Psychiatrist Shay parallels modern war with classics

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay gestures while giving a speech entitled From Troy to Baghdad at the Levis Faculty Center on Thursday. Ben Cleary

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay gestures while giving a speech entitled “From Troy to Baghdad” at the Levis Faculty Center on Thursday. Ben Cleary

By Tatyana Safronova

On Thursday, a crowd took every available chair on the fourth floor of the Levis Faculty Center, 919 W. Illinois St., to hear the lecture “From Troy to Baghdad: Can modern officers learn from Homer’s epics?” by Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist in the Department of Veteran Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Boston.

Since 1987, many of Shay’s patients have been veterans of the Vietnam War. His work with them has made him realize what soldiers go through in the “overwhelming hideousness of war,” he said.

He said the experiences of the veterans reminded him of the story of Achilles, the hero in Homer’s “The Iliad.” Shay wrote his idea in a paper to help his colleagues better understand the veterans’ situations. After reading the paper, Gregory Nagy, a Classics professor at Harvard, suggested Shay expand it into a larger piece of work. Nagy said such a comparison has never been seen before, Shay said.

“I figured this was my one shot at immortality,” Shay said about being asked to write the book.

In the lecture, Shay discussed the lack of stability, ethical leadership and adequate training in the United States military.

He also drew parallels between the modern military and the heroes of Homeric literature, and described the lessons the literature taught current military leaders. For example, “The Iliad,” he said, emphasized the “importance of the moral structure of an army.”

The Classics Department sponsored Shay’s Wednesday and Thursday lectures throughout the University. He led a discussion Wednesday night in Allen Hall, 1005 W. Gregory Dr., about whether war is a part of human nature. He also gave an interview on WILL AM 580 and was a guest professor in Angeliki Tzanetou’s Homeric Greek class. After the lecture at the Levis Faculty Center, his final appearance was at Allen Hall where he showed the documentary “Achilles in Vietnam.” The film, created by Charles Berkowitz, was based on Shay’s book “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.”

Kirk Freudenburg, chair of the Classics Department, said the psychiatrist is making classical writings of the 8th century B.C. writer Homer timely.

“He saw it as something else,” Freudenburg said, referring to classical literature. “He saw things in that (literature) that could be helpful to him in his practice.”

However, Shay said he rarely applies Homer’s literature to his patients.

Nevertheless, Matt Rosenstein, associate director of Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security Program at the University, said it was important to address questions such as, “What are the impacts of conflict on human life?” It is also important to keep a dialogue open about the war in Iraq as well as other military operations all over the world, he said. The program co-sponsored Shay’s lectures.

69-year-old Iris Swanson, a local resident, said Shay drew great parallels between the Homer’s literature and today’s warfare. However, she said the lecture “just scratched the surface” of the shortcomings of today’s military. She said she feels that, like Odysseus who was unable to stop his leader Agamemnon from making leadership errors in “The Iliad,” today’s important figures like Colin Powell were unable to confront modern leaders in the face of their errors.