The Odyssey

The Odyssey, by Homer and translated by Emily Wilson (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2018, 582 pages)

“You think of going home as honey-sweet, but gods will make it bitter.”

Homer (282)

What are the true costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? While a full audit would certainly include the U.S. and allied service members’ casualties, refugees and civilian deaths, and the financial debt left for future generations to repay, these are the observable costs and the easiest to count. However, there are unseen costs that are often overlooked. For many of the soldiers who fought the post-9/11 battles and lived, the war did not end when they departed the combat zone; it has only just begun. A new struggle often awaits veterans as they try to restore their place or find a new place in the families and communities they left behind. 


The Greek poet Homer was one of the first to illuminate these overlooked aspects of post-war reintegration in his epic poem, The Odyssey. Homer explores this theme through the attempts of his hero, Odysseus, to return to his kingdom on the island of Ithaca after the Trojan War. The Odyssey contains ancient wisdom of enduring value that is once again relevant for a country that has deployed and redeployed hundreds of thousands of service members during twenty years of expeditionary conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. The battles for Fallujah and the Pech Valley may have ended, but many soldiers are still fighting. 

Historians approximate the written text of The Odyssey to the 8th century BCE—older than Christianity, Islam, and many of the books of the Hebrew Bible. Although, as classics scholar and translator Emily Wilson reports in her introductory essay, the poem almost certainly existed in oral form before then. Despite its temporal distance from today, readers of The Odyssey do not require any knowledge of ancient Greek history to follow Homer’s story. While a passing familiarity with the Trojan War and some gods of Greek mythology is helpful, Wilson’s edition provides plenty of assistance to novice readers through the utilization of brief chapter summaries in the notes section, several maps, and a glossary of characters and places.

The Odyssey’s magical scenes make it a memorable and engaging story. The island of one-eyed Cyclopes, Circe the witch, who turns men into pigs, and the deadly Sirens with their irresistible singing are just a few of the famous obstacles standing between Odysseus and his home. Warned by a prophet about the trouble he will encounter in trying to return to his island of Ithaca, Odysseus replies, “I will endure it. By now I am used to suffering—I have gone through so much, at sea and in the war. Let this come too.” While just reaching home will be difficult enough, Odysseus is not coming back to a ticker-tape parade in his honor. 

Before leaving for Troy, Odysseus enjoyed life as King of Ithaca and its surrounding islands, ruling justly from his sizable estate and wealth and maintaining stability in his kingdom’s affairs. But Ithaca has fallen on hard times in the twenty years since Odysseus departed. The council of Ithaca has not met once since Odysseus left. The polity no longer convenes to discuss problems and find common solutions. And of the many issues left unaddressed, the most pressing are the boys of the island, who have grown up without fathers and become unruly young men. Lacking propriety, the young men are abusing travelers, the elderly, and women; no longer respecting local customs and no longer fearing the gods. 

Odysseus’ home is under immense strain, too. The young men have settled into his home and become suitors to Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, pressuring her to remarry one of them. Not knowing what has happened to Odysseus, Penelope is in a vulnerable position. Like parasites, the suitors are draining the wealth of Odysseus’ home, corrupting many of his slaves, and threatening Telemachus, his twenty-year-old son. Telemachus has also grown up fatherless and lacks the personal strength and martial prowess to protect himself and his father’s estate. 

Odysseus will find an Ithaca that has deteriorated from within, and its center cannot hold. To make matters worse, none of his men survive the attempt to return from Troy, and he will have to work alone to rectify Ithaca’s unstable situation. How Odysseus resolves these problems is the central tension of the story and leaves the reader to wonder if it is even possible to harmonize the veteran and the home again.

Final Thoughts

Woven into the fabric of The Odyssey is another of Homer’s critical commentaries about war: there are victors, yes, but there are no winners. The successful expedition against the Trojans has cost the Greeks dearly. One Greek king tells a visitor, “I sit here in my palace, mourning all who died, and often weeping. Sometimes tears bring comfort to my heart, but not for long; cold grief grows sickening.” Encountering two of his dead friends in the underworld, Odysseus learns that one of them made it home after the war, only to be murdered by his wife and her new lover. And the other, Achilles, who achieved everlasting fame and glory in Troy, “would prefer to be a workman, hired by a poor man on a peasant farm, than rule as king of all the dead.” Have the Greeks paid more than the victory at Troy was worth? Homer asks.

The Odyssey’s exploration of war and its shadow costs make it a relevant work to engage with as the United States faces the challenge of reintegrating its troops with their families and communities as they return from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other far-off places. Just as many of Homer’s Greek heroes faced their most difficult struggles while trying to come home, American veterans continue to grapple with the difficulties of homecoming, including crippling loneliness, post-traumatic stress, and anxious families. Some, like Odysseus, have not made it home yet and perhaps never will.   

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. 

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