Classics Department Invites Scholars to Discuss Homeric Poetry

When Boston psychiatrist Jonathan Shay wanted to understand the psychological toll of the Vietnam War on the veterans he treated, he turned to ancient texts “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Reading these epic poems through the lens of modern experience, Shay discovered that leadership malpractice and moral injury regarding psychological trauma are significant themes in both of the classical texts.

Last Thursday, May 9, students gathered in the Tirana Room in Bulfinch Hall to listen to Shay and leadership scholar Michael Shiner discuss the intersection between Homeric epic poetry and the experiences of combat soldiers in the Vietnam War.

Shay is best known as the author of “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming,” which examine the experiences of combat veterans through the lens of classical tests. He is also a psychiatrist who specializes in treating the psychological damage that combat inflicts upon soldiers at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Boston.

Shay began reading classics when he was recuperating from a stroke over 30 years ago. During recovery, he passed the time by reading English translations of the Greek epics, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Dr. Shay realized that his patients at the V.A. clinic were reflecting many of the sentiments expressed by the warriors in those ancient texts: betrayal by those in power, guilt for surviving, deep alienation on their return from war.

“How does moral injury change someone? It deteriorates their character; their ideals, ambitions, and attachments begin to change and shrink. Both flavors of moral injury impair and sometimes destroy the capacity for trust. When social trust is destroyed, it is replaced by the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others,” said Shay in the discussion.

Shay continued, “With this expectancy, there are few options: strike first; withdraw and isolate oneself from others like Achilles; or create deceptions, distractions, false identities, and narratives to spoil the aim of what is expected like Odysseus.”

Shay also said that drawing parallels between ancient texts and the experiences of Vietnam veterans deepen our understanding of the effects on warfare on individuals. According to Shay, these parallels highlight the role of military policy in promoting the physical and mental safety of soldiers.

“Send units in and out of combat together, rather than replacing individuals, which leaves people with strangers. The stronger trust that fighters have in comrades they know well is experienced as a sense of safety and confidence,” said Dr. Shay.

Joshua Mann, Chair of Classics Department, hosted this event for his Classics-553 class this term. He noted the importance of elevating these unaddressed subjects in discussions and applying them to our own lives.

“I want us to be able to read these texts and literature and really exciting, ambiguous, thoughtful, rich literature but then also be able to apply them in our own lives-just see some of the human condition extrapolated in a way that can be mapped onto your own experience-and being conscious of these things that are always happening,” said Mann.

Paige Busse ’19, an attendee, said that the event was an eye-opening experience, especially after reading “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.” She was intrigued by the ways in which Shay could go both ways in his connections: explaining characters’ actions through what he has observed in the V.A. while also discussing how “The Odyssey” itself is a metaphorical representation of what people face.

“For example, there’s a certain inability to go back home to your wife and have a relationship with her after engaging with prostitutes in Vietnam and the differences in those kinds of relationships. Dr. Shay talks about how Odysseus is held captive on this island with this sea goddess, and how he is kept from going home with this woman who is not his wife. It’s saying that metaphorically represents the inability to engage with intimacy in the way that they did before the war,” said Busse.

In a forthcoming book “Homer Told the Truth about Leadership,” Shay and Shiner hope to expand on the issue of psychological and moral injury due to leadership malpractice. Through examples from Homer and our time, they contrast leadership malpractice with effective leadership, delving into how Homer’s leaders go wrong and right in their turbulent circumstances and what society can learn about becoming better leaders from their failures and successes.