Achilles in Iraq

The Greek Ambassador to the US, Mr. George Savvaides, opened an unusual conference at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  The conference was called “Achilles in Iraq” and its purpose was to provide a new perspective of current events in Iraq, as well as the Vietnam war, through the eyes of the Greeks.   The results were stunning.
“War is a world phenomenon, which permeates history, cultures, values, ideals, and human relations”, said Mr. Savvaides  in his opening remarks.
Indeed, the ancient Greeks lived constantly with war and with the consequences of war for the soldiers, for their families, for their societies.   The earliest, and to many the greatest of the Greek poets, Homer, sang about war in the Iliad and about coming home from war in the Odyssey.  Later Greeks, such as Thucydides, analyzed  how the Athenian democracy started a war and lost.  The great tragic poets, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (themselves war veterans) understood  soldiers and their families, their sorrows and their rages.
Fast-forward two and a half thousand years.  With our own democracy at war, this conference made one thing clear: that we need to return to those first ancient practitioners of democracy to understand how war and violence affect our lives and our humanity.  Moreover, how  our soldiers, their families, and our society can cope with the trauma of war.
The soldiers  monopolized a great deal of the conference, with papers by leading classical scholars as well as   psychiatrists working with our veterans.
The conference opened and closed with Homer.  Dr. Jonathan Shay, an internationally known authority on the treatment and prevention of combat trauma, gave the Opening Lecture on “Homer’s Leaders in America’s Forces”.  Dr. Shay is author of two very influential books, Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America.  He stressed the need for  citizens of  democratic states to educate themselves on leadership, because it is a key factor determining if soldiers come back physically, psychologically, and spiritually whole or if they come back wrecked.  We can learn so much, Shay says, from Homer’s leadership portraits.
One of the central issues of the conference was the help we can derive from the Greeks in preventing, minimizing, and healing the psychological wounds of our soldiers.
Professor Thomas Palaima, a MacArthur Fellow and Distinguished Professor at the University of Texas at Austin explained that the symptoms and causes of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were the same for soldiers fighting on the plains of ancient Troy and for Vietnam and Iraq veterans.  The Greeks had invented ways of helping their soldiers cope  with combat trauma, ways that in many ways are superior to our own.
Moreover,  Greek armies suffered from many of today’s problems:  equipment failures, faulty intelligence, death and injury on missions that have no clear purpose, death by friendly fire, cowardice or negligence among fellow soldiers or the failure of officers in charge to take all necessary measures to protect the lives of common soldiers, were all known to Homer when he composed his Iliad, almost three thousand years ago.
Building the character of the American soldier is a key factor in helping our soldiers cope with war.   Lieutenant Colonel Ted Westhusing, professor of philosophy at the US Military Academy at West Point established that the foundation of the honorable soldier and ‘fair fight’ is rooted in the Greek philosophical tradition.
And then there are the families: wives, mothers, sisters, sons, daughters, all those who are affected by the veteran’s trauma.   Christina Weber, a sociologist, and  Dr. Aphrodite Matsakis (whose classic Vietnam Wives has just been reissued in a second edition and should be known to every family of a returning veteran) showed how valuable Greek myths are in our own understanding and coping with war.
War affects us all, as a society and as a democracy.  Professor Gretchen Moon showed that  the way that democratic states  decide to go to war, is often a result of  demagogues misleading their citizens because it is through war that they maintain political power.  Educating its citizens to that they can think critically and distinguish between real arguments and false pretexts for war, is the only way for a democracy to function properly.
The conference closed with film maker, Charles Berkowitz‘s deeply moving film called Achilles in Vietnam, in which Vietnam combat veterans, as well as leading American military professionals reflected on war’s impact.
“They say history does not repeat itself; and yet, certain conditions will lead to similar events, which can be anticipated”, commented Professor Michael Cosmopoulos, Chair of Greek Studies and organizer of the conference.   “The ancient Greeks paid a horrible price for their inability to prevent war and violence.  It is up to us to learn from their experience and not make the same mistakes.  We really do not have a choice.”
Michael B. Cosmopoulos (ed.), Experiencing War: Trauma and Society from Ancient Greece to the Iraq War.   Chicago:  Ares Publishers, 2007.  Pp. v, 288.  ISBN 0890056064978.  $25.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Heather Sebo, The University of Melbourne (
This volume of ten essays derives from the conference, “Achilles in Iraq: War and Peace in Ancient Greece and Today”, held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in April 2004. A sense of mission, which no doubt reflects the atmosphere of the conference, is palpable in the present volume, which editor Michael Cosmopoulos describes as, “a contribution towards raising awareness about and promoting understanding of the catastrophic impact” of war and violence “on our individual and collective lives” (1). Contributors are passionate about the fact that the lives and well-being of young soldiers depend upon the votes of a civilian population that is often ignorant of, or apathetic about, the realities of (and reasons for and against) war. Specifically, the collection aims to use ancient Greek understandings to think about “the ways in which war affects our lives at the personal, social, and political level” (3). It draws on a diversity of expertise–from eminent scholars in the field of ancient Greek and Roman warfare, to non-classicist academics, to practitioners whose primary commitment is to the prevention and treatment of psychological injury in American soldiers.
It must be said that the topics covered do not accord with the brief as Cosmopoulos states it, or with the promise of the title. As a glance at the table of contents will confirm, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on army personnel and the conduct of war: five chapters (4, 5, 6, 7, 9) deal with combat experience (this includes Col. Westhusing’s chapter on the moral stance of the ideal American warrior), five chapters (3, 7, 8, 9, 10) with the causes of psychologically disabling combat trauma (with some overlap between the two groups), and two chapters (8,10) specifically with its proper treatment and prevention. The remaining chapters (1, 2) are concerned with the American public’s ignorance of the realities of war and the kinds of rhetorical appeal which won support for the invasion of Iraq. Important though these issues are, they do not constitute a consideration of the impact of war on “our individual and collective lives”. For instance, there is no mention of the economic, environmental, and social costs of war, or the strain on communities and individuals of coping long-term with traumatized and/or disabled family members, or the continuing danger to civilians posed by the lethal debris of modern war. A brief account of individual chapters follows.
Thomas Palaima (“Civilian Knowledge of War and Violence in Ancient Athens and Modern America”) contrasts the American culture of censorship and media “spin” with the unflinching truth of Homeric depiction of death in combat or Euripides’ confronting portrayal in Trojan Women of the consequences of defeat for a civilian population. He observes that in fifth-century Athens, where military service was universal for all adult males, no one was exempt from the sacrifices and suffering of war.
Palaima also offers a detailed discussion of the dishonestly sentimentalizing media accounts of the death of 2nd. Lt. Therrel ‘Shane’ Childers, the first US casualty in Iraq. However, he represents the annual state funeral ceremonies held in Athens for the war dead as an honest acknowledgement of casualties rather than, as I suggest, the vehicle for a similar kind of spin. The funeral oration customary on these occasions, the epitaphios logos, is famously concerned with the heroization of the warrior dead and the glorification of the state in a way perhaps reminiscent of the media and government establishment culture he critiques so powerfully.
Moon and Collins (“Moving the State to War”) compare Thucydides’ account of the debate between Alcibiades and Nicias over whether Athens should invade Sicily (215 BCE) with the differing approaches of George W. Bush, the US Congress, and the UN in the dispute over pre-emptive war against Iraq (2002-03 CE). Their comparison is loosely informed by Aristotle’s analysis in On Rhetoric of the principles of successful political persuasion and the role of emotion in the formation of rational judgements. The authors conclude that in both cases rationally inferior arguments were successful because they were coupled with emotionally powerful appeals; in fifth century Athens, to shame and patriotism and in modern America, to fear and patriotism. Possibly because too much is attempted in too short a space, the language of this piece is frustratingly woolly, for instance, a speech that relies on “empirical” evidence is described as a “logical proof” (46); “logical” is used as synonymous with “rational” (51, 54, 55) and “proof” as synonymous with “argument” (55). There are also editing issues, for instance, one reads “passivity” where sense demands a word like “energy” (39), “ignorance” for “innocence” (49), “insure” for “ensure” (50).
Nadejda Popov (“The Place of Soldier Speeches in a Democracy at War. Aeschylus and Michael Moore”) compares the Messenger’s tale, at Agamemnon 551-82, of his suffering at Troy with the complaints of soldiers in Iraq compiled by Michael Moore in Will They Ever Trust Us Again? Letters from the War Zone.1 This is potentially an interesting discussion, especially as the Messenger’s account of the siege conforms to fifth-century, rather than Homeric, practise and (as Popov notes) probably alludes to the contemporary Egyptian campaigns. Unfortunately, instead of allowing the telling similarities in soldiers’ experience to emerge in full acknowledgement of the patent disparity between the two “texts”, the author spends a great deal of time attempting to demonstrate that the “texts” themselves (she persists in calling them “case studies”) are equivalent. Thus, for instance, in Popov’s view, Moore’s edited collection of emails and letters (with introduction) is “in many ways a literary creation” which, in the (entirely hypothetical) circumstance that it were ever made into a documentary film, would be comparable to Aeschylus’ thirty line passage (from the Messenger’s 160 line, three-part speech), even in terms of “performance…dimension” (64).
Popov’s claim that Aeschylus’ dual “purpose” in lines 551-82 was to convince the Athenians not to go to war with Sparta and not to maintain their empire is questionable in its implication that a conception of Athenian empire existed in 458 BCE and indefensible in its assertion of authorial intention (75).2 In her view, Aeschylus’ “goal” is analogous to Moore’s attempt to influence the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. With similar imprecision, Popov construes Odysseus’ silencing of Thersites at Iliad 2.225-42 as evidence for censorship of soldier speech in democratic fifth century Athens and as equivalent to the modern punishment of court marshal for public criticism by soldiers of the military in times of war. The essay is also marred by infelicities of language, as for example, “amount of the similarities” (63), feelings “hinted upon” (72), soldiers letters “eradiate a uniform message” (75).
Kurt Raaflaub’s discussion (“Homer and Thucydides on Peace and Just War”) is informed by the tragic observation that peace movements tend to fail. His teasing out of the complex factors that work against arbitration between opposing armies in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and Homer’s Iliad emphasizes that, ironically, men are spurred to fight by the notion of “just war”, by the belief that they are in the right. Less idealistically, men also fight if they believe they can win. Raaflaub observes that the “deep yearning” of the rank and file of both Greeks and Trojans for peace in the Iliad does not lead to an end to fighting and, even more sobering, that the eloquent opposition to war mounted by comic and tragic playwrights in fifth century Athens failed to influence the political decisions of their audiences. His essay leaves the reader with a certain hopelessness about the possibility of peace.
Friend (“The Notion of a Fair Fight in Ancient Greece and in Modern Warfare”) contrasts the Greek hoplite ideal of the disciplined phalanx, hand-to-hand combat, and all-out decisive battle with the attritional, or guerrilla, approach to war in which individuals do not scruple to retreat and the aim is to wear down the enemy. Friend emphasizes the continuities between the values of ancient Greek and modern soldiers, especially their common admiration for an enemy who “fights by the rules”. However, the author appears far too invested in the honour codes he describes and, finally, to betray a serious lack of objectivity when he writes of the Viet Cong guerrilla: “He uses cowardly tactics and tries to avoid battle. Just as the Greek hoplite despised light troops because their refused to stand their ground, the modern soldier hates guerrillas for the same reason” (113). One cannot help but wonder how fair a fight can be if one side is hopelessly outmatched by the other in weaponry and war technology.
Col. Ted Westhusing’s lengthy contribution (“The American Warrior. Winning the Nation’s Wars, for ‘This We Will Defend'”) is included, almost unedited, in respectful tribute to his memory. The essay is a patriotic statement of the moral attitude of an ideally “virtuous” American warrior. Westhusing’s major concern is to define an ethical standpoint from which a warrior may violate societies’ injunction against the taking of life, and be the most effective possible fighter, without relinquishing self-respect and humanity. In his view, this involves management of the passions and natural selfishness through the education of reason, exhaustive physical training, embracing of “communally sanctioned Law”, and ability to see the integrity of unfamiliar social structures. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, Westhusing’s high minded idealism is belied by the contemporary and historical real world information so abundantly provided by Tritle, Matsakis, and Chrissanthos.
Lawrence Tritle (“Two Armies in Iraq: Tommy Franks in the Footsteps of Alexander the Great”) tellingly compares the ongoing American led invasion of Iraq with Alexander’s lightning swift conquest in 325 BCE. He demonstrates that after the conquest of Babylon/Bagdad Alexander quashed the early stages of a widespread insurgency similar to that which has proved crippling for the US and her allies. He writes of the suffering and large casualties in the civilian population past and present.
Tritle also focuses on the brutalizing and desensitizing effect on soldiers of prolonged military campaigning and the unspeakable terror of constant exposure to violent death. He proposes that the “explosion of conspiracies, imagined or other, that emerge in the sources” is evidence that Alexander himself was suffering from the paranoia and distortion of judgement symptomatic of PTSD (179). Tritle concludes by detailing the statistics for PTSD, depression, and suicide in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, concluding that American troops “are experiencing the same sort of trauma that Alexander and his army found there, and has been the case in every war since” (183).
Matsakis (“Three Faces of Post-traumatic Stress: Ares, Hercules, and Hephaestus”) claims that these three mythic figures are psychic models which can provide new insights into post-traumatic stress. (The author gives Ares and Hephaestus their Greek names, but uses the Roman form Hercules and makes no category distinction between the gods and the hero.) Matsakis’ concern is with the treatment of PTSD, especially in veterans, and I am willing to accept that her approach may make for effective therapy. But her version of Greek myth is entirely a therapist’s artefact and is in no sense a dialogue with ancient understandings. Matsakis takes no account of the contexts for the stories she chooses to tell, of the complexities of cultural difference, or of the wider intellectual discussion about the nature of myth. She writes as though Ares, Hercules, and Hephaestus were historical people with psychological autonomy and personal agency. She tells us that Heracles’ “gluttony”, “binge drinking”, and sexual promiscuity are “motivated by guilt” but that Hephaestus, who suffers from “depression, rage and self-loathing” as a result of parental abuse and rejection, is able to find an “outlet” in his creative work and make “a positive contribution to society” (197, 212, 221). She claims (without any sense of incongruity) that Ares becomes the god of war largely because of “being confined in a bottle for thirteen months as a toddler” (201).
Chrissanthos’ material (“Aeneas in Iraq: Comparing The Roman And Modern Battle Experience”) is similar to Tritle’s (above). He compares the experiences of soldiers from WWI through to Vietnam with their counterparts in Caesar’s Roman campaigns (an exception to the volume’s focus on Greece). Chrissanthos links the unspecified illnesses that afflicted Caesar’s “‘whole’ army” with the psychological and physical malaise typically suffered by modern soldiers during and after active service (238). He broaches the issue of alcohol and drugs abuse, the practise of self-harm and, at the other end of the spectrum, the perpetration of atrocities on those perceived to be the enemy. Chrissanthos discusses desertion, mutiny, combat refusal, and even the murder of “incompetent or ineffective superiors” (245). He also notes the phenomenon, then and now, of veteran movements for peace, as an entirely positive and constructive manifestation of battle trauma.
Jonathan Shay (“Homer’s Leaders in American Forces: Leadership and Prevention of Psychological and Moral Injury”), a psychologist and advocate for the America’s servicemen and women, takes the view that, if we cannot abolish war, the next best way to reduce psychological injury in soldiers after combat–he rejects the term PTSD–is to establish a culture of trust, especially between service members and their leaders (272). By way of illustration, Shay compares the leadership styles of Achilleus, Agamemnon, and Odysseus in the Iliad and Odyssey. Shay’s account clearly has direct application to American military practice, but this unapologetically didactic purpose leads him to simplify and shift the emphasis of the Homeric portrayals. Ignoring Achilles’ tragic indecisiveness, he describes him as a blunt, truthful leader who cares for the men and who, if he had lived, would have brought most of them “home alive and in good heart” (265). Conflating the somewhat different portrayals of Odysseus in the Iliad and Odyssey, Shay represents him as, by contrast, one who habitually lies to his men, will take them into danger for personal gain, and brings no one home alive. Finally, Agamemnon, the Commander-in-Chief, the “almost perfectly bad leader”, will take no responsibility for his failure effectively to blockade Troy, violates the armies’ “moral order” by refusing to ransom Chryseis, and publicly humiliates Achilleus (266). Shay interprets the stampede for the ships that follows Agamemnon’s trial of the armies’ loyalty as a predictable loss of morale resulting from this betrayal of “‘what’s right'” (264).
Apart from its narrowness of scope, my other criticisms of the collection are, first, that contributors do not acknowledge the obvious differences between ancient and modern war technology; that we moderns have far greater destructive capacity, that modern war has a global impact, and that the stakes are perhaps as high as the ultimate survival of humanity. A second, related, regret–as my comments on individual chapters have no doubt indicated–is that many contributions look for exact matches, or, equally misleading, straightforward contrasts, between the ancient material and modern American cultural templates. Too few chapters rise to the opportunity genuinely to “think with” the complexity, otherness, and nuance of the ancient material and thereby to arrive at truly surprising, even paradigm shifting, insights.

1.   M. Moore. Will They Ever Trust Us Again? Letters from the War Zone. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2004.
2.   For the difficulties associated with the term “empire” in the context of fifth century Athens–and of determining when Athens may be said to lead an empire rather than an alliance, see: P. Low (ed.), The Athenian Empire. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2008.
Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like