After the Trojan war, Odysseus sets off on his journey back to Ithaca. He survives encounters with the Lotus Eaters and Sirens only to face another challenge: the homecoming. What can Homer’s epic poem tell us about how soldiers cope when conflicts end?
Last month, the 7th Armoured Brigade, the “Desert Rats”, arrived at Camp Bastion in Helmand: the last major deployment to Afghanistan before the UK pulls out its combat troops at the end of next year. Britain’s wars, for now, are coming to an end. But what does that ending mean for the soldiers coming home? David Finkel, author of Thank You for Your Service, a new account of the travails of the returning warrior, puts it brutally: it means coming “out of one war into another”.
Homer’s Iliad is the first and greatest poetic account of the first type of war. But it is the Odyssey that takes on the second kind: the war of the homecoming.
The Odyssey is a poem that we tend to remember as the hero’s colourful, salt-caked adventures on the high seas: his encounters with witches, nymphs and cyclopes, his journey to the land of the dead, his shrewd and quick-tongued and fast-witted outsmarting of the terrors in his path as he strives for a decade to reach his home after the sack of Troy. He drags his crew bodily away from the island where the inhabitants gorge themselves on the memory-wiping, pleasure-giving lotus; he withstands the ruinous song of the Sirens, who long to lure him to his death, by having himself lashed to the mast by his crew, whose ears he has stopped with wax; he outwits the glamorous enchantress Circe, who turns his men into pigs; he steers his ship between the maneating, many–headed Scylla and the deadly whirlpool Charybdis. He is the original unlikely survivor, the man who always struggles free of the car crash and walks clear of the wreckage as the flames curl out: the latest iteration of the type, which runs through storytelling from archaic Greece to Hollywood, is Sandra Bullock’s character in Alfonso Cuarón’s blockbuster, Gravity.
But, as Aristotle put it in the Poetics, these are “episodes”. The essence of the story is that of a veteran combatant who, after a long absence, must find his way back into a household he finds threatened by outside forces and dangerously altered.
He is at first unrecognisable to his wife (he has come back “a different person” – literally, in that he has disguised himself and assumed a false name, but military spouses will understand the metaphor of the warrior utterly changed by war). The necessary process of recognition and reintegration is accomplished, but only violently, painfully. And so the Odyssey speaks urgently to our times. It did, too, in the post-Vietnam era, when the psychologist Jonathan Shay, who worked with veterans of the conflict, used the epic in his book Odysseus in America as the overarching metaphor …read more