Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Lessons from the classics

Generations of men are like the leaves.
winter, winds blow them down to earth,
but then, when spring season comes again,
budding wood grows more. And so with men--
one generation grows, another dies away.
--Iliad, 6, 181-185

The second powerful use of old ideas belonged to Jonathon Shay a psychiatrist who specializes in treating the psychological damage combat inflicts on soldiers and who just won a MacArthur. He began reading the epics while recovering from a stroke he had at 40. Through an inspired reading of Homer, Shay saw opportunities to draw lessons from ancient combat that were still relevant to contemporary military policy. (Here's an intriguing profile in the NYT from '03.) He recorded these initial observations in his first book on the subject, Achilles in Vietnam.

Chief among these very old ideas was the importance of trust. What Shay read in the epics and heard reflected in the comments from
soldiers was that the most psychological damaging aspect of warfare was the rupture of trust, whether through the perceived betrayal of a superior or being rotated in and out of combat as individuals rather than cohesive units. As obvious as it sounds, Shay pointed out how difficult i it was to go into combat with strangers. Unit cohesion was essential to an individual soldier's emotional and psychological stability in the face of combat's challenges. But Shay's advice, however obvious, has had a direct impact on changing policy even though they were contrary to traditional military efficiency.

The classics might not be telling us anything we haven't heard before. But they often articulate fundamental truths of the human experience so powerfully that they can remind us of what's important for a very long time.

These powerful articulations can also help goad us into action. Shay has described how contemporary soldiers identified with descriptions of combat in the classics, a fact which helped build Shay's credibility with soldiers and military leaders.

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