Monday, February 16, 2009


Michael B. Cosmopoulos (ed.), Experiencing War: Trauma and Society from Ancient Greece to the Iraq War. Chicago: Ares Publishers, 2007. Pp. v, 288. ISBN 0890056064978. $25.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Heather Sebo, The University of Melbourne (

Table of Contents

This volume of ten essays derives from the conference, "Achilles in Iraq: War and Peace in Ancient Greece and Today", held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in April 2004. A sense of mission, which no doubt reflects the atmosphere of the conference, is palpable in the present volume, which editor Michael Cosmopoulos describes as, "a contribution towards raising awareness about and promoting understanding of the catastrophic impact" of war and violence "on our individual and collective lives" (1). Contributors are passionate about the fact that the lives and well-being of young soldiers depend upon the votes of a civilian population that is often ignorant of, or apathetic about, the realities of (and reasons for and against) war. Specifically, the collection aims to use ancient Greek understandings to think about "the ways in which war affects our lives at the personal, social, and political level" (3). It draws on a diversity of expertise--from eminent scholars in the field of ancient Greek and Roman warfare, to non-classicist academics, to practitioners whose primary commitment is to the prevention and treatment of psychological injury in American soldiers.

It must be said that the topics covered do not accord with the brief as Cosmopoulos states it, or with the promise of the title. As a glance at the table of contents will confirm, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on army personnel and the conduct of war: five chapters (4, 5, 6, 7, 9) deal with combat experience (this includes Col. Westhusing's chapter on the moral stance of the ideal American warrior), five chapters (3, 7, 8, 9, 10) with the causes of psychologically disabling combat trauma (with some overlap between the two groups), and two chapters (8,10) specifically with its proper treatment and prevention. The remaining chapters (1, 2) are concerned with the American public's ignorance of the realities of war and the kinds of rhetorical appeal which won support for the invasion of Iraq. Important though these issues are, they do not constitute a consideration of the impact of war on "our individual and collective lives". For instance, there is no mention of the economic, environmental, and social costs of war, or the strain on communities and individuals of coping long-term with traumatized and/or disabled family members, or the continuing danger to civilians posed by the lethal debris of modern war. A brief account of individual chapters follows.

Thomas Palaima ("Civilian Knowledge of War and Violence in Ancient Athens and Modern America") contrasts the American culture of censorship and media "spin" with the unflinching truth of Homeric depiction of death in combat or Euripides' confronting portrayal in Trojan Women of the consequences of defeat for a civilian population. He observes that in fifth-century Athens, where military service was universal for all adult males, no one was exempt from the sacrifices and suffering of war.

Palaima also offers a detailed discussion of the dishonestly sentimentalizing media accounts of the death of 2nd. Lt. Therrel 'Shane' Childers, the first US casualty in Iraq. However, he represents the annual state funeral ceremonies held in Athens for the war dead as an honest acknowledgement of casualties rather than, as I suggest, the vehicle for a similar kind of spin. The funeral oration customary on these occasions, the epitaphios logos, is famously concerned with the heroization of the warrior dead and the glorification of the state in a way perhaps reminiscent of the media and government establishment culture he critiques so powerfully.

Moon and Collins ("Moving the State to War") compare Thucydides' account of the debate between Alcibiades and Nicias over whether Athens should invade Sicily (215 BCE) with the differing approaches of George W. Bush, the US Congress, and the UN in the dispute over pre-emptive war against Iraq (2002-03 CE). Their comparison is loosely informed by Aristotle's analysis in On Rhetoric of the principles of successful political persuasion and the role of emotion in the formation of rational judgements. The authors conclude that in both cases rationally inferior arguments were successful because they were coupled with emotionally powerful appeals; in fifth century Athens, to shame and patriotism and in modern America, to fear and patriotism. Possibly because too much is attempted in too short a space, the language of this piece is frustratingly woolly, for instance, a speech that relies on "empirical" evidence is described as a "logical proof" (46); "logical" is used as synonymous with "rational" (51, 54, 55) and "proof" as synonymous with "argument" (55). There are also editing issues, for instance, one reads "passivity" where sense demands a word like "energy" (39), "ignorance" for "innocence" (49), "insure" for "ensure" (50).

Nadejda Popov ("The Place of Soldier Speeches in a Democracy at War. Aeschylus and Michael Moore") compares the Messenger's tale, at Agamemnon 551-82, of his suffering at Troy with the complaints of soldiers in Iraq compiled by Michael Moore in Will They Ever Trust Us Again? Letters from the War Zone.1 This is potentially an interesting discussion, especially as the Messenger's account of the siege conforms to fifth-century, rather than Homeric, practise and (as Popov notes) probably alludes to the contemporary Egyptian campaigns. Unfortunately, instead of allowing the telling similarities in soldiers' experience to emerge in full acknowledgement of the patent disparity between the two "texts", the author spends a great deal of time attempting to demonstrate that the "texts" themselves (she persists in calling them "case studies") are equivalent. Thus, for instance, in Popov's view, Moore's edited collection of emails and letters (with introduction) is "in many ways a literary creation" which, in the (entirely hypothetical) circumstance that it were ever made into a documentary film, would be comparable to Aeschylus' thirty line passage (from the Messenger's 160 line, three-part speech), even in terms of "performance...dimension" (64).

Popov's claim that Aeschylus' dual "purpose" in lines 551-82 was to convince the Athenians not to go to war with Sparta and not to maintain their empire is questionable in its implication that a conception of Athenian empire existed in 458 BCE and indefensible in its assertion of authorial intention (75).2 In her view, Aeschylus' "goal" is analogous to Moore's attempt to influence the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. With similar imprecision, Popov construes Odysseus' silencing of Thersites at Iliad 2.225-42 as evidence for censorship of soldier speech in democratic fifth century Athens and as equivalent to the modern punishment of court marshal for public criticism by soldiers of the military in times of war. The essay is also marred by infelicities of language, as for example, "amount of the similarities" (63), feelings "hinted upon" (72), soldiers letters "eradiate a uniform message" (75).

Kurt Raaflaub's discussion ("Homer and Thucydides on Peace and Just War") is informed by the tragic observation that peace movements tend to fail. His teasing out of the complex factors that work against arbitration between opposing armies in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and Homer's Iliad emphasizes that, ironically, men are spurred to fight by the notion of "just war", by the belief that they are in the right. Less idealistically, men also fight if they believe they can win. Raaflaub observes that the "deep yearning" of the rank and file of both Greeks and Trojans for peace in the Iliad does not lead to an end to fighting and, even more sobering, that the eloquent opposition to war mounted by comic and tragic playwrights in fifth century Athens failed to influence the political decisions of their audiences. His essay leaves the reader with a certain hopelessness about the possibility of peace.

Friend ("The Notion of a Fair Fight in Ancient Greece and in Modern Warfare") contrasts the Greek hoplite ideal of the disciplined phalanx, hand-to-hand combat, and all-out decisive battle with the attritional, or guerrilla, approach to war in which individuals do not scruple to retreat and the aim is to wear down the enemy. Friend emphasizes the continuities between the values of ancient Greek and modern soldiers, especially their common admiration for an enemy who "fights by the rules". However, the author appears far too invested in the honour codes he describes and, finally, to betray a serious lack of objectivity when he writes of the Viet Cong guerrilla: "He uses cowardly tactics and tries to avoid battle. Just as the Greek hoplite despised light troops because their refused to stand their ground, the modern soldier hates guerrillas for the same reason" (113). One cannot help but wonder how fair a fight can be if one side is hopelessly outmatched by the other in weaponry and war technology.

Col. Ted Westhusing's lengthy contribution ("The American Warrior. Winning the Nation's Wars, for 'This We Will Defend'") is included, almost unedited, in respectful tribute to his memory. The essay is a patriotic statement of the moral attitude of an ideally "virtuous" American warrior. Westhusing's major concern is to define an ethical standpoint from which a warrior may violate societies' injunction against the taking of life, and be the most effective possible fighter, without relinquishing self-respect and humanity. In his view, this involves management of the passions and natural selfishness through the education of reason, exhaustive physical training, embracing of "communally sanctioned Law", and ability to see the integrity of unfamiliar social structures. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, Westhusing's high minded idealism is belied by the contemporary and historical real world information so abundantly provided by Tritle, Matsakis, and Chrissanthos.

Lawrence Tritle ("Two Armies in Iraq: Tommy Franks in the Footsteps of Alexander the Great") tellingly compares the ongoing American led invasion of Iraq with Alexander's lightning swift conquest in 325 BCE. He demonstrates that after the conquest of Babylon/Bagdad Alexander quashed the early stages of a widespread insurgency similar to that which has proved crippling for the US and her allies. He writes of the suffering and large casualties in the civilian population past and present.

Tritle also focuses on the brutalizing and desensitizing effect on soldiers of prolonged military campaigning and the unspeakable terror of constant exposure to violent death. He proposes that the "explosion of conspiracies, imagined or other, that emerge in the sources" is evidence that Alexander himself was suffering from the paranoia and distortion of judgement symptomatic of PTSD (179). Tritle concludes by detailing the statistics for PTSD, depression, and suicide in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, concluding that American troops "are experiencing the same sort of trauma that Alexander and his army found there, and has been the case in every war since" (183).

Matsakis ("Three Faces of Post-traumatic Stress: Ares, Hercules, and Hephaestus") claims that these three mythic figures are psychic models which can provide new insights into post-traumatic stress. (The author gives Ares and Hephaestus their Greek names, but uses the Roman form Hercules and makes no category distinction between the gods and the hero.) Matsakis' concern is with the treatment of PTSD, especially in veterans, and I am willing to accept that her approach may make for effective therapy. But her version of Greek myth is entirely a therapist's artefact and is in no sense a dialogue with ancient understandings. Matsakis takes no account of the contexts for the stories she chooses to tell, of the complexities of cultural difference, or of the wider intellectual discussion about the nature of myth. She writes as though Ares, Hercules, and Hephaestus were historical people with psychological autonomy and personal agency. She tells us that Heracles' "gluttony", "binge drinking", and sexual promiscuity are "motivated by guilt" but that Hephaestus, who suffers from "depression, rage and self-loathing" as a result of parental abuse and rejection, is able to find an "outlet" in his creative work and make "a positive contribution to society" (197, 212, 221). She claims (without any sense of incongruity) that Ares becomes the god of war largely because of "being confined in a bottle for thirteen months as a toddler" (201).

Chrissanthos' material ("Aeneas in Iraq: Comparing The Roman And Modern Battle Experience") is similar to Tritle's (above). He compares the experiences of soldiers from WWI through to Vietnam with their counterparts in Caesar's Roman campaigns (an exception to the volume's focus on Greece). Chrissanthos links the unspecified illnesses that afflicted Caesar's "'whole' army" with the psychological and physical malaise typically suffered by modern soldiers during and after active service (238). He broaches the issue of alcohol and drugs abuse, the practise of self-harm and, at the other end of the spectrum, the perpetration of atrocities on those perceived to be the enemy. Chrissanthos discusses desertion, mutiny, combat refusal, and even the murder of "incompetent or ineffective superiors" (245). He also notes the phenomenon, then and now, of veteran movements for peace, as an entirely positive and constructive manifestation of battle trauma.

Jonathan Shay ("Homer's Leaders in American Forces: Leadership and Prevention of Psychological and Moral Injury"), a psychologist and advocate for the America's servicemen and women, takes the view that, if we cannot abolish war, the next best way to reduce psychological injury in soldiers after combat--he rejects the term PTSD--is to establish a culture of trust, especially between service members and their leaders (272). By way of illustration, Shay compares the leadership styles of Achilleus, Agamemnon, and Odysseus in the Iliad and Odyssey. Shay's account clearly has direct application to American military practice, but this unapologetically didactic purpose leads him to simplify and shift the emphasis of the Homeric portrayals. Ignoring Achilles' tragic indecisiveness, he describes him as a blunt, truthful leader who cares for the men and who, if he had lived, would have brought most of them "home alive and in good heart" (265). Conflating the somewhat different portrayals of Odysseus in the Iliad and Odyssey, Shay represents him as, by contrast, one who habitually lies to his men, will take them into danger for personal gain, and brings no one home alive. Finally, Agamemnon, the Commander-in-Chief, the "almost perfectly bad leader", will take no responsibility for his failure effectively to blockade Troy, violates the armies' "moral order" by refusing to ransom Chryseis, and publicly humiliates Achilleus (266). Shay interprets the stampede for the ships that follows Agamemnon's trial of the armies' loyalty as a predictable loss of morale resulting from this betrayal of "'what's right'" (264).

Apart from its narrowness of scope, my other criticisms of the collection are, first, that contributors do not acknowledge the obvious differences between ancient and modern war technology; that we moderns have far greater destructive capacity, that modern war has a global impact, and that the stakes are perhaps as high as the ultimate survival of humanity. A second, related, regret--as my comments on individual chapters have no doubt indicated--is that many contributions look for exact matches, or, equally misleading, straightforward contrasts, between the ancient material and modern American cultural templates. Too few chapters rise to the opportunity genuinely to "think with" the complexity, otherness, and nuance of the ancient material and thereby to arrive at truly surprising, even paradigm shifting, insights.


1. M. Moore. Will They Ever Trust Us Again? Letters from the War Zone. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2004.

2. For the difficulties associated with the term "empire" in the context of fifth century Athens--and of determining when Athens may be said to lead an empire rather than an alliance, see: P. Low (ed.), The Athenian Empire. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. Heather Sebo does a good job of giving readers of BMCR a sense of the passion that the participants in Michael Cosmopoulos' "Achilles in Iraq" conference felt in April 2004 about the issues we were discussing. She also does a good job summarizing the main points of the individual contributions and adds many good insights of her own.

    To what extent her two general criticisms are valid--namely that (1) we ten contributors looked for parallels and contrasts without "thinking with" (her quotation marks) the otherness of the ancient experience in order to arrive at paradigm-shifting insights; and (2) we did not acknowledge the advances in modern technology that give modern warfare far more destructive power and raise the stakes to a global level and even threaten humanity itself--should be up to readers of the individual chapters to decide.

    I wish to make four points here.

    Although I think many of the participants would agree with me, I had best say that in my opinion we were at the conference commenting on the experience of soldiers on the ground in Iraq. As I have argued in an earlier article on Homer and firsthand Vietnam literature, Classical and Modern Literature 20/3 (2000) 1-22, and as Jonathan Shay and Larry Tritle have argued elsewhere, the experience of war for modern infantry soldiers, even when we can bring awesome mechanized destructive power to bear, has much in common with the experience of ancient Greek hoplites. Ancient and modern soldiers on the ground experience similar psychological stresses and suffer similar psychological damage.

    Second, it was not our mandate to discuss the differences between modern and ancient warfare in general terms. The stakes of warfare have changed significantly since World War I brought gas, airplanes, tanks, machine guns, barbed wire, and World War II added firebombs capable of incinerating cities and their populations and atomic bombs doing like damage with one detonation. The conference and subsequent volume were focused on the experience of war in Iraq, where, as we now know, WMD's did not exist, even though the 43rd president thought it was amusing to look for them in his oval office.

    Third, in my own contribution, my point in bringing up (1) the universal service of Athenian males, (2) the large numbers of men needed for campaigning from 480 BCE down to the Sicilian expedition and beyond, (3) the remarkable fact of Aristophanic comedies and Athenian tragedies like the Trojan Women being performed during the war (in contrast to the lack of any movies about Vietnam--with the exception of "The Green Berets"--until after the fall of Saigon), and (4) the mere fact of public funerals with carts of the dead was to contrast those features of 5th-century warfare with (4) the generally accepted prohibition, during our Presidential-Use-of-Armed-Force-in-Iraq, of even showing photos of flag-draped coffins, with (2 and 1) the all-volunteer reduced-size army that leaves most American males and their families completely detached from the consequences of war, and with (3) the jingoism that at that point in the Presidential-Use-of-Armed-Force in Iraq had successfully kept Hollywood from producing films that would bring the truth of the war home to the American public.

    To discuss Pericles' funeral speech, which any reader of Thucydides knows, from the contrast with the account of the plague and Pericles' brutally frank 'last speech', is an exercise in Churchillian or FDR spin was not necessary and not in my brief. Failure to address something obvious does not mean that one does not recognize the obvious. It often means that one trusts readers to know the obvious.

    Fourth, it should be noted as my final words here that Michael Cosmopoulos dedicated the volume to Ted Westhusing who died in Iraq in June 2005 in circumstances that make it clear why there is a need for volumes like this that may 'heat up the story', as Tim O'Brien would put it, in order to communicate truths that are not less true because they are so humanly grotesque and so constant through the centuries as to resist paradigm shifting and to make the search for nuances as sacrilegious as Bush's comic-skit search for WMD's.

    Tom Palaima
    1 University station C3400
    Austin, TX 78712-0308


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