Saturday, January 21, 2006

Review: Odysseus in America

Odysseus in America Odysseus in America by Jonathan Shay M.D uses the story of Odysseus 10 year trip home fromthe Trojan War as an allegory for Vietnam Veterans return home. It is interesting reading with lots of good “war stories” to keep the pace lively. However the book can be quite academic at times. The allegory is very plain. Odysseus is a soldier having trouble getting home and adjusting. Some Vietnam Veterans had trouble adjusting.

Dr Shay defines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as persistence of valid adaptations to danger into a time of safety afterward. In other words the Veteran with PTSD that freak’s out in crowds is doing so because “crowds draw mortar fire”. He lists some of the skills that combat veterans learn are:

  • Control of fear
  • Cunning, the arts of deception, the arts of the "mind f---."
  • Control of violence against members of their own group.
  • The capacity to respond skillfully and instantly with violent, lethal force.
  • Vigilance, perpetual mobilization for danger.
  • Regarding fixed rules as possible threats to their own and their comrade’s survival.
  • Regarding fixed “rules of war” as possible advantages to be gained over the enemy.
  • Suppression of compassion, horror, guilt, tenderness, grief, disgust.
  • The capacity to lie fluently and convincingly.
  • Physical strength, quickness, endurance, stealth.
  • Skill at locating and grabbing needed supplies whether officially provided or not.
  • Skill in the use of a variety of lethal weapons.
  • Skill in adapting to harsh physical conditions.
With the expectation of physical fitness all of these can cause problems in civilian life.

The book is completely Vietnam biased, which is to be expected, because all of Dr Shay’s patients are Vietnam Veterans. However the book contains a strong bias that he shares from his patients views. In particular there was an overall opinion that officers were incompetent and not to be trusted. It is noteworthy that none of his patients were officers.

The solutions that he recommends are hardly novel. Cohesion, Leadership, and Training. He makes a strong case that the individual rotation method used in Vietnam left a returning veteran alone to deal with his demons without the support. However he does come to a conclusion that I am sure surprised him given what seems to be his natural “anti-war’ tendencies and hopes that war can be abolished. In the end he comes to the conclusion that it is a moral responsibility for Officers to train themselves and their men to the highest level possible, because the quicker the war, the fewer the physical casualties, the fewer the psychological traumas.

Personally I did draw some conclusions from the book. First, survivors are superstitious. Second, reservists should deploy as at unit in company or larger size.

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