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Beyond the Universal Soldier: Combat Trauma in Classical Antiquity

Jason Crowley

The Manchester Metropolitan University

This paper will explore the aftermath of battle and will challenge the conclusion reached by a number of scholars, that the experience of combat left many Greek warriors psychologically traumatised.

In particular, it will test the hypothesis that the soldier’s susceptibility to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or more correctly, combat stress injury, is universal. This view is approaching the status of dogma (Melchior 2001: 209-33; Shephard 2001: 385-99). It has been applied to 17th century China (Struve 2004: 14-31), Pepys’ diary (Daly 1983: 64-8), Shakespeare (MacNair 2002: 118-21), and ancient Greece (Shay 1995, 2002; Tritle 1997: 123-36, 2000: 64, 74-7, 123-36; Gabriel 2007: 12-15). Most worryingly, it is now accepted by leading clinicians involved in the treatment of psychologically injured soldiers (e.g. Nash 2004: 33-63; Spira, Pyne and Wiederhold 2004: 205-18; March and Greenberg 2004: 247-60).

Yet, despite its ubiquity, this hypothesis, which bases its claim for universality on evidence derived from ancient Greece, has neither been tested by historians nor properly established by its own proponents (Shay 1995, 2002; Tritle 1997: 123-36, 2000: 64, 74-7, 123-36; Gabriel 2007: 12-15). Rather, the methodology usually adopted by the universalists entails the search for supporting sources (typically Hdt. VI.117.2-3, IX.71.1-4; Gorg. Hel. 15-17; Xen. Anab. II.6.1-16), which appear to describe conduct that could conceivably fit the current diagnostic criteria for PTSD/CSI (currently embodied in DSM-V: 2013). Once identified, these sources are then are deployed in support of retrospective diagnoses; and while this approach is admirably direct, it inevitably produces subjective and (in Popperian terms) unfalsifiable readings of isolated pieces of ancient evidence.

To remedy this situation, this paper will re-examine the methodological basis of the universal position and subsequently argue that adverse psychological reactions to combat result from the interaction between a human being and his or her environment (Lazarus 2000: 39-64). This fact is critical, because neither variable is historically transcendental: the attitudes and beliefs adopted by combatants change, as does the socio-military environment in which they fight. Consequently, while the modern combatant and his or her socio-military environment combine to produce a susceptibility to PTSD/CSI, the very different and historically-specific combination that characterised Classical Greece could just as easily reduce, suppress, or even eliminate that susceptibility.

To investigate this possibility, this paper will contrast two combatants and their respective environments. Since the current diagnostic criteria for PTSD/CSI directly derives from the experiences of U.S. Vietnam veterans (Shephard 2001: 385-99), the first of these combatants has to be the 20th century American infantryman. The second combatant will be the Athenian hoplite, since the American infantryman’s adverse psychological reactions to combat have been retrospectively applied to ancient Greece (Shay 1995, 2002; Tritle 1997: 123-36, 2000: 64, 74-7, 123-36; Gabriel 2007: 12-15). Furthermore, the Athenian hoplite is one of the few warriors from classical antiquity for which a reasonable degree of evidence survives (cf. Crowley 2012). To maximise the force of the comparison and to avoid the charge that a modern apple is being compared to an ancient orange, these combatants have been chosen because they perform the same tactical role, i.e. it is their grim task to close with and kill the enemy.

To ensure methodological clarity, this paper will maintain an analytical distinction between the individual and his environment. Accordingly, examination of both the modern and ancient paradigms will focus on the combatant’s norms and values, since they determine what is or is not traumatic, as well as the three most pertinent aspects of the combatant’s environment, namely, the social environment, the tactical environment, and, finally, the technological environment. Thereafter, the susceptibility of both paradigms to PTSD/CSI will be assessed and then compared. Finally, this paper will conclude by considering the implications of this comparison for the continued viability of the universalist position.

In short, then, this paper seeks to determine whether susceptibility to combat stress injury is universal, or whether it is now time to look beyond the universal soldier.

Session/Panel Title

Learning from War: Greek Responses to Victory and Defeat

Session/Paper Number


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