“What it takes to survive war makes it so hard to survive living after war.”Angelina Stanford
I am currently reading The Odyssey in a class with Angelina Stanford of House of Humane Letters. The stories and books we are reading this school year all use the journey motif and have characters on an identity quest. The Odyssey tells the ridiculous story of a soldier taking 10 years to return home from war. Ah, but is it really ridiculous? Angelina told us in class last week that she has had several old soldiers tell her that it is not at all outlandish to say that it could take 10 years for a warrior to adjust to civilian life. This is what is happening to Odysseus on his tangled journey home. He is learning about who he is and what he needs to be in order to return to his life as a son, a husband, a father, and a king in a time of peace.
Most of it is about letting go. Letting go of the Warrior and the quest for Glory in victory. In the different episodes of the story, we see Odysseus (and his men, when he still had them) reacting like soldiers and suffering consequences for it. They have to learn that the rules of the battlefield are not the same as in the rest of life’s arenas. Vaunting, a part of the Warrior’s code of glory, where the victor will shout out his name and homeland, causes Odysseus a lot of grief when he reveals himself to the cyclops Polyphemus, son of Poseidon. Not good to make the god of the sea mad when you’re headed home by sea.
So just how hard is it for a soldier to stop being a soldier?
You’ve been trained and have consistently put into action — for years, at times — being on constant alert, being on the front line of defense, being the one expected to respond first. You knew who your comrades were, and that there definitely was an enemy and who that was. How does all that training work in civilian life? Odysseus and his men had spent 10 years in the war with Troy using as their battle tactic skirmishes with retreats to the beach. It had been their custom for 10 years. It doesn’t work out so well in a few of the episodes on their attempt to get home. They’ve got to stop thinking like soldiers. But how in the world do you get 10 years of the demand to think and act in this way out of your system?
And how do you get out of your memories the horrors that you saw? We used to call it shell-shock; now we have PTSD. I believe my WWII vet Dad had it. My Korean vet Uncle was treated for it pretty much up until his death in 2020 at the age of 92. The writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both served as soldiers and saw horrific things in the Great War (WWI). While in the trenches in France, Lewis saw his comrade next to him blown to bits by an exploding shell, which put shrapnel in Lewis’ own body, sending him home from the war. How do you get over the horror of seeing this happen, and knowing that the same shell that killed the man next to you saved your own life for the moment by sending you home and away from the battles? Understanding what Tolkien and Lewis did and saw in war brings much more meaning to their stories of Middle Earth and Narnia.
Somehow the blind poet Homer understood. He knew that there are things a human has to go through to learn about who he is, who he ought to be, and how to get there — and he understood that this is an especially hard task for a warrior. So he told his story over and over, and if we are really thinking and allowing our hearts and minds to be transformed, we become more understanding of and of more assistance to those soldiers coming Home. Even when Home and civilian life outlasts Warrior life by 60 or 70 years.