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Modern Soldiers From Ancient Texts

Physician Advising Army on Personnel Policy Takes Lessons From Homer

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page A25

What do the works of the Greek poet Homer have to do with the nitty-gritty details of personnel policy in today's U.S. Army?

Plenty, says Jonathan Shay. In fact, so much that the former assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, who has written two well-received books examining Homer as a chronicler of military men in "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," signed on this month as an adviser to the Army's personnel chief. Shay's task is far from literary. Rather, it is to help boost "cohesion" -- that is, the essential psychological glue that holds soldiers together -- in Army units.

"The point of fighting in a just cause is to win," says Jonathan Shay, just hired as an adviser to the Army's personnel chief. "The highest form of military skill is to win without killing." (Photo Rick Friedman )2004)

In Profile

Jonathan Shay

Title: Chair of ethics, leadership and personnel policy in the U.S. Army's Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Harvard University; graduate work in sociology, Columbia; medical degree, University of Pennsylvania; doctorate in neuropathology, University of Pennsylvania.

Age: 62.

Career highlights: Staff psychiatrist, Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic, Boston, 1987-present; assistant professor of pathology, Harvard Medical School, 1976-1977; neurosurgical assistant, Massachusetts General Hospital, 1972-1977.

Family: Married to a professional violinist; four children; three grandchildren.

Pastimes: Yoga, walks 2 1/2 miles a day.

Favorite books: Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus" and Martha C. Nussbaum's "The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy."

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It is a long way from ancient Troy to today's Pentagon. But Shay sees a direct line.

In his first book, "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character," he used Homer's account of combat in the Trojan War to examine the Vietnam War, and especially how poor leadership increased the trauma of many U.S. soldiers in that conflict. Shay's sequel, "Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming," reinterpreted Odysseus's troubled voyage back to Ithaca as a way of understanding the long and painful journey home of many combat veterans.

Through his work as counselor of Vietnam veterans, Shay has become a passionate advocate of the three things that he has concluded reduce the trauma of war on soldiers: keeping members of units together, giving them good leadership, and putting them through intense and realistic training.

"Cohesion, leadership and training -- each of these is a protective factor against psychological injury," he said. And together, "the synergism is enormous."

So, he said, he sees his one-year stint at the Pentagon as a work of "preventive psychiatry."

Signing on with the Army at age 62 may seem to be an odd career move for someone who is a veteran not of the armed forces but of three different Ivy League universities. Indeed, everything about Shay's background paints him as an unlikely candidate to advise the military: a beard-adorned, yoga-practicing resident of Newton, Mass., who describes himself as a "lifelong liberal Democrat, and proud of it."

But, he explains, 17 years of counseling Vietnam veterans at what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs transformed him from being a detached academic into a zealot for cohesion in U.S. military units.

"I am a physician with a fire in the belly for prevention of psychological injury in military service," Shay wrote in a summary of his work. "As such I am the missionary for the injured veterans whom I serve in the VA. They don't want other young kids to be wrecked the way they were wrecked." Indeed, to not abandon his patients, he is staying with the VA part time during his Pentagon tour.

His goal of cohesion is easily explained but harder to achieve, he said.

" 'Cohesion' is really about mutual trust," he said. "If you don't have mutual trust, you tend to burn up all your physical and emotional resources." For example, a soldier in the front lines who distrusts his comrades' ability to protect him from the enemy will not be able to sleep well. "If your gaze is directed inward -- 'Can I trust these guys?' -- then your cognitive resources are directed inward, when they should be directed outward, toward the enemy," Shay said.

The notion extends beyond small units such as squads and platoons. When subordinate commanders trust and understand their superiors, entire large divisions and corps become more militarily effective, he argued.

"Trust lubricates the friction of warfare," he said. "If every move in the chain of command has to be formally laid out, you are going to move slowly, and the enemy is going to move faster than you."

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