Achilles In Vietnam


Homer explores the significance of war in human affairs. The Iliad gives us the horror of combat in detail, which for most of us perhaps prompts antiwar sentiments. Yet the horrors of war in this epic are cloaked in the successes of war, the ennobling qualities of military splendor and glory for profit. The images of death and agony give way to Homer's poetic language; extended similes cast war and death as the brilliant and necessary reality of agrarian life. Suffering in war is the natural circumstance of humankind, metaphorically represented in Achilles' story in Book 24 of the two urns at the feet of Zeus. Sobering and horrific deeds of men are justified by a philosophy of war and a narrative of adventure. Warriors fight and kill each other in brutal ways, but the underlying premise of "war as necessity" is never authentically challenged. The process of waging war, however inhumane, provides the political inroad to male camaraderie and the development of a civil society. War provides an ideology of cohesion where the concept of Nation finds a meaningful shape in the community of cities, the polis, through the art of storytelling. According to Thuycidides, this ten year unity was an anomaly for the ancient Greeks as they resumed the same piracy and warfare against each other upon the return from the Troy. However, contemporary notions of Nation and political alliance continue to define the application of ethics; foreign policy develops rules about the treatment of people based on systems of unification, such as NATO, and therein ascribes versions of morality to consciously conceived categories of cohesion.

The Theme of Cohesion

In a currently unpublished website The Survey of the Combat Film, the author explains that the primary drama of the combat film is located in the attainment of the group's internal cohesion. In this way, the Iliad also establishes the central conflict to be resolved as "the corruption of leadership and the break down of cohesion," not only between Achilles and Agamemnon, but between these men and the entire Achaean army.

Achilles in Vietnam

Vietnam combat films such as Oliver Stone's 1986 Platoon demonstrate the violent polarization and hatred of, not so much the Vietcong, but of one's American comrades in arms. The phrase "Achilles in Vietnam" allegorically represents the breakdown of morality that accompanies the collapse of military leadership in the field. Achilles in Vietnam acknowledges thematics found in the Iliad; in Stone's Academy Award winning film, warriors also sell their own comrades down the river of death for private reasons. Excessive and pathological behavior becomes the status-quo of war gone wrong including the warlike frenzy of rage, part of the domain of Ares, the only son of Zeus and his wife Hera. The border between legitimized killing in combat and the illegitimate murder of civilians and soldiers blurs as the theme of cohesion is replaced by hubris, vengeance, and personal desire.

The Perspectives of War

Two characteristics of masculine points of view exist in Homer. Ordinary warriors are not part of the divine mythos between Achilles, his mother Thetis, and Zeus. The Olympian Leader is like a high-ranking general with tactical military stratagems in play that ordinary soldiers know nothing about, and that, in fact, may not be in the warriors' best interest.

We as readers are part of the divine mythos; we see the story from the soldier's perspective and the perspective of the omniscient narrator. We as readers know that many Greek warriors will die as Zeus empowers the Trojans in fulfillment of his secret promise to Thetis and Achilles. The Trojans will press the Greek army back to their ships in near collapse. This duality of perspective in war is part of the thematic concern in Stanley Kubrick's 1957 film Paths of Glory where the division between the men in the trenches (non-omniscient) and the high ranking generals running the war (for reasons of self-aggrandizement) is underscored as corruption. The final deleted scene in We Were Soldiers emphasizes this same gap.

Gender Roles in War

There is no military goal for mortal women in war stories. A woman's place in war is defined by the loss of her husband or son, rather than the need for active resistance to the enemy. Love is the defining motivation. Women are associated with life; warriors are associated with death. For the most part, women are at the mercy of male activity and so any gain in power is in the power to simply survive. In war films women are often placed on the margins. In WW II films, women can be nurses, the caregivers of the wounded ordinary soldier. Vietnam war films maintain a similar absence of women, with the exception of woman as enemy as in Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Full Metal Jacket.