June/July/Aug 2014

Hard Corps

Elizabeth Schambelan


ALL MEN MUST DIE. A few months ago, posters emblazoned with this slogan began cropping up around New York, auguring both the doom that is our mortal lot and the season premiere of Game of Thrones. Like all things related to Game of Thrones, the ads were embraced with great enthusiasm and a striking lack of irony. On Twitter, people carried on as if they’d never seen a sword-feathered, triple-eyed raven before (“totally awesome,” “very stirring,” etc.), while the baleful tagline was reproduced on T-shirts and Etsy handicrafts. But my own anticipation of springtime in Westeros was somewhat blunted by the posters, which set off a train of thought that meandered in disturbing directions. It went without saying that ALL MEN MUST DIE was not a random allusion to mortality—it was a warrior’s credo, a philosophy of mayhem. You’d understand that even if you’d never seen the show, and not only because of the raven’s heavy-metal plumage. You’d know it from the copy itself—its tone, its grim sangfroid, its flat, uninflected evocation of death’s impartiality. And it was this tone, and the attitude it implied, that was totally awesome—so totally awesome, evidently, that its pop-cultural expressions could be celebrated unselfconsciously, without even a pretense of snark.

Yet if equanimity in the face of danger is awesome, it may also be a symptom of an extreme and frightening pathology that, in Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, is called “berserking.” For Shay, a psychiatrist who in the 1980s and ’90s worked extensively with Vietnam veterans, the word has a precise and dire meaning. In Achilles in Vietnam, a groundbreaking investigation of post-traumatic stress disorder that sees the twentieth anniversary of its publication this year, he proposes berserking as the end stage of a process of traumatization and “moral ruin”—an etiology of PTSD that he illustrates with harrowing quotations from interviews with veterans. He also presents many passages from the Iliad, for it is his contention that this foundational work of war literature is a clinically accurate case study of combat trauma. Achilles’s epic wrath—the mênis famously invoked at the Iliad’s very beginning—is the affectless rage of the berserker, Shay argues. Hyperalert, numbed to hunger, pain, and fatigue by an unknown cocktail of adrenal hormones and endogenous opioids, berserk soldiers are prone to sensations of invincibility that some remember as “better than sex.” Their sole desire is to kill as many enemy combatants as possible, and their definition of “enemy combatant” is not necessarily rigorous. As one veteran in Shay’s book puts it, “They wanted fucking body count, so I gave them body count.”

While berserking as described in Achilles in Vietnam sounds something like a deranged exaggeration of machismo, it is probably much more accurate to say that machismo is a stylized performance of berserking. It’s not a coincidence that one of the more iconic fictional berserkers—Tom Berenger’s character in Platoon, Sergeant Barnes—is best remembered for what is quite possibly the most macho scene in cinematic history. The scene in question, of course, is the one in which Barnes shirtlessly proclaims, “I am reality,”before inviting six armed men to try to kill him. They decline, because, well, “Barnes has been shot seven times, and he ain’t dead.” In other words, he’s such a badass, he’s basically supernatural. Shay’s own term is “beast-god”—berserkers understand themselves to be both sub- and superhuman. Completely estranged from everyone and everything, including life itself, they do not become exercised at the prospect of death. For Barnes, mortality is a matter of supreme unconcern. “Everybody’s gotta die sometime,” he remarks, in unsympathetic response to a fearful fellow soldier. Achilles says much the same to a prisoner: “Come, friend, face your death, you too. And why are you so piteous about it? . . . You see, don’t you, how large I am, and how well made? . . . Yet death waits for me.” (He then thrusts his sword between the prisoner’s “neck and collarbone . . . up to the hilt.”)

You too: you, me, and everyone we know; all men, all women, whatever. Achilles in Vietnam posits a direct relationship between Everybody’s gotta die sometime and ALL MEN MUST DIE , which is to say, between the berserker’s ecumenical death drive and mythoheroic warrior machismo. Shay believes that a soldier who “routs the enemy singlehandedly”—or who displays what the Congressional Medal of Honor citation calls “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life”—is probably living on “the ambiguous borderline between heroism and a blood-crazed, berserk state in which abuse after abuse is committed.”

Shay does not attempt to justify the abuses and atrocities endemic to combat. But he refuses to allow readers to presume that they themselves could not commit such acts. We are prompted to wonder how well our own characters would withstand experiences like this:

Just as we were coming in I could see this NVA with his RPG pointed straight at me. . . . At the last second the NVA shifted his aim to my [copilot] and fired. . . . It sent a stream of flame right into my copilot’s chest, and it literally melted him. The smell was beyond imagination.

The circumstances that may trigger berserking, says Shay, are “betrayal, insult, or humiliation from a leader; death of a friend-in-arms; being wounded; being overrun, surrounded, or trapped; seeing dead comrades who have been mutilated by the enemy; and unexpected deliverance from certain death.” The helicopter pilot’s experience falls into this last category, and his reaction to it was exultation: “After that I knew I couldn’t be killed.” We may find this response appallingly callous, but, Shay emphasizes, the events that produce such callousness might happen to anyone, and will have the same effect on everyone: “The moral dimension of trauma destroys virtue, undoes good character.” The soldier who survives this destruction of virtue will return home debilitated by severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

The broadest political implications of Achilles in Vietnam lie in Shay’s powerful critique of what might be called martial masculinity. The entire book enacts this critique, but it is most explicit in Shay’s discussion of the intense bonds that often form between one soldier and another. “Combat calls forth a passion of care among men who fight beside each other that is comparable to the earliest and most deeply felt family relationships,” he observes. When Patroclus dies, Achilles no longer wants to live. To Shay, the age-old question of the pair’s relationship status is irrelevant: “Achilles’s grief . . . would not have been greater had they been a sexual couple, nor less if they had not been.” The failure to recognize “love between men that is so deeply felt” greatly amplifies the survivor’s pain. “If military practice tells soldiers that their emotions of love and grief—which are inseparable from their humanity—do not matter,” Shay writes, “then the civilian society that has sent them to fight . . . should not be shocked by their ‘inhumanity’ when they try to return to civilian life.”

In a recent interview, Kash Alvaro—an army veteran who served in Afghanistan and who has been diagnosed with both PTSD and a traumatic brain injury—alludes to the lingering, interlinked stigmas around the disorder and around masculine expressions of “love and grief.”

We’ve been through things that—that’s never going to leave your mind, and it’s always going to be there. . . . And just to come back and have someone tell you, “Oh . . . you’re just acting out. You’re just looking for sympathy,” and those people just don’t understand. Not everybody—I mean, if you have a strong heart, that’s good. That’s good. But there’s people in the world that don’t. You know, you lose somebody, and it’ll break you. . . . And if—you know, if I make it another year, two years, three years, I’m fine with that. If I make it ’til next week, I’m fine with that, too.

The irony that makes this statement all the more painful to read is that, even as Alvaro reels off a checklist of PTSD’s symptoms and triggers (intrusive memories, “acting out,” death of a close friend, parasuicidal fatalism), he seems to have internalized the notion that his post-traumatic stress could have been prevented by a “strong heart,” i.e., by the inhuman lack of feeling to which Shay refers. Readers may recall Alvaro’s name from David Philipps’s Pulitzer Prize–winning series of articles, for the Colorado Springs Gazette, on an epidemic of trumped-up “other-than-honorable” discharges. Philipps found that soldiers with PTSD were being cashiered for the most minor transgressions, losing their military benefits and health care forever. In the same interview, the journalist explains what this egregious mistreatment meant for Alvaro: “You kick out a 22-year-old kid who is having seizures regularly. He can’t work. He can’t get unemployment. He’s had no family to fall back on. And he’s homeless right now. . . . He has nothing. He has nothing at all.” The homeless, haunted, lavishly self-medicating Vietnam vet became a cliché long ago, codified alongside that other enduring trope: slo-mo footage of carnage in Indochina, with a classic-rock sound track. It’s tempting to speculate that sentimental portrayals of the former are an expiation of the guilt we feel about how much we like the latter. Between 275,000 and 875,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, and in the coming years we will be codifying the ways we represent both them and the wars they fought in—a prospect that raises ethical as well as aesthetic questions.

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A US Marine on guard in Watapoor village in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 2005.

In a well-known passage from The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes: “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue. . . . You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” This formulation sums up what would appear to be the consensus view of the ethics of art and war, and it is intuitively convincing—except that it is a moral instruction. It tells us to look to war literature to school ourselves in the evil of war. A true war story is a good war story, because it’s horrible; innocent, because it’s corrupt. This ultimately redemptive view overlooks the fact that war stories tend to make war look rather alluring—if not because of obscenity and evil, then not despite these qualities, either. There’s no need to fetishize war’s gruesome pyrotechnics, as the Futurists did, to respond to the stupendous exigency of combat, which, when translated into narrative, becomes a near-sublime sense of stakes that implies its own, treacherous moral: War neutralizes banality. When Isaac Babel briskly commences a story with the line “All the hits had caught Trunov in the face; his cheeks were riddled with wounds, his tongue torn out,” repulsion is overridden by a dark frisson. It often seems that the more brilliant the writer (e.g., Babel, Michael Herr), the more pronounced this imbalance, no matter how ingenious the author may also be at exposing war’s hideousness and stupidity.

What this frisson appears to stand in for, or burlesque, is terror. The crux of war is combat, and the crux of combat is terror. “If the emotion of terror is completely absent from the reader’s experience of this book, crucial information about the experience of combat is not getting through,” says Shay. But terror is everything that resists representation—it reduces existence to brute immanence. Language should fracture into gibberish and representation should fail in the face of combat’s grotesque literalism, and war literature should be an oxymoron, a self-canceling proposition. Representation itself can take us just far enough to glimpse this fact, and to appreciate, as if from a high promontory, the incredible gulf between terror and its depiction. Anything that purports to bridge that gap is not merely distorting but corrupting what it represents. And while it might be argued that all mimesis is travesty, some travesties are more outrageous than others.

As a work of meta–war literature, Achilles in Vietnam movingly dramatizes a distinction between documentary and fiction that in turn seems to allegorize the breach between war and war literature, actuality and art. Juxtaposed with fragments of the Iliad, the veterans’ anonymous contemporary voices become a vox populi, a temporal clamor representing every tragically mortal person who has fought in conflicts remembered and forgotten while this Bronze Age epic, like a celestial body, has pursued its serene arc through history. The poem is a great work of art that assays the waste and anguish of war with tremendous force and psychological acuity. But it is also a colossal paean to the most flamboyant ultraviolence imaginable, as over-the-top and as rife with gaudy incident as Game of Thrones. There’s no point denying the appeal of the Iliad’s sanguinary glories, and no point trying to recuperate some war stories as true, when none of them really are: All, by definition, constitute more or less outrageous distortions. Yet it is only through such prisms that those of us who have never been in combat can do the work of empathy that Shay’s impassioned, persuasive book proposes as a political obligation—only in this way can we approach, even asymptotically, an understanding of what Alvaro refers to as the thing “that’s never going to leave your mind, and it’s always going to be there.” That thing actually exists—not as a trope, not in the realm of fiction or epic—and by virtue of that existence obliges us to grapple with the intractable problem of its representation. This problem might be what Barnes is getting at in his most celebrated line. He could mean there’s nothing left of him but reality, in the sense of blank thingness—that everything else, all meaning and memory, everything that extends a self beyond the infinitesimal present, has been subtracted by the totalitarian immediacy of terror, which turns those it damages into avatars of itself. It’s curious that such an abject claim might also be a swaggering boast (indeed, a paraphrase of I am that I am, the most swaggering boast of all), and that we are compelled to incarnate such devastated figures in such alluringly minatory forms. Equally curious is the paradox inherent in this affirmation of a redundant beast-god ontology. I am reality: a terrifying fact we can hear only when it’s spoken as fiction.

Elizabeth Schambelan is a senior editor of Artforum.

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