A Warrior’s Heart

In a review of Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Elizabeth Schambelan contemplates notions of wartime masculinity and friendship:

The broadest political implications of Achilles in Vietnam lie in Shay’s powerful critique of MikeynBrianwhat 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.

(Photo of two-time Iraq War veteran Mikey Piro and his comrade-in-arms, Brian. Mikey did a podcast with me last year about his post-war experience with PTSD. Follow his blogging at PTSD Survivor Daily. The Dish has covered much of those writings here.)