Category: Analysis

A Discussion of Chapter 2 from Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam

Shay’s second chapter starts off with a description of “social space” from the point-of-view of an American veteran soldier. In the beginning of his paragraph, Shay states, “The social horizon of the unscarred soldier encompasses not only his family and other civilian ties but also all those military formations to which his unit belongs and with which it cooperates” (23). When a soldier is betrayed by “what is right,” this “social space” eventually narrows down from a few people to one person in particular. Shay continually likens the experiences of veteran soldiers to that of the character Achilles from the epic The Iliad by Homer. He explains how Achilles’ moral values and good character were destroyed because of betrayal and has consequently resulted to Achilles’ loss of capacity to care for others. This concept was also very much applied during the Vietnam War, when soldiers underwent not only physical but also mental torture. Shay compares the enemy and the soldier to that of the relationship between master and slave, whoever dominates has more power. At the end of the chapter, Shay talks about the mentality of most veteran soldiers who went through the Vietnam War. The book writes, “‘Don’t mean nothin’ and ‘Fuck it,’ the Vietnam combat soldier’s mantras, spread out to engulf everything valued or wanted, every person, loyalty, and commitment” (38).

The Term “Moral Luck”

Shay proposed that the term “moral luck” referred to a situation where a good person becomes morally challenged due to bad circumstances. He writes, “Here the veterans grapple with the question of moral luck: Can any workings of bad luck produce cruel or evil actions in a good person?” (31). Shay implies that good people have “moral luck” when they respond with cruel or evil actions because of the workings of a certain situation.

Hedges, on the other hand, argues that war is not merely brought about by a situation but has to be viewed as it is, a “sensory reality” rather than a “mythic reality.” Wars, according to Hedges, boil down to politics and power. He states that, even through history, wars were not fought to protect cultures and religious beliefs. According to Hedges, wars are “born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetuated by fear, greed, and paranoia” (20). Hedges and Shay are similar in that they see war as an opportunity to terrorize, to instill mental trauma in order to emerge victorious over the enemy and maintain political power.

Experiences During the War

A Vietnam combat veteran himself, Tim O’Brien recounts his experiences during the war. He talked about the mental struggle of accepting the guilt behind their cruel actions and the trauma of watching his comrades die. Overall, Shay, Hedges and O’Brien’s writings depict how inhumane political wars are and how it affects the individual soldier particularly after the battle. Soldiers more often see their colleagues die; it takes away from them any sense of justice or reason. In the end, these soldiers kill without much thought, owing to the numbness that their disposition entails. The common denominator in all three authors is that these soldiers end up losing their own sense of morality. When they reach home, they become a whole new person, different from who they were before the war. Hedges summarily points out, “War never creates the security or the harmony we desire” (22).

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