, armed force must find ways of inducing their men to fight and risk their lives -- a most unnatural activity....In modern warfare, where automatic weapons, artillery, and air power impose dispersal, men can rarely be pushed into combat; they must be pulled by the prestige of their immediate leader and the officers above him. Combat expertise that soldiers recognize and personal qualities of authority are important, but so is an evident willingness to share in the...deadly risks of war.

...The deadly risks of combat must unfailingly be shared whether it is tactically necessary to do so or not, and junior officers cannot do alt the sharing.

If soldiers see that their immediate leader is exposed to risk while his superiors stay away from combat, they will be loyal to the man but disaffected from the army....In Vietnam, the mere fact that officers above the most junior rank were so abundant and mostly found in well-protected bases suggested a very unequal sharing of the risk. And statistics support the troops' suspicion. During the Second World War, the Army ground forces had a full colonel tot every 672 enlisted men; in Vietnam (1971) there was a colonel for every 163 enlisted men. In the Second World War, 77 colonels died in combat, one for every 2,206 men thus killed; throughout the Vietnam war, from 1961 till 1972, only 8 colonels were killed in action, one for every 3,407 men.

TheIliadreminds us that military and political leaders have not always been thousands of miles away from the war zone. Agamémnon, the highest Greek political and military authority, personally shares every soldier's risk on the battlefield and is wounded in action (11:289ff); the King of Lykia, a Trojan ally, is killed in action (15:568ff). Only within the last few centuries has the era of "stone-age command" ended. Before the modern age the ruler and commander in chief were united in one person who was present and at risk in battle. Rear-echelon officers in Vietnam who attempted to micro-manage battles by radio from the rear were known as Base Camp Commandos; those who operated from a helicopter safely out of range of ground fire came to be called Great Leaders in the Sky. Martin van Creveld wrote:

Under the conditions peculiar to the war in Vietnam, major units seldom had more than one of their subordinate outfits engage the enemy at any one time....A hapless company commander engaged in a firefight on the ground was subjected to direct observation by the battalion commander circling above, who was in turn supervised by the brigade commander circling a thousand or so feet higher up, who in his turn was monitored by the division commander in the next highest chopper, who might even be so unlucky as to have his own performance watched by the Field Force (corps) commander.

If American career officers in Vietnam did not share the risks of combat, cultural and institutional factors, rather than personal cowardice, were primarily responsible for this. The officers of World War II had a different culture, which focused on the substance of theirworkrather than on the institutional definition and status of theirjobs,as in Vietnam. And compared to World War II, there were simply too many officers in Vietnam, leading them to become so absorbed in bureaucratic processes that the most elementary aspects of leadership dropped beyond their horizon.

Officers, the only soldiers we meet in theIliad,went into danger in quest of "honor."

What is the point of being honored so

with precedence at table, choice of meat,

and brimming cups,...

And why have lands been granted you and me...?

So that we two

at times like this in the...front line

may face the blaze of battle and fight well. (12:348ff)

Honor was conferred by others for going into danger and fighting competently. Honor was embodied in its valuable tokens, such as the best portions of meat at feasts, land grants, or, in Achilles' case, the prize of Brisêis. And so could honor be removed; a man could be dis-honored by seizure of the tokens of honor. Homer makes it plain that men were willing to risk their lives for honor and that the material goods that symbolized honor were notper sewhat made them face "a thousand shapes of death." (12:366) It is easy for us to caricature ancient warriors as simple brigands or booty hunters motivated by greed, but this is almost certainly a misunderstanding. The quest for social honor and avoidance of social shame are the prime motives of Homeric warriors. Achilles says,

Only this bitterness eats at my heart

when one man would deprive and shame his equal,

taking back his prize by abuse of power.

The girl whom the Akhaians chose for me

I won by my own spear. A town with walls

I stormed and sacked for her. Then Agamémnon

stole her back, out of my hands, as though

I were some vagabond held cheap. (16:61ff)

The rage is the same, whether it is fairness, so valued by Americans, or honor, the highest good of Homer's officers, that has been violated. In both cases life is at stake. In both cases the moral constitution of the army, its cultural contract, has been impaired under risk of death and mutilating wounds.

The fiduciary assumption

Compared to the modern soldier, the Homeric soldier hardly depended on others at all, and when he did it was upon comrades he knew personally and called on by name without technology to assist his own voice. He depended upon himself for his weapons and armor; his eyes and ears provided most of the tactical intelligence he required. He did not need to rely on the competence, mental clarity, and sense of responsibility of a chain of people he would never meet to assure that artillery, or air strikes meant to protect him did not kill him by mistake.

Consider the following "routine" event of combat in Vietnam: A man on night watch on the perimeter of a landing zone, using a starlight scope, observes enemy soldiers moving toward the helicopter landing zone (LZ) through the darkness. He calls this in to the command post (CP); his words awaken his comrades, lightly asleep beside him while not on watch. Meanwhile, the officer in the CP calls in a request for illumination shells and artillery fire to turn back or weaken the oncoming assault.

Note the dependency of every man on others: the sleeping men on the one on watch, the one on watch on night-vision equipment supplied by others, all of them upon the radio sets connecting the bunker with the CE They depend upon the radio-telephone operator (RTO) on watch in the CP and the officer who calls in the request for fire support with the correct coordinates and correct munitions, upon the artillery watch officer issuing the correct orders for a fire mission to the nearby fire base, upon these being carried out with the correct munitions and the guns correctly laid -- the wrong coordinates could bring the fire downonthe Americans, ironically dubbed "friendly fire," the phrase invoked when the action of one's own arms results in any wounding or death.

The vast and distant military and civilian structure that provides a modern soldier with his orders, arms, ammunition, food, water, information, training, and fire support is ultimately a moral structure, afiduciary,a trustee holding the life and safety of that soldier. The need for an intact moral world increases with every added coil of a soldier's mortal dependency on others. The vulnerability of the soldier's moral world has vastly increased in three millennia.

The following narrative, which contrasts a respected company commander with his successor, illuminates both obvious and hidden dimensions of the fiduciary relationship:

I told you about that captain I liked, he kept moving us, you know, always move. We'd set up, we'd sleep, if you could sleep, and then get out of there. I think that we walked a lot of unbroken paths, off trails, never set up -- see, my second captain, he'd come up and say, "Well, that's a nice NDP [night defensive position]. It's already dug, little foxholes. It's beautiful, we'll just set up right there." My captain wouldn't do that. He'd shake his head and say, "Uh-UH, we're going over there, and we're going tocut."...Cutting, cutting, cutting...My captain, I hated his goddamn guts, but I admired him, admired the living shit. I hated his goddamn guts because he was so hard....He would always stay off trails, stay off used NDPs. Y'know, when he left and he was replaced, I thought I'd never get out of there. I'd never get out of there alive.

At first glance, this veteran appears simply to be contrasting a competent company commander with his incompetent replacement. The first captain understood that previously used NDPs were probably mined and booby-trapped, or that at the very least, enemy mortars and artillery had their coordinates. Existing trails, which would allow the company to move more quickly without the long labor of cutting through, were likewise mined and booby-trapped as well as invitations to ambush.

Why did the captain who replaced the admired commander not know these things? The answer to this question goes deep into the betrayals of trust of the higher officers who (1) designed a system of officer rotation that rotated officers (above second lieutenant) in and out of combat assignments every six months, (2) were responsible for training, evaluating, and assigning officers to combat command, and (3) placed institutional and career' considerations above the lives of the soldiers under their responsibility. By the time a company or battalion commander acquired knowledge of the enemy's habits, the terrain and weather, the strengths and weaknesses of his men and their arms, whose advice to heed among the junior officers and NCOs, and the arts of deception, he was replaced Some canny commanders would set up in an existing NDP and then move out of it after dark to another position. Such skills are only slightly transferable from one officer to his replacement and mainly have to be acquired from experience.

However, these larger systemic failures such as too-rapid turnover, inadequate training, and incompetent selection of troop commanders misses another important point that was much more visible to soldiers. Was there no one to tell the new captain that he should not use existing trails? Of course there were NCOs and lieutenants to tell him. The old commander, whose way of moving was "cut, cut, cut," probably displeased his superiors who ordered him to move from point A to point B in two hours -- a movement that could be done in that time only if he took his company along highly dangerous existing trails. Possibly he answered back, saying, "No, that can't be done."

Officers whowantedto stay in the field beyond six months were said to have "gone bush" or "gone native." They were suspected of not being "with the program" and of having nurtured a "personality cult" in which the troops were loyal to them as individuals rather than to the chain of command. The veteran quoted above continues,

I had a lieutenant who I loved. I would've walked into hell with him, walked right into hell....Now, when he was supposed to leave the field, he wouldn't leave, they had to bring two armed guards, no lie. They brought a special bird [helicopter] out. They said, "Now get on the bird! You're under orders." He didn't want to go.

Neither the admired captain nor the beloved lieutenant were cowards, avoiding the enemy out of fear. As far as I can determine from th

Excerpted from Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by Jonathan Shay
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Rewards Program

Write a Review