I have decided to sit down and write from the guidance of my experiences some advice, information, and review of some books I will read through in hopes that it may help veterans and their loved ones as a guide with navigating a veteran’s return home from deployment in a warzone.
For the first book, I will begin to cover
Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma And The Undoing of Character by Jonathan Shay, M.D., PH.D.
which is a book I have previously read myself and feel this will be a good refresher in reading again. In his book, Dr. Shay makes analysis and comparison between what experiences Vietnam combat veterans had – that he treated – and what the soldiers of Homer’s classic Iliad went through and suffered. Although, the Iliad was written over twenty-seven centuries ago, and the Vietnam War has been over for five decades, I deeply feel this book is very much relevant today, both for our veterans and their loved ones, to grasp at least some understanding, of what psychological devastation war can have on our warriors.
Published so far:
Chapter 1: Betrayal of “What’s Right” (08/18/21)
Chapter 2: Shrinkage of the Social and Moral Horizon (10/25/21)
Chapter 3: Grief at the Death of a Special Comrade (02/09/22)
Chapter 4: Guilt and Wrongful Substitution (04/28/22))
To read the blog from the beginning, please scroll down.
ACHILLES IN VIETNAM
Chapter 4 – Guilt and Wrongful Substitution (04/28/2022)
“I should’ve took the fucking round myself.” – Airborne Veteran.
As a combat veteran, I can speak to the bond that all soldiers share between themselves and their closest comrades. In the previous chapter, I stated that while I did not lose a special comrade, it is easy for me to comprehend a soldier’s grief at such a loss. You grow so close to those you are always with, going on patrol together, watching each other’s backs, defending them in arguments, looking out for them with food, or any other thing you can think of. It is what the military encourages in having what we call a “battle buddy”, which is just as stated, someone you develop a bond with, because you are always going to be with them nearly at all times. The bond is such that it may be so intense as to dissolve the distinction between you and the other, to where each of you values the other’s life above their own. When one dies, the survivor still lives, there is a guilt for the survivor, who will say “It should’ve been me!”, condemning themselves for their very survival.
This is, again, a topic that I have not experienced personally, though one I do understand. To that effect, I do hope to do justice for this topic as well, for the veterans who lost their lives in the line of duty, and those who care for them.
When I was in war, there were those I was close with, and I recall one time being outside the wire in a defensive position where we stayed in entrenchments, or what we call “foxholes” in military jargon. We were there for a month or so, going on patrols from them, no showers, even sleeping in the foxholes. What I wish to illustrate, is we had to let one sleep while the other stood watch, with two of us in each one. This was not just standing watch over the other soldier, but the entire force with you, all through the day and night. When it was your turn to take watch, your comrade could say he needs some rest, and you could answer matter-of-fact, with a cold, flat stare: “Go ahead, I’ve got this, nothing is going to get past me.” Perhaps, people may not understand the exchange there, but veterans understand the meaning well. You comrade could peacefully fall asleep because he knew you cared, and knew you meant every word.
There are self-accusations, both by veterans and in the Iliad of Achilles, at the loss of a comrade and the ensuing guilt. The surviving veteran could say that they “should have been there”, that they “could have done something about it”, in changing the outcome of their comrade’s death. The guilt of the survivor does not spring from these “what if”-possibilities, whether plausible or not. It appears to come from the twin-like closeness the two soldiers shared, as if each was the other’s double. Guilt torments one such veteran of Dr. Shay’s, for the death of a younger man in his team, while he was hospitalized with a serious infection, saying:
“In my heart it’s – if I was there, he wouldn’t be dead. I didn’t do my job. I didn’t bring him home … When it come the time, Doc, I didn’t take care of him. When he needed me, I wasn’t there … I should’ve took the fucking round myself.”
Homer uses an interesting word that he puts in Achilles’ mouth, in which he calls Patroklos his “therapon”, his double, or his substitute. Achilles gives his armor to Patroklos and sends him out as his “therapon”. According to Gregory Nagy, this word originally meant “ritual substitute” or “stand-in”. When Patroklos dies, it becomes a wrongful ritual substitute, which rebounds as like a religious taint of Achilles. Vietnam veterans, and others, have experienced this taint, even if they lack the eloquence or theology to explain it. In modern American life, very few veterans have found purification, although many have sought it in suicide. Homer took the theme of guilty substitution even further when Achilles stands before Patroklos’ corpse and says:
“My heart’s desire had been
that I alone should perish…
here at Troy; that you should sail … (home)”
Achilles imagines Patroklos as his “therapon”, in which his death was the wrong death, his substitution the unintended one.
This matter of intense grief at the loss of a comrade is one I truly cannot speak to in this context, as I said, I did not experience this, only that I could grasp the feeling much more having been through war myself. There are a range of emotions one can feel in intense situations and circumstances. The words “It should’ve been me!” can express so many various levels of meaning simultaneously. There were Vietnam veterans, as with Achilles’ actions following the death of Patroklos, in taking the next step from guilt to passing sentence upon himself, and the impulse to execute in suicide:
… bent to hold the hero’s
hands when groaning shook his heart: (Antilokhos) feared
the man might use sharp iron to slash his throat.”
We learn of Achilles’ suicidal wish through his friend’s empathic understanding and protective action with regard to the situation. It is something of an enigma, this choice of passing a sentence upon oneself, as demonstrated by Achilles. The boundary is not quite clear between grief-stricken suicide to join his comrade in death, and guilty self-execution because he feels it should have been him instead.
Achilles makes his own sense of imminent, deserved death so very vivid:
… Thetis (Achilles’ mother, a goddess) said:
“You’ll be swift to meet your end child…”
Achilles the great runner ground his teeth and said:
“May it come quickly. As things were,
I could not help my friend in his extremity.
Far from his home he died; he needed me
to shield him or to parry the death stroke.
For me there’s no return to my own country.
Not the slightest gleam of hope did I
Self-accusation appears to be nearly universal across the board, after the death of a special comrade, regardless of the presence or absence of a “real” basis for it. Yael Danieli, speaking of European Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, taught that such unfound or “baseless” guilt serves a reviving function in the inner reality of the bereaved – this makes the dead present, as if brought back to life. This seemingly “irrational” or “baseless” guilt of combat veterans, most often represents the same inner process of bringing the dead to the present.
Some Vietnam veterans undoubtedly felt such an intense and overwhelming guilt after the death of a comrade that they took their own lives in a direct and unconcealed manner. I am not personally familiar with any of those who may have done so in recent wars, though there are sadly many cases of veterans who do commit suicide for various reasons, which will be covered more. Thought suicidality and thoughts of suicide are actually common symptoms of combat PTSD.
There are some veterans who do recoil from the stigma of it, while at the same time, they pronounce the sentence of death upon themselves. These could have sought the honorable compromise of death in battle and went berserk. Although, there are different factors, which can converge upon a soldier that causes them to go berserk. The possibilities of the different factors, not expecting to survive, or no desire to want to survive, it is difficult to say without asking. There are some that do survive and return to civilian life with a ready capacity to go berserk, some of whom are doubly tormented with the death-deserving guilt they carry, or for some other reasons that the authority and society we have refuses to acknowledge or admit.
The door for a happy homecoming can be slammed in the face of many combat veterans that return, which grief and guilt seem to merge in the wake of a closest friend’s death in battle. I do not believe it is the only reason, but it is certainly a very powerful and influencing factor. It is a substantial culture shock, so to speak, when being forced to regularly make split-second, life and death decisions, see death, and return home. There are some situations where everything you did was right and exactly what you were trained to do, but it all goes perfectly wrong, and someone is dead, which could be a comrade, or noncombatant in some unexpected situation and someone is stained by the guilt of having killed an innocent.
In our society, there is a strong Judeo-Christian religious education and influence, much to the chagrin of some. However, Christian scripture tells us: “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Soldiers in combat often hold the lives of their comrades dearer than their own, and fear their comrades’ deaths more deeply. In our culture, this represents a convergence of Christian self-sacrifice, military training, and the spontaneous bonds of love and loyalty that develop among men who fight together. The willingness for self-sacrifice is endemic in combat and exhibited by the literal thousands of sacrificial deaths in war.
War is full of bizarre ironies that seem to have been produced for some dark comedy, as situational examples I have given above. Even the best of plans will only get you as far as the gate to the base on your way out for any operation at all. In an ethical universe run by a just, loving, and all-powerful God, the “person I was willing to die for” is not supposed to die. Incomprehensibly, he does. I think this rationale can be expanded from Dr. Shay’s example, to include combat veterans who return home and experience the culture shock of society, as if they never did come home. This disconnect between our society and our wars was best symbolized by a piece of graffiti left by an anonymous Marine on a concrete blast wall in Ramadi, Iraq, at the height of that war, Operation Iraqi Freedom:
AMERICA IS NOT AT WAR
THE US MARINE CORPS IS AT WAR
AMERICA IS AT THE MALL
Hardly a statement I could disagree with, because I cannot. Veterans commonly echo this sentiment, reporting that no one knows what we have seen – what we have done – and no one cares, with everyone too absorbed in their everyday lives to begin to understand. Thus, it could be said in another, similar way. In an ethical universe run by a just, loving, and all-powerful God, the “dreams and country I was willing to die for” is not supposed to die. Metaphorically and incomprehensibly it has. Like the anonymous piece of graffiti by the Marine above, veterans return to a society racked by apathy and ignorance, entirely ungrateful and unappreciative of our veterans’ service to the country, some of which crosses into disrespect, disloyalty and betrayal. This apathy and ignorance reaches across the entire veteran spectrum.
The young man who takes the religious instruction truly to heart could find it unbearable when he was willing to die for his comrade – even his country – and now is saddled with guilt, and God is gone. This sad, devastating sense of spiritual abandonment and meaninglessness is an unintended outcome of our Judeo-Christian religious education. Such is what may not have afflicted Homer’s polytheists.
This requirement for constant hypervigilance under the constant threat and actual danger, contributes to increased PTSD rates among returning veterans. PTSD is a chronic condition. The Iliad climaxes with Achilles’ beast-like and godlike rampage. The berserk state is the most important and distinctive element of combat trauma. Everything that has gone before – detachment from moral and social restraints by prior, and I would add continual, betrayal of “what’s right”, grief and guilt at the death of a special comrade who has wrongfully been substituted for the survivor, the sense of already being dead and deserving to be dead – individually or all, now converge on the berserk state.
ACHILLES IN VIETNAM
Chapter 3: Grief at the Death of a Special Comrade (02/09/2022)
In all the things a combat veteran experiences, losing a special comrade that you have grown close to, is something of a deep visceral loss. While this is something I have not experienced personally, I can speak to the attachment made between combat veterans as comparable directly to that of a family relationship. Experiences of combat veterans and the comradeship illustrated in Homer’s Iliad compliment each other, greatly exhibiting a soldier’s relationship to a special comrade, such as between Achilles and Patroklos, or a soldier and his buddy.
It is so difficult to comprehend, and we can fail entirely at understanding a soldier’s grief, if we, first, don’t understand the closeness and passionate care between comrades. I, as Dr. Shay stated, compare the relationship to that of a family member. Certainly, someone who grew up with siblings, remembers all the fun you had together, the trouble you got into together, or even the fights between you, among other things. It is basically the same thing with soldiers. You go through training together; all those times of getting yelled at for whatever reason by superiors; late night or all night duty; to being in combat with the world feeling like it is going to hell around you. Like the siblings you become, you share heart-to-heart moments where you talk about any joys, stresses, anything at all throughout these experiences. That is why it is easy to understand the death of a special friend-in-arms, which is more like family, a brother or sister.
The military does not approve of showing nor accepts any displays of grief or other perceived “negative” emotions. Any kind of negative displays of “character” are swiftly punished and the soldier could be made to do extra duty of some sort, be embarrassed in front of their own unit, among other things. While clinicians most likely feel it to be damaging to thwart the grief process by suppressing it, certainly they would be outraged at oppressing the combat veteran for it as well. However, there are numerous military, cultural, and historical factors, which continue to support the finding that this goes on in our society. While there were powerful expressions of communal mourning recorded in the Homeric epic, we have moved far away from that, and take further actions in discouraging it.
In the Iliad, Patroklos and Achilles were essentially brothers by adoption, since Achilles’ father adopted Patroklos. Veterans are commonly heard of using the phrases such as “they’re my brothers” or “my brothers-in-arms”, even “sisters-in-arms” for our ladies. We can’t forget the women who serve with us either. The Greek word used to describe this type of familial relationship is “philos”. While there is quite a bit of debate possible on its meaning, the English word “love” is appropriately wide-ranging to describe this philos (the abstract noun “philia”). While society most likely does not recognize philia between people whose relationship is not familial, veterans know otherwise. Society views friendships purely as leisure activity rather than the bond it is, some person they know among co-workers, neighbors, members of some voluntary association such as a church or club, one in which can easily be cast aside if it gives rise to any conflict or other unpleasant matters. Dr. Shay notes this, and I agree.
Veterans, on the other hand, have a love for their comrades that hold up regardless of anything, and would drop everything to go to the aid of another veteran. The society of ancient Greece would understand the centrality of philia, the love of a comrade, most likely because their societies were highly militarized (every male citizen was a soldier). Our society today is so very disconnected, that we would view such strong attachment as some kind of mental illness or disorder, such as a dependent or borderline personality disorder, which could not be further from the truth, and is a betrayal of it, no less. Many combat veterans are denied reasonable understanding by civilians, even by some quack clinicians, because they simply cannot fathom or comprehend these veterans and their comrades. These quack clinicians are prone to flights of fancy.
It is my hope to do this subject justice for combat veterans, in which I cannot say I know this from experience, having never lost a special comrade as some have. I witnessed many things that could be classified as traumatic, which I personally do not feel greatly affected me, because of how stoic I am and detached from emotional feeling. Perhaps, some experiences affected me in ways that are just not apparent to me. When someone from my unit died in a training accident in 2004 before deploying to Iraq, he was merely an acquaintance, so it did not affect me as it did with others, since they were closer to him. I did feel some shock at first being on the scene and discovering he died – being nearly decapitated by a Humvee that rolled over – and even going white in the face, though after I remember simply being numb. Everyone else appeared more somber than myself. I think it is a basic human emotion to, perhaps feel somber, but I tend to immensely suppress emotion in intense situations. I may react initially, but seem unaffected after, which is not an uncommon trait among combat veterans. Other combat veterans may react with intense rage out of their grief.
It could be from the way some were raised, and drilled through training in the military and experiences in war, that we push these things away and do not acknowledge them. Others may give a strong reaction, even emotionally, whereas personally, I may appear unphased or what some may use a technical term called a “flat affect”. For example, one Marine I was with states on our very first time outside the wire on patrol when in Iraq:
“… here it is our very first time on our very first ride on our very first time outside the wire we are already hit with an IED [Improvised Explosive Device]… It made it very real, real fast… I know personally whatever you did feel, once you heard the bomb exploding and you could smell the smoke, it just changes the make up of your experience. It is no longer a routine… something that you just cannot anticipate. And, even if you could, you would be wrong.”
The Marine goes on to explain our first time out in a large convoy, our first time to experience and know the reality we face on the start of our tour in Iraq, and the rest yet to come:
“I could hear the scream. I could hear the bomb explode. So by hearing that, I saw what war and what fear really manifests into … we saw a Hummer that was completely destroyed, tore up, cut through, just metal bent. There was smoke from the engine. Not to mention our friend and comrade was wounded very badly … So you could imagine what it would have done to – what it did to the flesh of our comrade.”
While I did not see comrades die in war, scenes like this are what I did witness of what happened to comrades being injured. Although, the matters of combatants (enemies, insurgents, etc.) and non-combatants (civilians, etc.) are a much different story I will cover later, injuries of my comrades are as close as I can offer on this chapter and subject. Every time something happened, it only made me more distant, cold, less reactive. In the technical terms used, more of a flat affect, more detached and emotionally numb. Some combat veterans may react with rage out of their grief, and with not being able to communalize it within society and our military, may swing between rage and emotional deadness as a permanent way of being in the world.
The example and image we are given of Patroklos in the Iliad, is the one we have for the comparison of a special comrade. In Dr. Shay’s book, a veteran in the program he managed wrote:
“Gentle people who somehow survive the brutality of war are highly prized in a combat unit. They have the aura of priests, even though many of them were highly efficient killers.”
This is precisely the type of gentle character Patroklos has, and one that I can confirm of combat veterans valuing these highly prized soldiers. Simply because a soldier has a gentle way of being does not mean they are weak by any means, on the contrary, gentleness and compassion could be leading character traits, equal to that of their fighting prowess against the enemy, strong as well as formidable, possibly more than their fellow soldiers. Though this is the portrait of Patroklos, he was the second-in-command or “executive officer” of Achilles’ Myrmidons – an elite unit. This gives us proof of not only his leadership traits, and formidable skills as a warrior, but also how highly respected he is by the men.
In the military, there is a lot of morbid and “tough guy” humor, which we even use to tease each other in good fun. We could do this at any time, even if we just arrived back at a base, after getting shot at and nearly blown up. We see Achilles choose to tease Patroklos when he arrives in tears at the mauling of the Greek fighters and after having rendered aid to a friend:
why all the weeping? Like a small girl child
who runs beside her mother and cries and cries
to be taken up, and catches at her gown,
and will not let her go, looking up in tears
until she has her wish: that’s how you seem”
We did this exact thing between those I was with, albeit much less poetically. As example, one close comrade teased me calling me something like “momma’s boy”, I don’t recall exactly, but we will go with that – it would be a good example either way. I got him back by asking him to hold on to a letter for my family in case something ever happened to me, and he carried that letter with him, with utmost care. I almost felt bad for doing it. Almost. Some time later, I asked if he still had the letter, and he said “yeah, I do”. I asked him if he read it yet and he said “no”. I told him to read it, and when he opened it up, he burst out laughing. Inside was not a letter for my family, but big, bold letters that read “FUCK YOU!”.
Even though we believe it natural that a soldier should sneer at tears of any kind of emotionality, we shall see that Achilles’ ridicule of Patroklos’ tears is contrary to the values of the Homeric warrior. Homer illustrates for us and desires we believe that gentleness and compassion were really Patroklos’s leading character traits, equal to his fighting prowess. After being killed, many voices – highly revered ones even – testify to the person he was. Most notably, the first to pay tribute is Zeus (ruler of the Greek Pantheon), who engineered his death calls him “gentle and strong”. The next comes from the goddess Athena, who calls him “glorious Achilles’s faithful friend”. So many high and low, man and woman, pay him homage for being warm of heart and a formidable soldier. As we will see, the grief and rage that emerges with Achilles at the loss of his brother, his special comrade, and the passionate care combat veterans have for a brother or sister-in-arms.
Displays of anguish or emotionality by a soldier is not acceptable by military standards and possibly one which may bring leaders to want to question the performance ability of that soldier, for exhibiting a very human reaction at the death of a comrade. We see Homer convey a dramatic show of Achilles’ grief by his actions, which could alarm not only a military leader, but certainly would any social “authority” or clinician. Are Achilles’ actions frightening? They most certainly are to anyone. His blunt self-mutilation at tearing out his hair at the grief from Patroklos’ death, intense weeping, loss of appetite, his self-reproaches; reactions which could concern us, though they come naturally to us all. These were not so alien ideas to Homer’s audience, nor others for centuries to come.
Still, we view the condolences of Achilles’ mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, whom helps us to understand that within himself Achilles is already dead before he starts his berserk frenzy. That is metaphorically speaking as being “already dead” emotionally. He continues to weep, wish aloud to his mother that he had never been born, renouncing his life, and hopes his own death would quickly come, proclaiming his guilt for not covering Patroklos in battle. A combat veteran’s wish if he could have only been there, they could have saved their friend. Such grief is so very and intimately familiar from our experiences in civilian life. Surely, any of whom have lost someone close to them knows the various thoughts and feelings. Metaphorically speaking, such intense experiences or bereavement can make one feel dead inside, and emotionally numb.
Combat veterans may make allusions to having metaphorically died while at war, that the war “followed them home” and no longer feel the person they were before, or after a close friend was killed. We see this last depicted in Achilles, before his death, which shows the transformation through gripping poetic expression, he renounces his very return home before Patroklos’ pyre: “Now, as I shall not see my fatherland.” This feeling or sense of being dead, as Dr. Shay notes, may contribute to a berserk’s complete loss of fear. However, I cannot agree as it being a prototype of the loss of all emotion, which defines for combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the prolonged states of numbness.
For many people who have a loved one that is a combat veteran, or knows someone who is, they most likely have seen some expression of anger or even rage, be it a verbal outburst, or even more in some cases. Veterans with combat-related PTSD have rage that has lasted for years as an entrenched way of being to cope with whatever caused it and for a survival mechanism. The reason could be it came about as a replacement for grief or some other experience(s) in their wartime service. The main feature of Achilles’ grief is his rage at Hektor, prince of the Trojans, whom killed Patroklos, leading the lust for Achilles’ revenge. Carrying out his revenge becomes the dominate theme in the Iliad until Hektor’s death, which is certainly significant in itself, being so consumed by rage.
As scary and frightening this matter may seem, combat veterans are neither feral animals nor lifelong misfits. Dr. Shay leaves an open question, from not knowing enough about the cause of emergence of the berserk rage combat veterans may become locked into. I would not say grief alone is the reason, though the emergence of rage from intense grief is very possible, as Achilles’ rage at Hektor. It is possible for continued mistreatment and protracted abuse, a string of compounded injustices, and many other matters which give effect to trauma, can lock a person into chronic rage. In certain circumstances, some clinicians – “experts” or “specialists” – may not be able to remain objective enough, and “can’t see the forest for the trees”, as we say, which can lead to misdiagnosis, false notes, alternative facts and fabrications. Sadly, this does happen, the best examples always being custodial, court, trial and prison type settings. Simply because someone has a Ph. D. behind their name, or any other letters or qualifications, does not make them an expert, specialist, trustworthy, truthful, honorable, nor a person of integrity. There are clinicians everywhere who continue to make such atrocities against veterans that protect our country and way of life, and it is egregiously disgusting and tragic, regardless of the circumstances. It should never happen. This will be a topic that comes up in a later chapter.
The matter of the dead – in the Trojan War, Vietnam, and all other wars – is the same today as it has always been, being brought out of battle along with the wounded. This could be during battle or immediately after. Greeks and Trojans alike took great risks to bring the dead from out of the midst of the most ferocious combat, which has held true of combat veterans to this day. What has happened in the asymmetrical warfare today, with IEDs for example, is that troops on foot or in vehicles could be struck by a blast with wounded or dead resulting from it. Then, as combat medics rush to render aid, a second bomb is set off, killing those coming to help. Some other horrible things that could happen to fallen comrades, we are aware of them being tortured or even beheaded as seen in videos, if alive, and if dead being used as booby traps or as bait for ambushes. There are all kinds of unthinkable stories, though this has happened in Vietnam and happens today, of even the mutilation and degradation of the dead.
What has also greatly changed is the absence of any truces or funerary observances to collect and mourn the dead. There are two funerary truces in the Iliad, both of which are profound and emotionally powerful. The first being where a truce is made when a Trojan herald comes to the Greek army to inquire an allowance to collect and burn the dead, and later continue fighting, to which the Greeks accept, as Agamemnon states: “… As to the dead, I would withhold no decency … a man should spare no pains…”
It is astonishing, when at dawn the next day, the Greeks and Trojans weep freely in view of each other, meeting on the battlefield to collect their dead, to collect and wash their bodies, and burn them on the pyres. Even Achilles, after killing Hektor, grants this truce and respect to Priam, Hektor’s father and king of Troy. These times of safety to grieve the dead were a part of ancient warfare, but no longer, in Vietnam or today.
During Vietnam and recent wars, soldiers are exposed and vulnerable to attack twenty-four hours a day. There is no safe time to mourn, or any other time. Even walking around the assumed safety of the base, behind concertina wire, barriers, and other soldiers on perimeter security, a rocket, mortar or other direct or indirect fire may get lucky and be the one time needed to kill you. Soldiers were on guard, hypervigilant and always aware of their surroundings, even when coming home as a symptom of PTSD. In Homer’s time, as shown in the Iliad, combat was suspended every night, and they fought in the day time only. It was safe to sleep, even safe to grieve, in addition the funerary truces made grieving not only safe and acceptable, but socially compelled. Neither exists any longer.
An American soldier who weeps for a fallen friend, could be told various encouragements of false bravado, such as being told “come on, man, don’t lose it” or “quit that, we have a job to do!”. I have not experienced this personally, but there is an immense reinforcement against any perceived emotion, far worse than experienced in Vietnam. I have no idea why this is or that this type of conduct by leaders or any soldier is allowed or enabled, but I would like to see this dishonorable, disgraceful practice eradicated from our military, of which will only continue to sow discord and distrust among our very own ranks and weaken our military.
In the case of my acquaintance, McDaniel, who died in a training accident right before my deployment to Iraq in 2004, I remember returning to where we set up camp and went through usual debriefs and spot cleaning my weapons. I could see some others were especially sad, being much closer to McDaniel than I was. I talked to one Marine, and found out he had firewatch duty that night, which is keeping security at night for others while they sleep. This Marine happened to know McDaniel well, so I told him I would cover his firewatch that night since he was a close friend to McDaniel. No one made a big deal of it, except for one idiot leader who liked causing problems for us. This leader came over and told the Marine to get ready to report for guard duty, and I spoke up to let this leader know as soon as I was through spot cleaning my weapons, I was going to report and cover the Marine’s firewatch for him.
To make a long story short, this idiot wanted to throw his “authority” around being a superior rank, then started to cross some serious lines in proceeding to order this Marine to do things outside of his “authority”. Though I was a lower rank, there are few times I did step up in a situation against a superior rank, and risked quite a bit in doing so, but I was not about to let this idiot try to do what he was attempting. I let the idiot corporal know that it’s not a big deal and doesn’t need to be made into one, that I was volunteering to cover for someone to mourn his friend, and ended up placing myself in the line of sights from this corporal.
Those who served with me knew I followed orders; that I could instill confidence, respect and leadership in Marines and others, and demand it from them; go outside the comfort zone of everyone else; that I’m regimented, competitive, assertive, even before I joined the Marines I was described like this, as well as confident, decisive and a leader. When it came to duty and being a Marine, I took the job seriously, and when I saw something was wrong, I was not going to let it happen, whoever the person was – rank be damned. He was not well liked by the others anyways. And, even though he was taller than me, it was hard to take him seriously with his big radar-ears and his whiny voice.
I calmly set my weapons down, I got up, I didn’t yell, and was respectful enough given the situation. I let the corporal know that I would go over his authority up to the battalion commander if I needed to, but I don’t care even if the commander supports me or not, because I wasn’t going to let him play his petty games on this issue, and act like an asshole to get his way, because he was a corporal. The Marine was grieving his friend and I was covering his duty for him, and to please have respect for him doing so and the Marine that died, that none of us appreciate the disrespect he was displaying. I gave him a choice to take the easy way out, and told him it was up to him whether or not he wanted to “cook off”.
A “cook off” is something that happens when firing your weapon so much the barrel becomes hot enough that when a round is fed into the hot chamber and bore of the barrel, the heat can set off the gun powder in the round causing it to fire the bullet. I was using it as a wise crack, which means this, that it was a situation in which was delicate and tempers could and would flare, and more could happen, that the “chamber” could be opened and it blow up in his face, or he can leave it closed and chambered, letting the round safely fire down range – no longer an issue. I told him to “leave this round chambered, let it go down range.” He made the smart decision. Later on, outside the presence of the subordinates to save face, he apologized and gave me his word that it would be the end of the issue, and it would never be brought up again for any reason or for anything.
I didn’t have any issues with him for the rest of the time he was in, and he got out of the service when our tour was over. It did come up later, when we all gathered for the annual reunion like every year, at this bar in Houston for the Marine Corps birthday, one of the last ones I met with everyone in 2008. I ran into this guy again, had cordial small talk, and he said he was working as a realtor in the area. He had someone with him, since we end up bringing our significant others, be it as a girlfriend or spouse, and he had his with him. Later on, my girlfriend at the time, came to tell me not to leave her side because some creep wouldn’t leave her alone. I asked who it was, which turned out not to be a surprise, because it was that idiot leader. And, with his significant other there too, no less.
I told my girlfriend not to worry, that I have got it covered and I’d be right back. So, I go to this idiot and let him know that it was my girlfriend he was trying to pick up, and pointed her out. It was quite classic to see the shock on his face. I told him it was his decision on this “cook off”, that his girlfriend or wife could find out he tried to pick up my girlfriend while she was there, or he could leave this round chambered and let it go down range and leave my girlfriend alone. I will say this, realtors must be very smart people, because he made the smart decision again.
That was a bit of a tangent, but the entirety of the situation needed to be explained, in how indifferent, perfunctory, and outright disrespectful rear-echelon types, like the idiot leader and similar ilk display. I was pleased the battalion commander allowed a ceremony in assembling the battalion at the end of the day’s training in respect for McDaniel’s loss that day. The Marines who were closest to him were able to say a few words, one even sang a hymn he knew. When we happened to have a short block of leave before deployment to Iraq, those in the platoon – whether close or not at all – went to McDaniel’s parents’ home to meet them and his fiancee, out of respect for their loss and for his service. That idiot leader was absent from gathering, which was for the best, I believe.
There were those during Vietnam War, many of which did not receive so great a ceremonial gathering. Some combat veterans today receive essentially the same. Some receive nothing at all. One Vietnam veteran recalled how the battalion commander read through names and ranks dispassionately before the men, droning on of those that died since the last debriefing, and then without pausing for breath, concluded with: “The mess tent is open.” Such indifferent and perfunctory proceedings left veterans of their dead comrades unmistakably bitter and resentful of this disrespect. An example of the outrage a veteran could feel, is one veteran describing going to the Graves Registration in search of his dead friend and beating up the sergeant there because he was cooling beer in the chest holding the corpse of his dead comrade. There is a profound and very important observance of grief for veterans.
Today the military still tells soldiers that their emotions of what makes them inseparable from their humanity do not matter. And, as with the former idiot leader I had, there are times where leaders will degrade and punish its soldiers for expressing a very human reaction to the death of a comrade, as he attempted to do, had I not stopped him. However, there are probably those who were not as lucky, and if being made to do away with our emotions, as Dr. Shay states, civilian society that has sent us to fight on their behalf should not be shocked by our “inhumanity” when we try to return to civilian life.
This is the longest chapter in Dr. Shay’s book on the subject of the death of a special comrade, with the social and emotional processes of grief. While what Homer shows us is how the warriors of his day had communal mourning that was intensely and positively valued and supported by all. Certainly, the ceremonial and emotional grief processes are not possible in the midst of combat where it would endanger everyone, though it can surely be encouraged elsewhere and in other ways.
It is my hope that leaders and others respond more appropriately in these situations. Further, that they exercise the leadership traits and principles of judgment, integrity, tact, courage to do the right thing, and give loyalty to their soldiers, instead of betrayal that would thwart grief or emotion in other similar or severe matters. As leaders, we are responsible and accountable for those under us, which includes not being the reason one of the soldiers in our charge is further traumatized by our actions and our decisions regarding them. There is always a better way, and, with as much honor and integrity we leaders say we have, let us continue to prove we know how to use it.
ACHILLES IN VIETNAM
Chapter 2: Shrinkage of the Social and Moral Horizon (10/25/2021)
The social horizon of soldiers is the same as any persons, which are tied to those around them they are connected with. When a soldier has been through war, their social connection becomes drastically much smaller. As with everything, it is hard for others to understand something that they have not experienced themselves, which becomes a social barrier for the ones who are affected by something. Likewise, veterans find it very difficult to bridge the gap made by their experiences in war, with those back home who have not been through what they have.
By violating “what’s right” or crossing a line with someone, in society a person will distance themselves from you and possibly cut off contact. For a veteran, the exposure to danger for long periods, the intense strain of battle, makes them sever much of their former social ties to people, where it only includes a small circle of those they trust and who they choose to let in. Anyone that betrays that trust and loyalty to the veteran are most likely rejected by the veteran, which some could seem much more of a loner than before, or if they were not before even. It is something like an us-against-them mentality, such as “if you are not for me, you are against me”. This is an isolating effect for veterans that does happen. It can be a profound effect to where the attachments can be severed where a veteran remains tied to a few people he feels he can trust. For some veterans, they trust no one at all, but themselves.
For Achilles, he was a high ranking officer in the united Greek army and could be something equal to a battalion commander today, or possibly much higher. Achilles had a great amount of autonomy in his position, which this authority gave him a broad commitment to his men under him, and the larger the Greek army, as an example for a leader. No one was above him, except the commander of the whole army, the general or higher today. His social and moral circle of those he is connected to in the beginning of the Iliad is so much more than that of an enlisted man, what would be common for a veteran today. He would have a lot of security and protection in his position – normally – from an act of betrayal of themis, “what’s right”, and other negative effects of war. But, we see a betrayal by Agamemnon, the commander of the whole army, upon Achilles and the intense effect this betrayal has. The response is for him to withdraw his moral, emotional, and even military commitment from the army.
After this betrayal, we see this us-against-them mentality take hold of Achilles, for he is the one wronged and has no way to have grievance justified from someone above him, the public betrayal and embarrassment and none coming to his aid. The mentality that takes hold is simple, and no matter how close anyone was before, they become known as an absolute ally on his side, or an absolute enemy against him. Achilles had amazing qualities, and his care and compassion was actually broader than the whole Greek army. Though after this one act of betrayal, he begins to lose his care and compassion, and we begin to see the undoing of his character.
The undoing of character. This is a phrase used by Dr. Shay, of which I would say it is an accurate description of what happens with a veteran comparatively, although I would warn others to view this phrase – and any others – in regards to veterans very carefully. It is not that veterans who suffer combat trauma become bad people, however certain terms and descriptions must be used to help society understand the change caused by the trauma. I don’t believe Dr. Shay would say any veterans are bad people or that they have a bad character either. A veteran can be affected by their experiences, such that it is not what society would approve or accept.
For an enlisted soldier today, it is easy for him to be betrayed by so many, which can cause intense bitterness and resentment, and there is no possibility of correction since there are so many above him. As example, a simple enlisted soldier at the bottom of the ranks would have so many layers between him and the top leader, such as Achilles, even before the rank of an officer is reached. There are three immediate superior positions just in the platoon of enlisted ranks with the fire team leader, squad leader, to platoon sergeant. Achilles was the political and military leader of his own contingent, and he could leave the war if he wanted, what we call desertion. An enlisted man would not be able to leave, and if he did so, it would be a capital offense under American law during a declared war. An enlisted must stay, and with the roll of leaders how they are, petty displays of power and authority are freely exercised on the lower ranks, and sometimes far beyond what is proper and appropriate. It should never be allowed. It can take a toll.
I agree with Dr. Shay, that the moral strength of an army is impaired by every injustice, whether it personally affects an individual solider or not. When Agamemnon wrongfully seizes Achilles’ prize of honor, he inflicts injury not just on this one man, but the greater whole of the army. It is abuse of his power. Achilles withdraws from the battlefield, and the Myrmidons. As the bitterness and resentment settle in, it becomes a festering wrath that builds up, where his field of moral horizon and emotional responsiveness grows smaller to just one man, his foster brother, Patroklos. It is important to note at this point for Achilles, he is unscarred by grief, and that this betrayal of “what’s right” is all that has done the damage.
Likewise, for a veteran, all it could take is one betrayal of “what’s right” by a leader to begin the process where the veteran will forsake others as Achilles has, so much so that this erosion of trust leads the veteran to start isolating himself – completely even – to protect against future betrayals. As example, family, friends and fellow soldiers, who knew a veteran before may emphasize the more kind and gentle characteristics of the veteran, to describe the stark contrast of the change that was made to a more distant, colder person they now know. It is not that they can never be kind or gentle, and like I said before, I write descriptions to aid in understanding what has happened, so be mindful and careful in what the purpose of these explanations is being used for.
A profound statement by Dr. Shay is “[…] our culture has raised us to believe that good character stands reliably between the good person and the possibility of horrible acts”. I am not sure that I could have said it better myself. In our worldview of Western culture, we have a fantasy that our own character would not be affected under the most intense pressure of horrible events, situations or interactions. Also, there is a permanent challenge with a painful consideration that one’s own morals and character would remain unaffected when viewing the story of experiences of a combat veteran. It is so easy to say, “well, others were around this veteran, and they were not as deeply affected, so why does he have issues?” Even if there were other soldiers around a veteran, and they can say just how different their experiences were, this still happens. Doing this is another very ignorant and arrogant blunder, which denies the truth of the veteran’s story. Even attempting to say it does not “lessen his responsibility” for an action is a mistake in itself with even thinking this way. This, again, denies the truth of the veteran’s story, and further, what frame of responsibility can actually be attributed to the veteran.
Is there a difference between veterans in war, or is being around others of similar experience the same? There is difference, as one Marine squad leader stated: “It’s a little different when you are the one giving the order to pull the trigger than when you are pulling the trigger.” And, how could it not be? As further explained by another Marine, “[…] you asked me several times what it felt like. You don’t feel in those kinds of scenarios. And I just witnessed it from a verbal stance. I was just a standby. To be behind the 240, to be behind the gun and actually pull the trigger, that’s a type of stress that – that you cannot put into words.”
To explain the jargon a little, these statements are referring to actions of having to shoot at people, which are viewed as threats. Thus, when having to “pull the trigger” is self-explanatory in using a weapon, or type of gun. The “240” is referring to the M240G, a type of heavy machine gun. One similar to it, would be the M60 seen in the Rambo movies, though the M240G would be like a third generation version of that. Another type of heavy machine gun would be the M2 50 caliber. When kept in good condition, the 240 is capable of firing up to around 950 rounds of bullets per minute, which comes to about 16 rounds per second. To give an idea, it could shred a car to pieces, as well as the people inside. These Marines are also trying to explain what it was like to see someone pull the trigger, and the person who had to, was me.
There is a vulnerability between the soldier and his army, like that of a parent to a child. A parent’s betrayal of themis, “what’s right”, through incest, abuse, or neglect can put the child in mortal danger and have so many negative psychological effects after. Children depend on their parents to develop things such as self-esteem, empathy, ambitions, pro-social activity, and many other features important for a healthy development to becoming an adult accepted by society.
The child with a history of abuse and neglect learns that its terror and pleading do not register with their authority, the parent. Nothing they do or say stops the beating and brings attention and help. For the soldier, they are trained to accept any abuses, because it is known nothing shall be registered by the authority, the leaders. Thus, the leader is free to do to his subordinates as he wishes without restraint and with absolute immunity. The stage for betrayal and potentially destroying the capacity for social trust, and more, is set to take place.
Dr. Shay, again, puts it wonderfully: “[…] often there is the invisible, unstated assumption that those who hold power in society exhibit loyalty and care in their fulfillment of themis.” I would echo by saying it is the cornerstone and fantasy we have in our society, that those who hold power will never do the wrong thing. I have once heard from someone, and perhaps it is another old adage: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Here is a veteran narrative, whom did three Vietnam combat tours in tanks, made more brief from the book:
“I was eighteen years old. And I was like your typical young American boy… It was the way you were taught, like ‘Whenever you’re alone make believe God’s there with you. Would he approve of what you’re doing?’ That’s basically- sure, I wasn’t no angel either. I mean, I had my little fist fights and stuff. It was, you’re only human. But evil didn’t enter it till Vietnam… War changes you, changes you. Strips you, strips you of all your beliefs, your religion, takes your dignity away, you become an animal…”
For this particular veteran, it was revenge that became his single, only value. There was nothing else that had any meaning; all previous relationships and values ceased to have meaning. He entered into a berserk state, not writing home, and cared for no one, not even the men in his tank, except to help him with his revenge. He continues:
“I carried this home with me. I lost all my friends, beat up my sister, went after my father. I mean, I just went after anybody and everything. Every three days I would totally explode, lose it for no reason at all. I’d be sitting there calm as could be, and this monster would come out of me with a fury that most people didn’t want to be around. So it wasn’t just over there. I brought it back here with me.”
This makes it clear, and undeniable, that the changes combat brought about in him were in no way limited to the war zone. This veteran’s words are consistent with dissociative symptoms of stressors that bring about depersonalization or derealization in these experiences. It is not a selective mistrust the veteran has that is directed at any specific person or institution that has betrayed its charge of duty, but a total destruction of social trust. Lies, misleadings, euphemisms by the veteran’s own military superiors and civilian leaders or authority, of course undermine social trust by destroying confidence in language. Perversion of language and destruction of the trustworthy meaning of words by official lies was not new to the Vietnam War, not new in the ‘war on terrorism’ and not new out of the mouth of any government agent, which as most notable example is a prosecutor. They do everything possible to accuse and convict someone of anything they can, even if it must be fabricated with false evidence, false testimony, without any proof. Lies shall always become the truth to those hungry to hear or believe them. One thing you can never defend yourself against is a lie.
In Vietnam, the threat was not simply to the body, but the mind was attacked as well. Attacking the soldiers’ perception by concealment, deception, various mind games through hidden explosive devices, surprise, ambush, all kinds of things to make you not trust the very environment around you, where danger is potentially everywhere. In Vietnam, the trained, safest response to being fired upon was to take cover, the Vietcong may have prepared ambush sites with small boards mounted with barbed spikes, concealed in the bushes and vegetation, spike side up. So, when American troops dove for cover, they would impale themselves on the spikes. The environment around them was not safe. Such uses of the environment from a pile of garbage or artillery shell casing have been used up to current wars. In Iraq, and Afghanistan, explosive devices were buried in the sand where American troops and coalition forces patrolled on foot, on the roadside, even in cars driven up to convoys or checkpoints.
One particular twist of the environment around you in war, is that you could not even trust normal, innocent civilian people. This happened in Vietnam and seems to remain in wars we now have. In Iraq, I came to learn of a term we called “virtual ransom”. A Marine explains:
“Now the type of warfare we fought, it wouldn’t always be an insurgent… In other words, the Mujahideen, the enemy, the combatant, they would go in and find – I’m just illustrating – basic Farmer Joe who has no obligation, no – – no priority other than raising their own family in Iraq and doing the best they can for their family. They get approached by the enemy. And they say, listen you need to go dig a hole at this place at this time. And if you don’t, you will never see your family again. So ‘virtual ransom’ is basically having somebody that is completely innocent and neutral to this operation now being directed and told to go in and play a combatant role.”
The phrase used as “dig a hole” refers to the use of improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.s) the enemy used against us. They were quite deadly, and to hide them, usually by the roads, a hole would be dug, an explosive device put in, prepared and covered up for use, so we would not see it driving by. These I.E.D.s became so bad, the rules of engagement came to identify digging a hole in a specific place, such as by the road, as a clear sign for attack and thus we could engage to kill. Also, in Vietnam to current, explosive devices were used on civilians and made to approach us, not only men, but anyone they could use for their purposes. We could not trust anyone. One of our general orders in Iraq was exactly: “Look at everyone as if they will kill you, but don’t treat them as such.” It was a contradiction, and you chose the safest side of that statement, which was to trust no one at all, anyone could be the enemy.
For Achilles, we are introduced to an amazing warrior, with strong will, good values and character. Through the journey he takes and he witness, we see it is the betrayal of his commander, Agamemnon, by which begins the unraveling of the social trust in his own mental functioning. He is publicly betrayed, not by the enemy he would expect, but that of his own leader. There are acts of betrayal committed by various leaders today in their ignorance, arrogance, and plain stupidity. Of all a veteran has faced on the battlefield in war, he has also to contend with this possibility as well. Further severing social contact and trust.
Prolonged contact with the enemy in war destroys the soldier’s confidence in his own mental functions as surely as a prolonged sentence in prison. Veterans, as we know, have triggered responses, which manifest in various ways. They react to the slightest cue, that we would ordinarily see as harmless, but the veteran perceives as a threat, such as seeing something on the side of the road, a loud noise, a sudden movement, if you have tried waking them up from sleeping, and many others. They startle easily and become enraged or numb. In the civilian world, society – these reactions are irrational. They are also outside the control of the veteran, but if they have help, they can regain control to manage these reactions and symptoms better.
Without confidence in one’s own mental function, trust in the world around them, meaning and purpose in their life, then life back home in the civilian world becomes virtually impossible. We owe so much to our veterans, and it would be dishonorable, disloyal, an injustice at any point in time, not to help our veterans live the fullest life as anyone else – no matter the circumstances – with the sacrifices they made in their service of others, in protecting our way of life.
ACHILLES IN VIETNAM
Chapter 1: Betrayal of “What’s Right” (08/18/2021)
The moral world of a soldier (Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, etc.) is a highly structured one, and upon entering service they begin the process of being instilled with and made aware of the virtues, traits and principles that will make up their moral order. Dr. Shay begins with the betrayal of that moral order by a commander, which could simply be someone of superior rank, rather than just a commissioned officer. Homer opens the Iliad with Agamemnon – Achilles’ commander – committing a wrong against Achilles. That experience of betrayal of “what’s right”, the reactions he has to it, are identical to what all American soldiers experience through their service. Many of the descriptions given of violations Dr. Shay provides are from a different war than I went to, however, these commanders – be it officer, staff-NCO (non-commissioned officer), or NCO (commissioned officer) – continue to make these violations against their own soldiers time and again. They make inherently bad decisions and judgments, in which betrayal is intensified when the subject of war is involved. And, the military is nothing but about war.
Dr. Shay also takes the time to state an argument throughout his book that healing from trauma depends on being able to safely tell the story to someone who is listening and can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community. I don’t feel that anyone needs to “retell” the “story” in most cases, though it is something to have correct in some situations, if anything must be told at all. He further states, that before trying to do anything – even thinking – we should listen. While he may intend this to be for mental health professionals, I would immensely broaden the scope of “we” to include anyone and everyone, especially, where it may affect a veteran’s life in ways unseen and unknowingly by the public. Mental health professionals (counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, etc.) have a mode of listening, which tends to be corrosive in nature and deteriorates into an “intellectual sorting”, with a professional grabbing of the veterans’ words from the air and sticking them into mental bins. I have not witnessed this atrocious and unprofessional misconduct by the so called “professionals” more than in the context of forensic settings, or in conformity therewith. It makes it all the more amazing that PTSD actually developed into a recognized diagnosis in 1980 with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the DSM-III (currently 5th edition, since 2014) for veterans.
I must take the time to point out to the public this important fact, of why it is that mental health experts strenuously argue careful assessment of veterans, since there are those who would think they know how to diagnose a veteran, or anyone for that matter, simply because they have something like an M.D. or PH.D. attached to their name. What most often happens is a misdiagnosis by making incorrect notes of them, false notes by having some misguided or pre-conceived belief, and not listening to what is being reported. This specific matter will come up later in the book, and it does with experts in other books, but it is highly imperative everyone should know this, be aware of it, in not getting the facts wrong that would lead to an incorrect or inaccurate representation of the veteran.
The preamble to the DSM-III warned explicitly that its categories were insufficiently precise to be used in forensic settings or for insurance purposes. And, rightly so. The potential for misdiagnosis has only grown since then, with grabbing veterans’ words from the air to be placed into mental bins. As much as we now know about PTSD the public at large is still ignorant of PTSD, and surprisingly enough, mental health professionals as well. In their “intellectual sorting” and “listening” in these manners, they destroy trust of veterans, and the institutions associated with mental health. This nihilism only adds to the betrayal of “what’s right” or what Homer refers to as “themis”.
In the English language, we don’t have words that generally take in the full meaning of a culture’s definition of right and wrong, like the ancient Greek word “themis”. This is what Dr. Shay uses for describing betrayals experienced by Vietnam Veterans, and I use for all veterans. Indeed, what Homeric warriors experienced as themis is often different than those of soldiers today. What has not changed in three millenia is the violent rage and social withdrawal when moral orders of right and wrong, of “what’s right” are violated by the alleged holders of responsibility and trust. The ease of these violations in three thousand years has only increased, and the culture and systems we know today, there is no question as to why that is.
Generally, when an authority destroys the legitimacy of moral order by betraying “what’s right”, that authority inflicts injury upon the jurisdiction it has. For example, a parent to their child, and in the military, a leader to their soldiers. This is what can lead to that violent rage or anger of veterans with social withdrawal in destroying their trust in others. It is not the only thing, but a part of it. The old adage comes to mind: “You can only hit a good dog so many times, until he bites you.” I can say without a doubt, that anyone who has ever known a war veteran, knows one main feature among others, which is their anger. That to the public is a scary thing, however, it does not have to be. Through this journey, it is my hope to help the veterans and their loved ones to be educated about this, recognize it, understand it, to know then how to manage and deal with it, thus removing the fear of it.
In war the meaning of victory and defeat had well-established meanings historically, where the side who won the war conquered the territory, divided the spoils of war and the like. The Vietnam War was seemingly the first war where victory and defeat took on new meanings, mired in confusing political outcomes, where the “victory” is not so clear in the end to what was exactly won or accomplished. In Vietnam, the United States was somehow “defeated” Dr. Shay states, yet the American military had won every battle. In addition to that conundrum, returning Vietnam soldiers were not honored, much of the public treated them with apathy, indifference, prejudice and derision. Though it may not seem so today, it still happens to some of our veterans of current wars.
With respect to war, another dimension to this confusing outcome, is what was really accomplished. This is a question we wish to ask ourselves, and sometimes our veterans, when it was not a part of their decision to go, and not a part of their knowledge for the overall scheme. This can be an offensive factor of a veteran feeling betrayed by those at home in having to give reason for their service, something that was decided by politicians. The veterans chose to sign up for service (many were drafted in Vietnam) and follow orders to deploy to war and fight it. Their part was most likely a small one in the grand scheme of the whole war. I would highly suggest refraining from this blunder, as well as wanting to know how many they may or may not have killed, and instead, contact your United States Congress official or the president, of why we are somewhere fighting – not your veteran.
When something happens that will lead to war, there are many reasons why some go to join. For some, it could be to “prove” themselves, and others, it ignites a sense of patriotic duty, or even something within them to serve a purpose against an injustice. For me, I always had a wish to be in the military from a young age, watching war movies, having battles with action figures as a kid, learning about the Great Wars in history classes, and a lot of other reasons, too many to list here. The heroic ideals were already a part of my life, deeply ingrained, that I had a developed mind that would easily lead me to make the choice to join when the events of September 11, 2001 happened a couple of months before my birthday. There was no one who needed to convince me. I even made the decision to join against the wishes of my parents. It took a little bit for my parents to accept it was my decision, and eventually they did. I had a knowledge that war was dangerous, though my sense of honor compelled me to go to join, which would grow over time. While most are without an accurate conception or moral structure of the military, there are natural born leaders who enter, and are shaped into an instrument to accomplish a mission given to them.
Civilians and noncombat veterans often view complaints about military life or experiences as adolescent whining, when such immature conduct by leaders exemplifies bad judgment directly proportionate to what their performance on the battlefield would be. The culture shock of first entering the highly regimented and ritualized and military world is well known, and was not as intensive for me as it may have been for some with how I was raised. Early on, I was regimented, competitive, confident, self-reliant, direct and the like. In other words, a prime candidate for what the military desires, explicitly so in joining the Marine Corps, as I did.
The beginning of the military culture is basic training, otherwise known as boot camp. A recruit is allowed to be hazed by leaders there, and in many other such training courses of similar nature. These measures of hazing in these environments serve a purpose. These hazing sessions do not serve much purpose when one actually joins their unit, and I found them at times unproductive and incorrectly applied to the original intent of these remedial actions. We unofficially called them “fuck-fuck games”, which I will simply call “games” when these sessions come up. As an enlisted veteran, they will have no doubt been made victim to these kinds of games, or being singled-out by a leader or leaders, because you had an insignificant disagreement with them on some trivial matter, in which it leaves the bounds of a simple “game” and turns into something else entirely. You could have made a leader feel, for lack of a better word – stupid – by asking them a question they didn’t know the answer to, saying or doing something that felt like undermining their authority.
In the military, you are indoctrinated to respecting authority, those of a higher rank, and the obeisance to orders without question. If you stood out in the mind of a leader, either way it was going to end up bad at some point in time, and those who have a strong mind and excel usually do. We had a saying, and to paraphrase it, you train for war, how you will fight in war. While there are uses for some of these games, or remedial actions, when a leader goes beyond those and makes inherently bad decisions, that betrays “what’s right”, that not only erodes the trust of their subordinates by the leader’s disloyalty, but leads to bad decision making and actions on the battlefield.
These leaders are known for what they are, and I served with some that I had lost respect for during the time I served, and they probably have no idea to this day, of their violation of “what’s right”. To start with one small example, is while in the field training here at the home in the United States, and going on a patrol, it could be okay to reprimand a soldier for the need to shave later on. However, when I was in Iraq, I did not like that one leader I witnessed distract another Marine in the squad on patrol, by reprimanding him for not shaving in light of the mortal danger present. We could have been ambushed by insurgents – combatants – while these two are causing a distraction of such a trivial and insignificant matter, given the situation. I was particularly more worried about contact by the enemy, than someone not having shaved.
I know plenty of examples where a leader made some kind of bad judgment back home, which you could see in their character, that would inevitably end up to them making a bad decision or action -even a moment for revenge – when it could have cost lives. Such violations of “what’s right” inflicts injury by their unjust actions against their own soldiers, in which they can become filled with indignant rage, as Achilles was filled with menis (indignant rage) against Agamemnon. The rage is the same, whether by some fairness or honor, that has been violated.
There are a number of examples given in this first chapter, with which may not be exact, but veterans today will pick up on, such as leaders showing favoritism of a subordinate or unit placement, or something as ridiculous as placing their self-interest of “looking good” to their superiors above the safety of their men. Another example would be displacing one unit in rotation over another to have the glory of seeing action. Believe it or not, soldiers do not wish to be displaced for the most prized action you train for – combat. The most fundamental incompetence in any war is bureaucracy and politics of leaders that misapply the social and mental model of an industrial process to human warfare, as Dr. Shay asserts.
In coming to the end of the chapter, Dr. Shay poses an interesting notion of moral injury. It is possible and very likely veterans can recover from trauma experienced in war when they return home, so long as they have the proper support during that recovery. I can agree that moral injury is an essential part of combat trauma that leads to lifelong psychological injury. I feel it is, in short, a compact way to say a veteran can recover from these experiences so long as “what’s right” has not been violated, because one book would not be adequate to convey that concept, if ever. You would have to experience it firsthand to grasp that concept. And, I very much agree with Dr. Shay, that across three millenia, what has not changed is the indignant rage a veteran can have as a result of their experience in war. Although, as both Homer in his Iliad and Dr. Shay wish to begin, understanding that a veteran’s indignant wrath, their rage, is something where veterans must begin in returning to civilian life.
Furthermore, if a veteran does not begin to manage and deal with anger they have from those betrayals of “what’s right”, and find a way to process it, the rage that arises from it could very easily bring about circumstances that violate the social order of the civilian world back home. Veterans are different from civilians, and their social and moral world drastically so. Their training and experiences are for a purpose that allowed them to perform and survive in war, where it would be unthinkable for someone back home to ever be. We must begin to understand how the veteran can reintegrate back into the civilian world by managing and dealing with their anger, and for others to recognize and understand it, so we can know how to properly address it. In this way, we continue to give veterans the respect and honor they deserve.