Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks
Edited by Peter Meineck and David Konstan
Book Review by Ed Marks
The concept of the “Universal Soldier”, the idea that war has cast a similar shadow over all who have experienced it down through the ages, permeates much of the current discussion around veterans and how war effects them. The anthology of essays, Combat Trauma and the Ancients Greeks, edited by Peter Meineck and David Konston, examines the validity of this concept from the perspectives of thirteen classics scholars, many of whom are also combat veterans. They address questions such as: did ancient Greek soldiers experience PTSD and other psychological trauma similar to today’s veterans of the Southwest Asian conflicts? What was life like for those who survived and returned home? How did family members waiting anxiously at home react to the news of the death of a husband, father, brother, son and how were their lives changed forever? How did the very concept of warfare fit into the larger Greek culture and society?
To gain insight into the ancient Greek experience, the scholars who contributed to the book rely primarily on the texts of The Iliad and The Odyssey and ancient Greek playwrights with occasional references to Greek philosophers. Therefore, a basic understanding of the place of theater in the ancient Greek world as well as knowledge of basic plot summaries and ideas of referenced plays and other works would be helpful when reading the book.
The Dionysian festivals of ancient Greece attracted the efforts of many playwrights keen on competing in the annual theater competition. While most of the submissions are lost to us, enough survive to show the predominance of war as a theme in both tragedies and comedies. War was more or less a constant for much of the classical period, so a typical performance would have found many combat veterans and civilian survivors in the audience, in the chorus, in various roles, and perhaps in the person of the playwright.
Kurt Raaflaub provides a good example of the intimate connection between stage and reality in his chapter on “War and the City”. Festival performances would frequently resonate with themes related to concurrent events. For example, Euripides’ the Trojan Women imagines a frank and often brutal account of the fate of Troy’s women in the wake of the Greek victory. The first performance of this play came only a few weeks after the actual destruction by the mighty Athenians of the tiny but courageous and unyielding population of the island of Melos (pg. 19). As Raaflaub comments, the Trojan Women and two other plays, “represent the indictments of the war based on its excessively cruel impact on the noncombatant population, and all three are exemplary in throwing light on the human dimensions of war that narratives of war, usually focusing on battles and generals, mostly ignore”(pg. 21). While the entire Athenian society experienced this intimate connection with war, such a connection is virtually non-existent in American society today.
Corine Pache takes up the topic of the experience of war for women in the chapter, “Women after War.” She tells the modern day story of the “Lioness Team” of American army soldiers who accompanied Marine units on search missions in Iraq, “because it is unacceptable in Iraqi culture for male soldiers to interact with women”(pg. 70). This role for the team members was not officially recognized and the members of the team were not combat trained, as military policy does not yet include a combat role for women. One search mission led to a harrowing firefight with the enemy. The female soldiers’ ambiguous participation in the firefight (female Army soldiers attached to a Marine search unit, unprepared for combat, with their very presence on the ‘battlefield’ officially unacknowledged) made their psychological trauma afterward especially difficult to deal with. Turning to the ancient Greek world, Pache acknowledges that women were not found on battlefields. However, she likens the intensity and ambiguity of the experience of Greek women, always at the mercy of the results of war, to the intensity and ambiguity of the members of “The Lioness Team”.
One topic taken up in the book is the debate that has surfaced in recent years surrounding the question of the prevalence and similarity of psychological trauma among combat veterans of various historical eras. Jason Crowley in his chapter “Beyond the Universal Soldier” makes the case that Athenian society was intimately familiar with war and highly supportive of those who fought, while modern American society is far removed in mind and spirit from the battlefield and less compassionately supportive. Crowley writes, “Furthermore, it would appear that these historically specific and radically divergent circumstances left the American infantryman critically vulnerable to PTSD/CSI while the Athenian hoplite was effectively immunized against the same risk” (pg. 117). On the other hand, Lawrence Tritle in his chapter “Ravished Minds in the Ancient World” finds such assertions unsettling, writing that “the implication of such an argument is that battle trauma and responses to it are somehow new-an assertion preposterous if it was not so tragic” (pg. 88).
A related question in the debate surrounding psychological trauma asks why some soldiers seem more susceptible to such trauma than others who suffer similar combat experiences. Sara Monoson addresses this question in her chapter entitled “Socrates in Combat”. Socrates is usually remembered as the barefoot Athenian philosopher who was accused of poisoning the minds of his young followers with sacrilegious proclamations. Some readers might be surprised to find that Socrates served with valor in the campaigns of Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium, as recounted by Plato in his Apology 28e. Perhaps Socrates’ “uncommon ‘resilience’ on deployment, in combat, and when adjusting to being home again” (pg. 139) foreshadows his calm and courageous acceptance of his death sentence as memorialized in many works of art and literature. As Monoson writes in her conclusion, “Socrates’ conduct as a soldier is as fascinating and important philosophically as the manner in which he faced trial, imprisonment, and execution” (pg. 153).
Perhaps the most accessible chapter for readers unfamiliar with classical Greek society is offered by Thomas Palaima in his chapter entitled “When War is Performed, What Do Soldiers and Veterans Want to Hear and See and Why?” His answer is simple. Whether in an ancient Greece or modern America, plays, poems, novels, songs, or films dealing with war should just tell the truth: “The truth is all there in true war stories. But it takes a real effort to take it all into our hearts, minds, and souls. And, as Patterson (a Vietnam veteran and published poet) reminds us, echoing Wilfred Owen and Horace and Callinus long before him, the truths of war are neither sweet nor fitting” (pg. 281).
While the essays do not offer definitive answers to the validity of the concept of the “Universal Soldier” they shed considerable light on the suffering of individuals in ancient Greek societies at war. Someone genuinely interested in the effects of America’s recent military engagements in Southwest Asia on individual soldiers and their families will find that this book offers a unique perspective which may lead to a more compassionate understanding of those effects.
Amphora with cult mask of Dionysus, by the Antimenes Painter, arounbd 520 BC, Altes Museum Berlin. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Dionysos and his thiasus. Upper tier of an Attic black-figure krater-psykter. ca. 525 and circa 500 BC. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
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