Shay, Jonathan 1941-

views updated

SHAY, Jonathan 1941-


Born 1941. Education: M.D., Ph.D. (neuroscience).


Office—c/o Department of Veterans' Services, 239 Causeway St., Ste. 100, Boston, MA 02114


Clinical psychiatrist, Department of Psychiatry, Tufts Medical School; psychiatrist with Department of Veteran Affairs Veterans' Improvement Program, at the Boston Veterans' Administration Hospital and at the Department of Veteran Affairs Outpatient Clinic, Boston, MA. Visiting scholar-at-large, U.S. Naval War College, 2001; public speaker.


Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1994.

Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, foreword by Max Cleland and John McCain, Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.


Dr. Jonathan Shay is a clinical psychiatrist who works with U.S. Vietnam War veterans with long-term symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is the author of two books on the subject, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, in which he finds parallels between the classical Greek Homerian epics and the experiences of modern-day soldiers, both on the battlefield and on their return home.

In Achilles in Vietnam, Shay compares passages from Homer's Iliad to combat stories of Vietnam veterans. In the first chapter, "Betrayal of 'What's Right,'" Shay shows how the moral betrayal of Achilles by his commander Agamemnon also occurred among units in Vietnam and how that betrayal—from the murder of civilians to deaths by so-called friendly fire to the unfair safety of officers on the battlefield, commanders in high places, or politicians in Washington, D.C.—leaves a permanent mark on the psyche of soldiers. Shay later shows how the important bonds formed between a soldier and his closest comrades-in-arms are shattered when a comrade is killed and how the lack of time to mourn for the dead contributes to the rage and the need for revenge, as experienced by Achilles on the death of his close friend Patroklos. Shay tells how in ancient Greek times, bodies of the fallen stayed with their units longer and battle was suspended at night, giving soldiers time to mourn the dead.

The trauma of betrayal and the loss of comrades, says Shay, can lead to personal guilt over surviving battle and to extreme rage, or berserk behavior, for the surviving warrior. Achilles displayed this berserk state when he sought horrible revenge on Patroklos's killers, and many Vietnam veterans show it through PTSD, in which they are potentially violent and perpetually mobilized to defend themselves, often waking from nightmares reaching for a weapon. Shay explains that some 250,000 Vietnam veterans suffer from this disorder, as well as despair and isolation that can lead to drug or alcohol abuse or even suicide. He also says they lack the capacity for participating in a democratic society because they no longer believe in the existence of a meaningful future. In short, he writes, "fighting for one's country can render one unfit to be its citizen." Shay advocates above all the prevention of war, but in the absence of prevention he stresses that soldiers should be trained differently and should be allowed to mourn lost comrades.

Sallie Goetsch, in a review of for the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, praised the book, saying it is "clearly written and a marvel of organization," with easy access to "particular aspects of the comparison between the wrath of Achilles and the berserk rage of Vietnam veterans." She concluded, "Shay's purpose is not to offer a definitive treatment of Greek ethics or Homeric vocabulary or even ancient warfare. His aim is to discuss the persistence of combat trauma and the soldier's experience through thousands of years of warfare, and he does that superbly well." In the New York Times, Herbert Mitgang wrote, "Even where allowances must be made to take into account the differences between chariots and B-52 bombers, the reader follows the parallels between the Greek classic and the Vietnam veterans' recollections with admiration for what Dr. Shay has achieved."

Vince Gotera, writing in the Journal of Popular Culture, called the book "one of the most important texts to appear recently on the already immense bookshelf of analytic works on the Vietnam war; it's very difficult at this point to say anything new about 'Vietnam,' but Shay does."

In a review for the Journal of the American Medical Association, Richard Dayringer wrote, "I found this book to be original, humane, powerful, and even terrifying.… I think the book should be required reading for all mental health professionals who work with veterans of any war." William Beatty, of Booklist, concluded, "This is a profoundly human book and a strong, realistic argument against modern warfare." A contributor to Publishers Weekly commented that "Shay's ideas merit attention by soldiers and scholars alike."

Irwin L. Kutash, writing in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, commented that Shay makes "a painstaking and noble attempt to teach the psychologically damaging results of war in a desire to prevent future war.…As historians have long promulgated, he who does not learn from history is bound to repeat it."

Shay's second book about Vietnam veterans is Odysseus in America, which parallels the story of Homer's Odyssey with the returning home of Vietnam veterans and the difficulties they have faced in rejoining American society. Shay writes in this book, "The most fervent wish of the veterans I serve is that future kids not be wrecked the way they were wrecked.…The most effective prevention lies almost entirely with better military practices." Odysseus in America is divided into three parts: "Unhealed Wounds, Restoration," and "Prevention." In the first, Shay parallels the long and arduous journey that Odysseus and his men took home, much like the experiences that Vietnam veterans encounter with alcohol and drugs and family problems. In the second part, Shay discusses problems that come with attempts to restore veterans to society, detailing his work with veterans and their emotional experiences in retelling their stories and coming to terms with the war. He also outlines a three-step program for stopping dangerous behaviors, grieving, and learning to trust again. Although he would prefer that war be prevented altogether, in part three Shay outlines a plan for improving the outcome for soldiers who do have to fight. He advocates their being kept together as a unit throughout training, battle, and the return home, instead of replacing individual soldiers like parts in a machine. William Beatty, of Booklist, commented on this theory, saying that readers "will perceive … the wisdom of replacing whole units rather than individual soldiers at the front." Shay also emphasizes new training that involves not only the body but the mind, emotions, and character as well. And Shay stresses the importance of choosing officers who have the character to lead, instead of, like Odysseus, a self-serving nature.

Edwin B. Burgess, writing in Library Journal, called Odysseus in America "a mandatory purchase" for libraries serving military families and for professionals working with PTSD patients. He also called it "a fresh take on a literary classic." A Publishers Weekly contributor found the book to have "an intriguing argument" but thought the tone was sometimes "hectoring or stridently didactic."

Tim Trask, in a review for the Massasoit Community College Web site, wrote: "Shay's patients and their fellow combat veterans around the world are Odysseuses, wrecked on our Phaeacian shore, who are trying through their stories to help us understand just what it means to have risked their all for us.…One of the values of Shay's book is that he shows us how to listen and how to make things better for future soldiers. That is work that we as a society have to do."



Booklist, April 1, 1994, William Beatty, review of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, p. 1415; October 1, 2002, William Beatty, review of Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, p. 294.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review, March 21, 1994, Sallie Goetsch, review of Achilles in Vietnam, p. 246.

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, volume 2, number 5 (1994), Irwin L. Kutash, "What We Haven't Learned about War We Have Repeated: Warriors as Victims," pp. 122-124.

Journal of Popular Culture, fall, 1994, Vince Gotera, review of Achilles in Vietnam, pp. 229-231.

Journal of the American Medical Association, June 12, 1996, Richard Dayringer, review of Achilles in Vietnam, p. 1769.

Library Journal, October 1, 2002, Edwin B. Burgess, review of Odysseus in America, p. 114.

New York Times, June 13, 1994, Herbert Mitgang, "Vietnam War as Ling to Battles of Antiquity," p. C15.

Publishers Weekly, March 7, 1994, review of Achilles in Vietnam, p. 58; September 9, 2002, review of Odysseus in America and Achilles in Vietnam, p. 50.


American Repertory Theatre Web site, (January 26, 2003), Jonathan Shay, excerpt from Odysseus in America.

Massasoit Community College Web site, (January, 2003), Tim Trask, "Wrecked on the Phaeacian Shore."*

About this article

Shay, Jonathan 1941-

Updated About content Print Article