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Achilles in Vietnam and Peace Through Rehumanization

    Trigger warning: descriptions of graphic violence

    The cover of Jonathan Shay's 1994 work Achilles in Vietnam with the title: "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character". On it, a soldier with a bloodied bandage around his head moves towards an injured comrade lying covered in mud with his arms outstretched as another soldier tries to hold him back.

    In the early 1990s, Dr. Jonathan Shay was working as a clinical psychiatrist for the United States’ Department of Veterans Affairs in Boston. Much of his time was spent with a group of American combat veterans from the Vietnam War, and Shay sought to understand why so many of his patients had yet to recover psychologically from their experiences in combat nearly forty years since they last served in the armed forces. His work culminated in the publication of Achilles in Vietnam, which drew parallels between the narratives of American veterans in Vietnam and Homer’s Iliad. In particular, Shay identifies a key shared commonality between the writing of Homer and the experiences of American servicemembers in heavy, continuous combat: “moral injury” or the pain of moral transgressions stemming from a direct or indirect betrayal of “what’s right”.

    According to Shay, a major factor behind the severity of moral injury is the tendency among servicemembers to engage in dehumanization, an act which, despite facilitating the ability to overcome moral boundaries to the use of violence, risks painting one’s experiences in combat with “a pervasive sense of taint”. Restoring the dignity and honor of one’s adversaries is, therefore, essential (Shay argues) to the creation of an internal, moral peace for veterans: 

    “I asked C. [a patient who suffered hallucinations of a Vietnamese soldier he had killed] to tell me about the Vietnamese man. [C. and another soldier] were unloading the helicopter at one of their stops when ‘his Gook jumped out of the grass and cut off [the cherry’s] head’ with a burst from his AK-47. C. emptied the clip of his M-16 into the enemy soldier […] knocking him backward. ‘The fucking Gook was dead.’ A movement caught his eye and he turned as he slammed in another clip. When he turned back, the ‘dead’ man had gotten to his feet with his intestines hanging out and was bringing his weapon to bear on C., who emptied the second clip, partially severing his head. […] During the twenty years after discharge C.  [was] visited by the Vietnamese soldier during his family’s Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. I said, ‘honored guest!’ This barely considered remark struck the patient like an illumination. ‘Yeah, he was dead, but he got up anyway to get at me’. I commented that he himself had become such a determined soldier and would have probably done the same thing even when mortally wounded; and that this Vietnamese soldier was a worthy adversary […] Over the months that followed the patient reported that the hallucinated visits were less frequent and were no longer terrifying as they had been in the past.”

    Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam, 1994: p.115.

    My research into the search for internal peace amongst returning servicemembers highlighted the prevalence of dehumanization in narratives of moral injury. From the description of their Vietnamese adversaries as “gooks” to the use of terms such as “haji” by present-day Western troops to refer to individuals of Arab origin, the act of ascribing derogatory monikers and subhuman characteristics to one’s opponents is a defining feature of historical and contemporary conflict. On the surface, this process of dehumanization can serve to limit the effects of moral injury. Marine veteran John Musgrave, for instance, described recovering from the trauma of killing for the first time in combat by telling himself:  

    “I will never kill another human being as long as I’m in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can. I’ll wax as many dinks as I can find… but I ain’t going to kill anybody.” 

    John Musgrave cited in Janet McIntosh, ‘Because it’s easier to kill that way’: Dehumanizing epithets, militarized subjectivity, and American necropolitics, Language in Society 51, no. 2 (2021): p. 592

    It is this act of transforming subjects into objects that allows servicemembers to immediately reconcile deeply held personal values with the moral transgressions they may be forced to commit in combat. Though effective at abating the pain associated with these violations of individual conceptions of right and wrong, the use of dehumanization is also fraught with spiritual and psychological peril and can have the adverse effect of exacerbating moral injury in the long run. According to Shay’s research, the ability of servicemembers to recover their sense of integrity and self-respect in the aftermath of traumatic experiences relies heavily on their ability to view the conflict they engaged in as honorable. Such narrative constructions vital to internal peace, however, are incompatible with dehumanization since (in the words of one of Dr. Shay’s patients) a “war against sub-human vermin has no honor”. [1] As the narrative of Servicemember C. demonstrates, it was only by looking past the derogatory label of “gook” and viewing the Vietnamese man as a fellow soldier and adversary “worthy of honor” that the mental anguish associated with his actions was abated. 

    It is important to recognise the more problematic aspects of Shay’s analysis in Achilles in Vietnam. Though the process of rehumanization is indeed a vital step towards achieving internal peace following moral injury (as it is to wider intergroup reconciliation), Shay’s notion of the Servicemember C’s fallen Vietnamese enemy as a “worthy adversary” presents troubling implications as it attributes specific forms of conduct, namely the act of continuing to fight even when mortally wounded, as being ‘worthy’ or ‘noble’. In this narrative, the rehumanization of the Vietnamese soldier stems not from Servicemember C’s realization of the humanity and dignity inherent in his adversary but, rather, from the simple fact that his enemy behaved in a manner deemed to be exceptional in relation to widely held caricatures associated with Vietnamese troops. This is a very limited form of rehumanization, bound up with culturally specific notions of ‘heroism’ and identity that can be harmful and divisive, however much they may have helped Servicemember C re-visualise his adversary on this particular occasion. Healing the moral wounds of conflict requires servicemembers to visualize the humanity that all parties possess. For this process of rehumanization to truly reflect an understanding of one’s adversaries as being worthy of equal dignity and respect, it is imperative that participants of conflict engage in reflection that looks beyond the dehumanizing stereotypes associated with one’s adversaries as opposed to incidentally reinforcing them by labelling specific acts as being ‘worthy’ of rehumanization. 

    What Do You Think?

    • How does the concept of rehumanization fit into your understanding of post-conflict recovery, inner peace and peace-building? 
    • Can you think of any instances where efforts to construct peace (either at the personal level or the community/national level) were undermined by narratives of dehumanization? 
    • Are efforts aimed at achieving external peace possible without the belligerents of a conflict coming to terms with their own actions? 

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also like Story #1913, Journey for Forgiveness, Padre CSteve’s Christmas Journey, Moral Injury: Healing, Mother Night, and items with the tag ‘Personal Healing‘.

    Mathias Katsuya, April 2022

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