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Last month, the 7th Armoured Brigade, the "Desert Rats", arrived at Camp Bastion in Helmand: the last major deployment to Afghanistan before the UK pulls out its combat troops at the end of next year. Britain's wars, for now, are coming to an end. But what does that ending mean for the soldiers coming home? David Finkel, author of Thank You for Your Service, a new account of the travails of the returning warrior, puts it brutally: it means coming "out of one war into another".
Homer's Iliad is the first and greatest poetic account of the first type of war. But it is the Odyssey that takes on the second kind: the war of the homecoming.
The Odyssey is a poem that we tend to remember as the hero's colourful, salt-caked adventures on the high seas: his encounters with witches, nymphs and cyclopes, his journey to the land of the dead, his shrewd and quick-tongued and fast-witted outsmarting of the terrors in his path as he strives for a decade to reach his home after the sack of Troy. He drags his crew bodily away from the island where the inhabitants gorge themselves on the memory-wiping, pleasure-giving lotus; he withstands the ruinous song of the Sirens, who long to lure him to his death, by having himself lashed to the mast by his crew, whose ears he has stopped with wax; he outwits the glamorous enchantress Circe, who turns his men into pigs; he steers
his ship between the maneating, many–headed Scylla and the deadly whirlpool Charybdis. He is the original unlikely survivor, the man who always struggles free of the car crash and walks clear of the wreckage as the flames curl out: the latest iteration of the type, which runs through storytelling from archaic Greece to Hollywood, is Sandra Bullock's character in Alfonso Cuarón's blockbuster, Gravity.
But, as Aristotle put it in the Poetics, these are "episodes". The essence of the story is that of a veteran combatant who, after a long absence, must find his way back into a household he finds threatened by outside forces and dangerously altered.
He is at first unrecognisable to his wife (he has come back "a different person" –
literally, in that he has disguised himself and assumed a false name, but military
spouses will understand the metaphor of the warrior utterly changed by war). The
necessary process of recognition and reintegration is accomplished, but only
violently, painfully. And so the Odyssey speaks urgently to our times. It did, too,
in the post-Vietnam era, when the psychologist Jonathan Shay, who worked with
veterans of the conflict, used the epic in his book Odysseus in America as the
overarching metaphor for the postcombat warrior's psychic traumas.
The Odyssey invites us to ask: can soldiers ever, truly, return home? Will they
"recognise" their family, and vice versa? Can they survive not just the war itself,
but the war's aftermath? Will they, in some dread way, bring the war home with them?
The Odyssey says: you thought it was tough getting through the war. Now, see if you
can get through the nostos – the homecoming.
The invisible, interior wounds of veterans have long been recognised. Ben Shepard,
in his book A War of Nerves, has charted their diagnosis, from the "shell shock" of
the first world war to the "nerve problems" of the second, through to the naming of
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by American psychiatrists in the troubled
aftermath of Vietnam. It is now estimated that 20%-30% of the two million US
soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home with post-traumatic stress
disorder or traumatic brain injury (TBI). "Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory
problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war,"
Finkel writes, "and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have
created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans."
Sing to me, Muse, of that endlessly cunning man
who was blown off course to the ends of the earth, in the years
after he plundered Troy. He passed through the cities
of many people and learned how they thought, and he suffered
many bitter hardships upon the high seas
as he tried to save his own life and bring his companions
back to their home. But however bravely he struggled,
he could not rescue them, fools that they were – their own
recklessness brought disaster upon them all...
The first line of the Odyssey, here in Stephen Mitchell's newly published
translation, lands on "man": in the original Greek it is "andra" – man – that is the
very first word of the epic. The Odyssey is an intensely human story. It is
Odysseus' intelligence and above all, his capacity to endure, that finally sees him
reinstalled on his throne, reunited with his wife and son.
The poem is as full of twists and turns as the questing mind of its hero. Unlike the
Iliad, which is a straightforwardly linear narrative, telling of the rage of
Achilles and the killing of the Trojan prince Hector, the Odyssey is conveyed
through flashbacks and narratives-within-narratives, and in a range of exotic,
sometimes supernatural, locations. Along the poem's dizzying pathways we are
constantly reminded of what this story might have been if Odysseus' intelligence and
self-control had been a degree meaner.
In the first few books of the poem, there are frequent references to another
homecoming from Troy – that of the Greeks' victorious commander-in-chief, Agamemnon.
This story inserts itself again and again into the early passages of the Odyssey:
how Agamemnon came back to his kingdom, and how his wife Clytemnestra's lover,
Aegisthus, murdered him. And then how Orestes, Agamemnon's son, avenged his father
by killing both his mother and her lover. The insistent intrusion of this story into
the Odyssey fulfils twin roles. For Odysseus' son Telemachus, it acts as a prompt:
can the young man, unschooled in war, become the kind of hero that Orestes was – the
true son of his father? But it also works as a warning for all that might go wrong
for Odysseus. It tells us this: unless you play things right, you'll be destroyed at
home – even though you won the war.
Odysseus is no fool. He does not return to his kingdom ostentatiously, as Agamemnon
did. Fittingly for the warrior who invented the Trojan horse, who is skilled in
subterfuge and military intelligence, he sneaks in, disguised in rags. He goes not
to his own palace, but to the cottage of Eumaeus, a swineherd. He does not reveal
his identity, even to the loyal old man. Then, posing as a beggar, he slips into his
house, at once spying on the suitors who swarm around Penelope, and testing his wife
and household's loyalty.
Penelope is indeed strong and true: she has kept the suitors at bay for a decade. In
Finkel's book there is a heartrending story of a war widow who, though she keeps her
husband's ashes close, is at some level convinced he is alive and nearby, preparing
to come back home, but biding his time; she waits patiently, loyally. It is a kind
of inverse Penelope story; it reminds me of Zachary Mason's dazzling novel of
Homeric what-ifs, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which unwinds skeins of alternative
narratives, releasing counterstories as if they were somehow already implicit in the
epic (Odysseus returns to find his wife remarried, or dead; Achilles is a golem
fashioned by Odysseus, and so on).
What happens next in the Odyssey is this. Penelope, under increasing pressure to
choose a husband from among the suitors, sets them a challenge. Whoever can string
the great bow of Odysseus, left behind for 20 years, and shoot an arrow through the
12 axe heads that Telemachus sets out, shall win her as his bride.
In turn, the suitors try the task, and fail. Odysseus, wrapped in filthy rags, the
butt of the suitors' contempt, stands up to attempt the feat. Easily, he strings the
bow and flies an arrow, swift and shrill as a swallow, through the axe heads. Then,
without a beat, he takes another arrow and switches his aim to one of the suitors'
ringleaders, Antinous, who is tilting a goblet to his lips. Odysseus gets him right
through his exposed neck: in one side, out the other, and the blood fountains forth.
Then the bloodbath begins – or rather, a battle, the war brought literally home. The
remaining suitors get their hands on weapons. Odysseus, aided by Telemachus, engages
them. The father and son are vastly outnumbered: but they have a god on their side.
Athene, in human disguise, weighs in. Soon the great hall is a charnel house.
Afterwards, Telemachus orders the disloyal maids to clean up the bodies and the
gore. Then he takes them outside and hangs them. They twitch helplessly in their
death throes, like thrushes in a snare. Shay, in his Odysseus in America, reads the
episode as a kind of fantasy or wish fulfilment: it is warrior's rage vented on the
civilian who has stayed comfortably behind, an eye on his wife. In Finkel's book
there is a veteran who, after an injury, has no sensation or movement on his left
side. Out and about, he wears a specially printed T-shirt. On the front it reads:
"What have you done for your country?". On the back: "I took a bullet in the head
for mine" – a gesture of suppressed fury if ever there was one.
In the Odyssey, people tell each other stories about the war. Penelope hears the
bard Phemius singing about how the other Greek war leaders found their way home
after the sack of Troy, but she can't bear it and asks him to stop: it is too cruel
a song when her own man is still unaccounted for. When Telemachus, prompted by the
goddess Athene, leaves Ithaca and goes in search of his father, he arrives at the
court of Menelaus and Helen: Menelaus tells him the tale of Agamemnon's return, a
story so grievous that all of the listeners, each remembering his own war losses,
weeps. When Odysseus himself ends up in the land of the Phaeacians, his last
adventure before he finally reaches his homeland, he conceals his true identity.
Entertained at the royal court, he asks the blind bard, Demodocus, to sing of the
exploits of the Greeks at Troy. He does so (in the late Robert Fagles' translation):
but great Odysseus melted into tears,
running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks...
as a woman weeps, her arms flung round her darling husband,
a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen,
trying to beat the day of doom from home and children.
A US soldier embraces his girlfriend after arriving home from Iraq. Photograph:
John Moore/Getty Images
Thus the great warrior's remembered pain is made equal to that of the war widow.
Telling stories about the war is also one way of understanding the nature of Greek
tragedy, the art form that matured in Athens some 200 years after the Homeric epics
were written down. The earliest playwright whose works survive complete is
Aeschylus. His trilogy, the Oresteia, first performed in 458BC, is an expansion of
the story of Agamemnon's return, taking its cue from the Odyssey. Reading Homer, you
see how the poet opens the door to the tragic form – over half of the poem's lines
are in direct speech and the scenes that describe the performances by bards such as
Demodocus and Phemius suggest that epics would have been performed to an audience,
with music, as part of an evening's feasting and entertainment.
Like the Oresteia, many of the works of the tragedians are sequels or prequels to
the stories of the Trojan war, tying up the epics' loose ends, spiralling out from
their stories to go down narrative byways of their own making. Euripides' Iphigenia
in Aulis, for instance, tells the story of how Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter
to ensure a fair wind to set his fleet on course for Troy. His Trojan Women tells of
the fate of Hecuba and Andromache, enslaved after the war by the victorious Greeks.
In Sophocles' Ajax, the hero is enraged that the god-forged armour of (the now dead)
Achilles is bequeathed to Odysseus, not to him. He vows to kill the Greek leaders –
but is sent mad by Athene, and massacres livestock instead of men, before committing
It is no coincidence that this last drama has, over the past weeks, been staged in
London, rewritten for our times as Our Ajax by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Suicide is
now as threatening to soldiers as bombs and guns. Finkel's book includes an account
of a meeting of the Suicide Senior Review Group, a regular gathering of top US army
officers to examine the previous month's shattering litany of soldiers'
self-shootings, hangings, overdoses and plunges from bridges. A report published
this February by the Department of Veteran Affairs found that, in 2010, 22 US
veterans killed themselves every day, while in the UK more soldiers and veterans
killed themselves in 2012 than died in combat in Afghanistan.
The causes of war, the collateral damage of war, the ghastly aftermath of war, the
devastating impact of war on the self: this is Greek tragedy's stock in trade. The
first audiences of these plays were, too, steeped in war. In the 480s BC, Athens and
Sparta came together to head a small, shaky alliance of Greek city-states and
withstood an invasion by Persia – though not before Athens had been burned to the
ground, twice. In the years following the victory, Athens pursued a policy of
aggressive imperial expansion and overseas intervention, culminating in the outbreak
of the Peloponnesian war with Sparta in 431, which lasted, on and off, until 404.
Athens' army consisted of its citizens. None was untouched by war. Even that most
pacific of philosophers Socrates had served in the Athenian army and – we learn in
Plato's Symposium – saved the life of Alcibiades at the battle of Potidaea in 432
BC. The City Dionysia, the festival at which the plays were performed, included a
parade of the children whose fathers had been killed in combat. The playwrights
themselves were militarily embroiled, in one way or another: Aeschylus fought at
Salamis, the decisive naval battle of the Persian wars; his brother, according to
Herodotus, was killed in it. Sophocles took high office as a general. Euripides, it
was later claimed, was born on the day of the battle of Salamis itself, and his
plays have been interpreted as responses to the fraught, bloodsoaked events of the
war against Sparta: the civilian massacres, the grievous loss of men and morals.
Thus the tragedies provided a communitarian context for telling stories about
conflict and its effects. According to Edith Hall, professor of classics at King's
College London, this direct expertise gave Greek authors the ability to discuss "the
cost of war in terms of the mental health of combatants" with a "frankness and
sophistication from which we can learn a great deal in the third millennium". The
tragedians, she argues, were experts in what we would now term PTSD.
Exhibit A in this argument is Euripides' extraordinary play Heracles Mainomenos –
"Heracles Being Mad". Until about two thirds of the way through the drama, its
narrative is rather conventional. Heracles' wife, children and mortal father
Amphitryon (the man who brought him up, though the hero is the son of Zeus) live in
fear for their lives; their enemy is a usurping tyrant, Lycus. Heracles has been
absent, fighting and performing his 12 labours. Now he returns and, reunited with
his loving family, prepares to save the day.
Except a goddess called Lyssa appears and causes Heracles to lose his mind. The hero
turns on his wife and children, supposing them to be his foes. He uses his bow
against his first child, then clubs the next to death. As his wife tries to save the
third, he kills them both with a single arrow. The episode passes: Heracles becomes
aware of what he has done, and is utterly broken.
Who is Lyssa? She is madness. Not a generic madness, for Greek authors punctiliously
identified varieties of disordered minds. For example, the ecstatic mania sent by
Dionysus is different from the hallucinations sent by the Erinyes, the Furies who
torture Orestes after his matricide. Lyssa, according to Hall, is "personified
combat-craziness": the madness of the berserking soldier. Lyssa can, Hall has
written, "attack arbitrarily, force entry into the body even of a superhero, send
him into a wild state with physical symptoms of derangement, terrify him, wreck his
cognitive skills, and make him destroy the things he loves the most". Lyssa is
animalesque: she might be dog-faced, or likened to a snake-haired Gorgon. Unleash
the dogs of war, and you unleash Lyssa. When Heracles is sent mad by Lyssa, he
becomes "Gorgon-eyed" and "like a bull"; he "shakes his wild-eyed Gorgon face".
Poet Anne Carson's translation of part of one of Heracles' last speeches (in her
Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides) captures the link between the violence in
his heroic life (the labours, the wars) and its dreadful eruption into the home:
All those labours,
what can I say? Those lions.
Then the hydra with her hundred heads snapping.
And down to hell to get the threeheaded dog.
And now, absolutely last labour.
I kill my children.
I finish my house in evil.
There are uncanny and disturbing echoes of this kind of domestic fury in Finkel's
book. One wife keeps a secret diary of her husband's outbreaks of rage, charting how
a once polite and loving man descends into a screaming tyrant ("I'm going to break
every knuckle of your consciousness") before she flees their home with her child. Of
one veteran, he writes: "He has a young daughter who was in the family truck one day
when he all of a sudden went haywire, punched the rearview mirror, shattered the
windshield, grabbed [his wife] by the top of her head, shook her back and forth, and
screamed, 'I'm gonna fucking kill you.'" Another man chokes his wife in his sleep;
he wakes up and has no memory of the attack, but her neck is bruised and sore.
Long-enduring, ever-devising Odysseus manages to fulfil the last great quest, the
last labour that defeats even Heracles: he is able to return safely home. Penelope
is the key. She is his match: a woman of wiles, long-enduring, just like her
husband. In a ruse worthy of Odysseus himself, she tricks her suitors: she will make
a decision, she says, when she has finished weaving her father's shroud. Every day,
she weaves. And every night, she unravels.
After the massacre of the suitors, Odysseus reveals his identity to Penelope. But
she does not recognise him, yet – or feigns not to. Telemachus berates his mother –
how can you be so hardhearted, when he's been away for 20 years? Odysseus smiles.
Leave us alone together, he says.
Penelope orders the marital bed to be brought out on to the terrace. Odysseus is
furious. Who could move my bed, he asks. Impossible: it is carved from a living
olive tree. (A wonderful image: the marital bed that grows and lives, rooting down
through the house.) Now, at last, Penelope can truly believe it's him: no one else
on earth, aside from his old nurse Eurycleia, knew about that immovable olive-tree
Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel
when they catch sight of the land – Poseidon has struck
their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds
and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming,
struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore,
their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy
as they plant their feet on solid ground again,
spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her
the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze,
that her white arms, embracing his neck
would never for a moment let him go ...
So is Penelope's elation, in Fagles' translation, conjured. The poet likens her to a
shipwreck survivor, just as her husband has really been, over and over again. When a
tearful Odysseus was listening to Demodocus' stories of the Trojan war, his grief
was compared to that of a war-widowed woman who flings her arms around her fallen
husband. So are the experiences of these two, man and wife, intertwined, made the
same by the poet. There is recognition of the importance of this – the equality of
experience and of pain – among the long-enduring wives in Finkel's book. One in
particular identifies the possibility of healing in her husband's coming to see that
"he could tell her anything about the war, anything at all. That she wanted to hear
it. That she could take it."
At the end of the poem, Odysseus and Penelope go to bed, they loosen their limbs in
love, and tell each other stories about the war
By Charlotte Higgins. First published in the Guardian November 2012