Crossing the Border Between Civilian and Warrior in the Odyssey by Homer and the Things They Carried by Tim O’brien
Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus crosses countless borders, from the literal borders of kingdoms like Phaeacia and Ithaca, to the borders of life and death in Hades. However, there’s one border Odysseus seems to be unable, and perhaps even unwilling, to cross: The border between soldier and civilian. Every situation he encounters is one that must be treated with either trickery or violence, the things that won the Trojan War. Such a problem isn’t unique to the legendary hero, though. For as long as there has been war, there have been warriors scarred by its horrors.
War has always facilitated the changing of borders, be they the borders of country, culture, or even ownership. Such changing, however, can be violent. War is hell, as the old adage goes, and staring into hell is a traumatic experience. This is not a new idea. The term shell shock has existed since World War One, and some have argued that the concept has existed since even before that. Jonathan Shay postulates that one of the soliloquies in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, written circa 1597, describes PTSD eerily well. If we take the assumption that ancient people knew of PTSD, even if they didn’t have a name for it, to its logical conclusion, it’s fair to assume that Homer knew of PTSD when he was writing the character of Odysseus.
Symptoms of PTSD include unwanted memories, overly negative assumptions about the world, hypervigilance and increased irritability. All of these traits can be found in The Odyssey’s titular character.
The Trojan War was no doubt traumatic. Odysseus would have seen the Trojans tear down his 1 allies, while their greatest champion, Achilles, sulked in a tent. He would have stood helpless as he saw the supposedly invincible warrior die from a miraculous shot to the ankle. And he would have to bear the responsibility for the innocent women and children slaughtered when his own scheme of the Trojan horse allowed his comrades inside the city. Indeed, the suffering of the innocents in the city is deliberately invoked by the text when Odysseus breaks down at the memory of the war.
To make matters worse, Odysseus’s losses don’t end there. His crew, all fellow survivors of the war, die in horrific ways. Be it from being eaten by a cyclops to being struck down by the sun god Helios, Odysseus is the only survivor. But even before these traumatic events, Odysseus is irritable and cruel, blaming his men for things that are simple human folly. By the time he reaches Phaeacia, Odysseus isn’t even willing to reveal his identity to the friendly Phaeacians, paranoia having overtaken him. Compounding this is the patronage of the goddess Athena, whose two domains, wisdom and battle, are constant reminders of what Odysseus did in the Trojan war, and whose advice tends towards the violent, such as when she tells Odysseus he has to murder all the suitors, rather than, say, revealing he’s alive and kicking them out of his house.
Of course, PTSD is as much a problem in the modern era. Perhaps the most well-known cause in the modern American consciousness is the Vietnam War, and many awful accounts have returned from said war. In his book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brian describes things like peeling the remains of a fellow soldier off of a tree, or another soldier strapping a puppy to an antipersonnel mine and detonating it. And just as Odysseus was the popular image of the Trojan War hero, the Vietnam war hero has its own images in the popular consciousness. Perhaps one of the most well know is Rambo, who is wandering the world until he is forced off track by a malevolent outsider who triggers war flashbacks with his mistreatment of Rambo, resulting in violence. The similarities with Odysseus’s plight are obvious. The difference, though, are also worth mentioning. Odysseus is portrayed as a hero worthy of legend, a man who is something to strive to be like. John Rambo, however, is portrayed as a broken man who was forced to witness horrors, and barely came back to tell his tale. This is reflected in the ending of these stories as well. Where Odysseus comes home and does happily reunite with his wife, Rambo never finds what he was looking for and ends up arrested. This might be due to the differing views on war in the societies that produced these works. Ancient Greek society held a much more positive view on war and bloodshed, with warriors who could slaughter hundreds of men being lauded as heroes. Contemporary American society, however, holds a much different view on war, especially the Vietnam war, which was viewed by many as unnecessary and wasteful, and the brutal elimination of enemy combatants is not viewed as something to celebrate. Consequently, the veterans of these two societies would be viewed differently and portrayed differently in the arts produced by their societies. So why exactly, with all its risks known, were wars started? And why did people join in on these wars, when even surviving wasn’t without its downsides?
In the ancient Greek society, part of that can be attributed to the accolades given to famous warriors. But part of it can also be 3 attributed to the fact that in these wars, on fought side by side with royalty, kings like Agamemnon and Odysseus, and had just as much of a chance to receive the same spoils of war they did. And if the people who started the war were fighting right alongside you, then surely it was a cause that they felt was worth dying for! Vietnam, however, was fought because the United States government wanted to topple the current Vietnamese leader, and the people who fought were forced into it, drafted, while those who started the war sat back and watched as people died for them. It’s sad that, despite having known about its negative effects on the human psyche for so long, people still start and fight in wars. This is something that’s probably not going to change until people realize that nobody who goes into a war, crosses that border between civilian and warrior, comes back whole, and that sometimes coming back at all is less merciful than the other option.
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