Rethinking Achilles and PTSD

From Manchester Metropolitan University comes a challenge to Dr Jonathan Shay’s work:

AN HISTORIAN from Manchester Metropolitan University has refuted one of the most long-standing theories about the link between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Ancient Greece.

In his book chapter Beyond the Universal Soldier: Combat Trauma in Classical Antiquity, Dr Jason Crowley argues against the commonly-held idea that sufferers of PTSD can be found as far back in history as Achilles and Odysseus.

The article will be published in the Palgrave Macmillan book Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks, in September.

Dr Crowley said that the roots of this belief in the universality of PTSD can be traced back to the end of the Vietnam War.

Universalist view

He said: “There is the view – and I think it’s quite appealing – that people are generally good. Generally good people, when they see horrible things, are upset and traumatised – that idea has an obvious human appeal.

“This idea was sharpened by the Vietnam War when a lot of men came back from South East Asia having lost the war and no longer able to function in society.

“When they came back, some veterans of World War Two unjustly ridiculed them because they won their war – a bigger, nastier, hotter war – and they put about the view that America lost this smaller war because the men fighting were morally weak.

This view of a morally weak generation was understandably rejected by the Vietnam veterans and those involved in their treatment, and they set out to prove that they were no different from any other soldier, and one of the first places they looked for proof was ancient Greece.

Achilles’ suffering

Scholars initially looked at the Illiad, the account of the doings of the “biggest, bravest soldier of them all” Achilles, and saw there what they believed to be evidence that the Greek hero suffered from PTSD.

This led to a wave of “retrospective diagnoses” on everyone from Greek heroes to bloodthirsty Spartans.

Dr Crowley said: “It seems harmless enough until you realise that the people treating our soldiers believed this and so treated everyone the same. I wanted to refute that idea so I modelled the cause of PTSD and what I noticed was that all the causes of PTSD are cultural.”

He said that unlike modern soldiers, Greek men believed that enemies existed simply to be killed and that a man’s worth could be valued by the number of enemies he had slain.

Protective factors

In addition, soldiers in ancient Greece didn’t suffer from social isolation, prolonged artillery bombardment or exhaustion in the way that their modern-day counterparts do.

He said: “One of the causes of PTSD is when you have no ability to take direct action – you can’t evade or remove a threat,. For example, sitting under shellfire is psychologically malignant. For ancient Greeks that wasn’t a problem – they could take direct action, they could either run away from their enemy or they could kill him.”

He added that there were also factors in the ancient world that could actually protect soldiers from PTSD, particularly the normalcy of killing created by living in an ultraviolent society.

He said: “They were surrounded by violence and death in their daily life. You were conditioned to deploy violence and that wasn’t seen as transgressive, it was seen as the morally right thing to do. Modern soldiers, if they kill an enemy soldier have the unjust feeling of doing something wrong. That feeling, that ‘I’ve done something I shouldn’t have’, was entirely absent in ancient society.”

Dr Crowley concluded by saying: “PTSD is not universal – it’s historically and culturally specific and when we treat soldiers we should do so on that basis, not that everyone is the same. The people who compared the Vietnam veterans to Achilles meant well, but they are doing the soldiers a disservice.”

So which came first, PTSD or ultraviolence?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s