The Iliad, by Homer and translated by Stanley Lombardo (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1997, 516 pages)
“Two jars sit at the doorstep of Zeus, filled with gifts that he gives, one full of good things, the other of evil.”Homer (lines 566-69)
One of the enduring lessons of the last twenty years of American war is that the extreme stress of combat trauma can provoke psychological reactions as devastating as physical wounds. The awakening to this reality has left military leaders scrambling to figure out how to help those affected by and vulnerable to crippling post-traumatic stress. U.S. leaders, however, were not the first to learn that many combat wounds are invisible.
When the Greek poet Homer penned The Iliad nearly three thousand years ago, he explored trauma and resiliency through the lens of his civilization at war. Set in the tempest of combat, The Iliad’s deeper story about the human condition is found in the contrast between two opposing generals, Achilles and Hector. Surrounded by death and violence, Homer’s two heroes engage the world with strikingly different approaches. Through their contrasting values and motivations, Homer makes strong assertions about the sources of psychological resilience.
Achilles, leader of one of the Greek coalition’s armies, is a god-like killing machine. However, his ability to cope with messy human relations is on par with a young child. Achilles is an accelerant to war’s destructive fire but is also consumed by it because of his emotional instability and immaturity. When he experiences moral and combat trauma, which his violent and self-centered nature cannot immediately rectify, Achilles turns inward and isolates himself from his friends and comrades.
Opposing the Greeks is Hector, prince of Troy and commander of its army. Hector is everything Achilles is not: stable, committed, and selfless. Despite the extreme stress of watching friends die in combat and knowing what will happen to his family should the Greeks break through the walls of Troy, Hector never waivers from his duty, nor does he lash out at the Trojans responsible for the war. His deep human connections strengthen him and shield his psyche from trauma.
The Trojan War
The Iliad begins in the ninth year of the Trojan War. The Greeks have been unsuccessful in their attempts to sack and destroy the city of Troy while the Trojans defend it from behind high fortified walls. In a camp of frayed nerves and lost tempers, Achilles openly quarrels with the commander of the Greek coalition, who, forced by circumstances, reluctantly gives up a prize won from battle. The commander appropriates Achilles’ battle prize, a concubine slave girl, as compensation for his loss.
By custom, Greek armies pooled together the gold, livestock, tripods, and enslaved people captured in battle and gave a share to each warrior according to their contribution to the victory. These battle prizes were honors, the currency of ancient Greek culture, that signaled a fighter’s greatness. There is no present-day parallel for this, but the modern military’s system of badges and decorations provides a weak approximation of the Greek system of honors. Achilles’ dishonor is, perhaps, similar to a soldier whose commander unjustly took their Ranger tab or Silver Star medal.
Achilles’ public humiliation sets The Iliad’s plot in motion. His source of identity is the honors marking him as a great warrior. It forces him to question everything about himself when he realizes others can arbitrarily take away his honors. Achilles’ reaction to trauma are orders of magnitude greater than the precipitating events.
Emotionally wounded and confused, Achilles withdraws and refuses to fight, allowing the Trojans to seize the advantage and push the Greek invaders back to the beaches. A delegation of Achilles’ fellow leaders finds him completely disoriented, switching between indignant anger and crippling depression; even the slaughter of his fellow Greeks cannot penetrate the thick walls of Achilles’ psychological prison.
Extrinsic rewards that confer social status are the cultural foundations of Achilles’ identity and make him vulnerable and brittle. Hector’s identity as Troy’s champion roots firmly in his community and his family. Hector loves his wife and son, his mother and father; his entire community. He places himself between the Greeks and the Trojans, not for personal glory but to save those he loves. Although Hector feels the tension between possibly rescuing his wife and son at the expense of defending Troy, his connectedness to his family and his people steels his resolve to keep fighting.
The Iliad is a hauntingly beautiful work, but reading it for the first time requires patience and commitment. Its slow plot development creates the feeling that nothing is happening. Homer fills page after page, chapter after chapter, with an endless barrage of savage violence and bloody hand-to-hand fighting that can dull the reader’s senses. But amidst the monochromatic description of the Trojan War, The Iliad offers a rich exploration of combat trauma through the debilitating response of Achilles and the steadfast resilience of Hector.
The Iliad calls to those struggling to understand the psychological strengths and weaknesses of men and women who fight. Homer’s story of Achilles and Hector serves as an ancient commentary about the sources of emotional resilience and speculates why people react differently to combat trauma. Although the leading actors in war drama have changed often since The Iliad, the invisible wounds of combat trauma have remained a permanent but inconspicuous part of the cast. They will continue to play an essential role in the future.
Tobias Bernard Switzer is an active-duty colonel in the United States Air Force and holds positions as a Non-Resident Fellow at the Irregular Warfare Institute and as an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is a special operations helicopter pilot, combat aviation advisor, and foreign area officer with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central America.