Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Achilles in Afghanistan

In a PBS NewsHour discussion last night of the recent atrocities in Afghanistan, Jeffrey Johns, a former U.S. Air Force psychiatrist, mentioned Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam (1994):

[T]here’s a phenomenon known as berserk or going berserk that has been reported throughout time in almost all wars. Homer wrote about an episode about in which Achilles went on a rampage and committed several atrocities following the death of his friend. So while this is a rare phenomenon, it has been reported. Jonathan Shay writes about his patients experiencing something similar in Vietnam.
What Dr. Johns didn’t explain is that Achilles in Vietnam focuses on a pattern of experience that culminates in berserking, a pattern Shay finds in the Iliad and in the accounts of Vietnam veterans. The pattern begins with a betrayal of “what’s right,” an act that violates the codes by which a community lives and fights. In the aftermath of that violation, the soldier’s “social and moral horizon” shrinks: his loyalty now lies not with the community or the cause but with a small number of trusted comrades. The “death of a special comrade” leads to feelings of “guilt and wrongful substitution”: I wasn’t there for him; it should have been me. And what follows is the berserk state, in which a soldier loses all restraint, becoming at once animal and god.

There’s no exact correspondence between what happened in Afghanistan and what happens in the Iliad. But details in a New York Times article about Robert Bales take on particular significance for anyone who’s read Shay’s work:
A year ago, according to a blog written by his wife, he was denied a promotion to sergeant first class, a rank that would have brought not just added responsibility and respect but also money at a time when his finances seemed stretched.


That next phase, the Baleses hoped, would take them to Germany, Italy or Hawaii. But the Army did not move Sergeant Bales from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Nor did it allow him to become a recruiter, though he was in training for the job. Instead, he was told he would go with the Third Brigade to Afghanistan in December.


About a week ago, Mr. Browne [John Henry Browne, Bales’s lawyer] said, Sergeant Bales saw a friend lose a leg to a buried mine. Soon after, according to Mr. Browne, he sent his wife a short message: “Hard day for the good guys.”


About a day later, Army officials said, Sergeant Bales walked out of the outpost and headed toward the nearby village.
The subtitle of Achilles in VietnamCombat Trauma and the Undoing of Character — makes a point that some readers want to resist: that good character provides no sure defense against the experiences of war, that good character can be destroyed by circumstance. Achilles, who embodies best character (caring for the whole community, sparing the lives of prisoners, respecting the enemy dead), is destroyed as a result of what Shay calls “catastrophic moral luck”: a betrayal by his commander and the loss of the beloved comrade who wears Achilles’ armor and fights in his place.

Robert Bales seems to have exhibited at least good character in the military. From an NPR report:
Early indications are that Bales was a good soldier. He signed up soon after Sept. 11, 2001. In the decade since, he served three times in Iraq, earning medals for good conduct and meritorious service.

In 2007, Bales took part in the battle of Najaf, an intense engagement later written up in a Fort Lewis newspaper called the Northwest Guardian. In the article, Bales is quoted saying he was proud of his unit, because “we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants.”

One officer who was there says Bales distinguished himself; he told the Seattle Times Friday night that when he learned the name of the alleged shooter in Afghanistan, “I nearly fell off my chair and had a good cry.”
The names of the dead in Afghanistan, missing from New York Times, NPR, the PBS NewsHour, and the Seattle Times:
Mohamed Dawood, son of Abdullah
Khudaydad, son of Mohamed Juma
Nazar Mohamed
Shatarina, daughter of Sultan Mohamed
Zahra, daughter of Abdul Hamid
Nazia, daughter of Dost Mohamed
Masooma, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Farida, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Palwasha, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Nabia, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Esmatullah, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Faizullah, son of Mohamed Wazir
Essa, Mohamed son of Mohamed Hussain
Akhtar, Mohamed son of Murrad Ali
And the wounded:
Haji Mohamed Naim, son of Haji Sakhawat
Mohamed Sediq, son of Mohamed Naim
Related reading
No one asked their names (Al Jazeera, found via TPM)
U.S. Soldier May Have Gone “Berserk” (Huffington Post, with a brief comment from Jonathan Shay)

comments: 3

M.Korte said...

Interesting post, thank you! I found your blog after asking myself something about grammar (Was or Were). Then saw a link in a forum to your blog. I clicked around and found this entry. I've been thinking about this tragic event lately too. I also found your reference to Achillis interesting since I've recently been discussing the Trojan war. I don't know seems like the world is really interconnected. Thanks.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for reading and commenting. I’d highly recommend Achilles in Vietnam, which has taught me more about the Iliad and the sorrows of war than anything else I’ve read. Our world often bears eerie resemblance to Homer’s.

Elaine said...

Five children of Mohammed Wazir? God help us all.