A Conversation with Samuel V. Wilson on Homer's Odyssey and Coming Home from War, Part I

By Dr. James A. Arieti, Thompson Professor of Classics

Retired Lt. Gen. Samuel V. WilsonIn the spring of 2006, Dr. James A. Arieti was teaching Homer’s Odyssey in an advanced class in ancient Greek and in “Humanism in Antiquity,” an intellectual history of the classical world. He invited Hampden-Sydney President Emeritus and retired Lt. Gen. Samuel V. Wilson to talk to a combined session of these classes on Homer’s subject— the challenges to a soldier returning home from a foreign war—drawing on his own experiences as a veteran of three wars and on the experiences of others. The script recently surfaced thanks to Arieti, who was able to transcribe and refine the material from a poor-quality recording. What follows is the first of a two-part series of those discussions.


One of the advantages of small liberal arts colleges such as Hampden-Sydney is that professors are not sequestered with members of their own departments in separate buildings, but are sometimes all mixed together, with the natural result that their education in an array of subjects continues throughout their working careers. Proximity fosters a creative interaction of persons from different academic fields.

I am housed in Maples—a small brick Victorian building, once the home of a private family—just east of the Walter M. Bortz Library. In 2006, Maples accommodated the offices of about twelve members of the faculty from an array of departments: classics, political science (now called “government and foreign affairs”), history, English, and religion. After General Samuel V. Wilson retired from his presidency of the College in 2000, his office was just a couple of doors down the hall from mine. Maples lacked the proverbial “office cooler” of commercial businesses; nevertheless, its coziness encouraged many office cooler conversations. Wilson’s visit to my classes to talk about the Odyssey was the result of one such discussion.

Homer’s Iliad tells a particular story from the Trojan War—the cause and consequences of the anger of one man, Achilles; the Odyssey treats the return of one soldier, Odysseus, from that war. Yet these poems encapsulate the experience of soldiers in all wars, depicting the emotional damage caused by combat, by the exhilaration of vanquishing an enemy and the anguish of watching friends die in harrowing pain; they are about the longing for home and the tribulations of families and cities left behind; and they are about the mourning for loved ones who have died, whether their deaths were heroic or entirely devoid of redemptive worth. For all their depiction of martial valor, courage, endurance, self-sacrifice, brutality, and ruthlessness, the Homeric epics neither glorify nor disdain war, treating it as a fact of human life. They do not look forward to a messianic age in which enemies lie down together, nor do they depict a world totally without the interchange of pacts and truces between the combatants. Conditions like “post traumatic stress syndrome” and “survivor guilt,” which acquired official names only in the twentieth century, are abundantly evident in the poems now that we know what to look for and can label the symptoms and observe the effects with modern-day tools of interpretation. In what follows, Wilson tackles many of these issues, abstractly and in the context of his own experiences.

Everyone who knows Wilson knows what a deeply moral, thoughtful, compassionate, and sensitive person he is. They also know that he is a first-class raconteur. In the seven decades since his valiant part in World War II, he has reflected on his experiences every day. This transcript offers a sample.

The Discussion

SVW: Coming home, for the soldier, is an intensely emotional experience. But you have to be careful how you generalize that experience. I’ve gone through your questions, and my first response would be— with some care—to generalize the answers. You only have to break them down because it is a complex subject. I’ll tell you why I said “complex.” This overall phenomenon of homecoming from war is influenced greatly by the kind of war the soldier is coming home from and the attitude of the people at home toward the war. For example, World War II was a popular war. It was one that was visited upon us by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So the public in general was very much behind this effort, as we had been attacked savagely, and we were defending ourselves. So when the war was successfully concluded, a little less than four years later, the people coming home were welcomed, generally, as conquering heroes. There were parades and celebrations. I remember it all well as a veteran of World War II. 

Soldiers who came home from the Korean experience found that the public was a bit divided in its attitude toward that war, its necessity and how it turned out, and the fact that it was not concluded with a decisive victory, but how it ended at a draw at Panmunjom, on the thirty-eighth parallel. So soldiers came home quietly from the war to a welcome mostly from their families. There were few parades. Homecoming was not the event that it was coming home from World War II.

Odysseus Hampden Sydney

The Vietnam War, on the other hand, was a very controversial and unpopular war, and it became increasingly unpopular as it went on. Soldiers did not go there and come back in units. For the most part, they went as individual replacements. Soldiers returning from Vietnam and getting off the plane in San Francisco, Washington, Los Angeles, would encounter demonstrators screaming at them and shouting epithets at them, calling them baby-killers and literally spitting in their faces—an entirely different kind of homecoming.

The other thing that complicates commenting on how people feel about coming home from war—how they received the attitudes, the overall mix of emotional responses—is influenced by the kind of role the warrior played in that war. I’ll break it down into three categories:

The front line soldier, the man who sees the enemy over his rifle sights—the man who looks into the mouth of the bear. He’s one individual who returns with a certain set of emotional factors in his make-up.

Then there is what we call the combat support soldier, the artilleryman, the quartermaster, the signal corps, the others, who are immediately behind the front line but who provide vital services at some risk to themselves in order that that combat rifleman or machine gunner out front can be successful and be sustained. They may go through their part of the war and only hear the sounds of battle and only see the evidence of its immediate aftermath. Nonetheless, they fill supporting roles, which means that few of them will come back with combat decorations and purple hearts for wounds and so on.

The third category we front-liners call somewhat pejoratively the “rear echelon commando.” These are the individuals back around rear command posts and base headquarters who work where supplies are coming in, in hospitals and offices, and so on, who are so far away from the war they don’t hear its sounds, they seldom see the planes, and so on. They are in the quiet area deep in the rear. That man, when he comes home, is carrying a different set of feelings than the man who’s been out there actually under fire. That man from the rear area, incidentally, is the most likely to tell you the wild tales: “And there I was, and this is what happened to me.” Sometimes you find that individual feels the need to prove that he was over there, and when he comes home he doesn’t have much in the ways of ribbons, and he needs he was in a great deal of to prove that in fact danger, that he killed a lot of the enemy, that he’s really a hero but never got credit for it— that kind of thing. What I’m trying to say is, as you raise a question, recognize that I’ve just touched on some of the influencing factors that deserve consideration when I respond to your questions. 

I don’t think I’ll talk any longer, Jim, but I’ll try to respond to your questions.

JAA: I should say that concerning some of these matters the Trojan War doesn’t fit into the category of World War II. The Trojan War was probably a very unpopular war. The soldiers, even in battle, asked themselves, ‘Why are we fighting this war? Just to get Helen back for somebody else? This must be one of the most worthless wars in the history of warfare!”

SVW: Absolutely! Absolutely!

JAA: And so worthless was it that there were stories floating around in ancient Greece that “well, Helen wasn’t around in Troy; really, she must have been in Egypt, because they wouldn’t have been so stupid as to fight a war over her. The other thing I would say is that Homer talks only about the warriors, and warriors in Homeric times are all upper class knights, and so we don’t hear about any of the second two layers of people, the people in the back, or the rear echelon people. So perhaps we’ll start with the questions. In Homer’s Odyssey we see Odysseus sometimes listening to bards telling stories about the Trojan War. Others who are present regard these stories as mere entertainment. But for Odysseus, who has suffered the agonies of battle, these stories are reminders of what he has suffered and seen. What is the response of veterans to stories of battles in which they have fought when they are sitting in an audience of people interested only in entertainment? Do the veterans think that their suffering is diminished or stripped of meaning? And, of course I mentioned to the students that you were in Merrill’s Marauders, and so it applies even more to you than it would to most people.

SVW: To begin, the answer has to be broken down. When the Warner Brothers production “Objective, Burma!” starring Errol Flynn was shown in Calcutta in late 1944 or in early 1945, the British veterans in the theater audience—who had been members of the 14th british Indian Army and had gone through a lot of savage combat and great suffering while coming down from the far north of Burma to Rangoon—went on a rampage, tore the theater up, broke the chairs, threw things at the screen, and ripped it down. Here was a story in true Hollywood style, where a swashbuckling, celluloid hero, Errol Flynn, won the war in burma with a tiny handful of Americans. The brits, who had borne the brunt of the war in Burma, resented it. They resented it bitterly. They reacted to it. And even back in England and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, they resented it as well. And the Americans who had fought in Southeast Asia, in the China-India- Burma theater, simply laughed at it, poking fun at it because it didn’t make a great deal of sense, the way it was laid out. So on occasion a veteran will look at a film that he regards as not portraying an actual, accurate story of what a battle is like, and will look at it as hokum; he will either respond to it in amused derision or sometimes outright hostility. That’s one reaction you get from that fictional account of film.

On the other hand, how many of you saw the movie “Saving Private Ryan”? It is one of the most realistic movies about war that has ever been made. That first twenty-three minutes has everything in it that is battle except one thing—the smell. It is the most foul smell of broken human bodies, of human offal and cordite that you don’t get. You don’t get that, but the rest of it is there. And veterans who watched it, who had been in battle, sat there and trembled because to them it was re-living the experience again. That’s how tremendously well Spielberg portrayed it. So it depends to a degree on the kind of movie and its reality; and a movie which has elements of reality in it will bring flashbacks, will bring bad dreams. I had bad dreams for a week after seeing “Saving Private Ryan.” I have seen some other wartime movies that are laughed at, and I don’t want to think about them.

Homer Hampden SydneyJAA: Any other questions about that? Okay. We’ll move to the next question. Immediately upon leaving the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men engage in what can best be referred to as a thrill-seeking raid on the Kikonians, whom they kill and plunder. Homer seems to be suggesting that the transition from warrior to civilian is not automatic or easy, that in fact there is an enormous psychic gulf that needs to be crossed. Is Homer right? What is the transition like to coming home?

SVW: He is essentially right in my view. In battle, you have the license to take another person’s life, and you are expected to exercise that license whether he has attacked you first, or whether you seek him first and can get him before he can get his hands on his ammo. That license to kill when exercised over a period of months cuts a groove in a man’s mind and his emotions, and so there is a decompression that has to take place. There is a re-socializing process that is necessary, more so in some instances than in others, both for men individually, for soldiers individually, as well as for a group. When they come back from the front to the rear area, they are full of repressed emotions, and you have to find some way to externalize these inner tensions. And if the leader, the commander, at the lower level down next to the troops, doesn’t recognize this and doesn’t take steps to help them release these emotions, they’ll find ways to release it.

My organization was composed of three thousand volunteers, one-third of whom came from foxholes in New Georgia, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and New Britain, and they had been at war for many months. They thought that they were going to get some leave and a chance to socialize, get drunk and chase women and so on. They went immediately, instead, through bombay to a training area out in central India, and proceeded to arduously train—the most difficult training they had ever undergone—and then were told that they were going to go behind the Japanese lines in North Burma, and that “many of you will not return. This is a very dangerous and hazardous mission. That’s why we ask for volunteers only.” Well, when Christmastime came in 1943, a number of these men who were just getting ready to be committed to combat in northern Burma—this was the last recess, so to speak—a number of these men, right around Christmastime, went about five miles from our encampment on the betwa River across from the Province of Gwalior, and hijacked a train. They took that train to Calcutta, hundreds, hundreds of miles away, and left strewn a trail of wreckage behind them there that we had difficulty recovering from. We got most of them back, and they went docilely, over-belatedly, back over that same railroad and back into combat. But they had all of that pent-up emotion that they had to get rid of.

Now, if we had formed athletic teams—we were beside a beautiful river, it was wonderful for swimming—and [if we had had] swimming meets and we had had USO shows and if we had given them a rum ration and a double ration for Christmas and so on, and then worked very, very hard at doing things that were fun, that were relaxing, that would have allowed them to get some of this poison out of their system, I doubt that the hijacking would have happened. Leadership makes the difference. 

You’re familiar with Lieutenant Calley, in North Vietnam, in the village of Mi Lai. Here was an outfit that had been in combat for some time under weak leadership. They went berserk and started killing men and women and children. None of these individuals on their own would have done so. But they became a motley mob, and they were simply killing people. So there’s a lot of inner tension and group tension that a leader has to be aware of, and he has to make sure that he gets it either released or turned to positive purposes, or you get this kind of situation that Homer describes.

JAA: When the soldiers come home, do they seek out the company of other soldiers, with whom to find some release?

SVW: Speaking of Americans, not necessarily. When soldiers come home, the people they want most to be with are the family members, their wives, their sweethearts, their brothers, their sisters, their mothers, their fathers. That’s what they’ve been thinking about more than anything else all the time they were gone. That’s where they want to be. And that’s where they kind of glom onto the affection that they find and the feeling of security that they find in both physical and emotional ways in the family circle. And frequently a soldier will bring a buddy with him who either doesn’t have a family or can’t get with it. He likes to share that with other soldiers, but he wouldn’t leave that family to go down to bar somewhere, just seeking soldiers to be with. No, for the most part, he’s had enough of being with soldiers for a while.

JAA: On their way home, Odysseus’ men stop in the land of the Lotus Eaters, where anyone who eats the lotus plant can’t get enough of it and loses all interest in going home. Homer seems to be suggesting that there is a danger to veterans of a chemically induced forgetting of pain. In another story, the hostess—she happens to be Helen—introduces a drug into her guests’ wine to induce a forgetting of comrades who were lost. How common a phenomenon is the use of anodynes of some sort?

SVW: Too common. It depends mostly on availability. It was not really a problem in World War II, not to any major degree. It was a serious problem at one point in Vietnam, because we were in the land of opium dens, where drugs were used commonly and were easily available. Also, it was an unpopular war. Morale was lower than in World War II and Korea, and somehow leadership began to break down. We had fragging incidents in which men would roll a grenade into their platoon leader’s tent. Under those circumstances, with morale low and drugs available, you found that soldiers were really going for drugs. So this is something that every commander, every military leader has to be concerned with; he must ensure that there’s no easily available supply of such things because a soldier in this heightened emotional state, after a battle or what have you, will easily reach for something like that if it is available, because it gives him some sense of release: the guns quit going off in his head. So it is a problem, one that has to be dealt with. It has troubled us in just about every war we have ever fought, but it was probably worse in Vietnam than in any other.

JAA: For a total of eight of his ten years returning home from battle, Odysseus is involved in meaningless sexual activity with Calypso and Circe. Homer seems to be suggesting that women may be dangerous to returning veterans; first they can trick you, betray you, turn you into pigs—literally in the case of Circe, figuratively in the case of many others—castrate you and fill you with such obsession that you starve to death. Second, that loveless sex, like that Odysseus has for seven years with the beautiful but shallow nymph Calypso, does not obviate the desire for a meaningful relationship. The question: while we all have heard that soldiers pine for home and the girls they have left behind, does the experience of war alter in some important ways the attitudes they feel toward women and, then, when they have returned, the relationship with the women they have left behind?

SVW: That’s a good question. When soldiers have enough to eat—so that they are not hungry, when they are not under fire—so that they feel relatively secure, the main thing they talk about among themselves is sex. They are young men. They have been highly trained; they are physically fit; their hormones are raging; and they are sex-hungry. Consequently, many of them—I don’t know whether I would say the majority—many of them, given the opportunity, will seek a prostitute if he goes on a brief furlough to some town or city in the rear area, will seek relief in the lap of a prostitute. 

At the same time, he may have a girlfriend at home to whom he is not only betrothed but for whom he has the deepest feelings of emotion. And he puts that in a different category. He does not necessarily feel that he is betraying her, or, if he is betraying her, he’s doing it for a reason, and he’ll tell her he’s sorry if he ever tells her about it, and it shouldn’t affect their relationship, that it was under extraordinary circumstances, extreme circumstances, that he did what he did. I’ve known some good men who have followed this route. 

In that connection—and this may be getting to one of your next questions—when he returns home, one of his first concerns is with that girlfriend. Has she been true to him? Or if he’s married, with his wife. Has she been true to him? There’s a double standard here. It clearly is there; it exists; I’m not the only person who would describe it this way to you. But there is this double standard. Some men are tortured by it, sensitive men; a majority are not, who take it as the way life is. For men by their very nature are polygamous, but they want the members of the feminine sex to be monogamous.

JAA: Do any of the returning veterans themselves, in your experience or among those you’ve heard about, become “sex- aholics”—they just can’t get enough of meaningless sex as a way of coping with the trauma they may have experienced in battle?

SVW: I’ve known of instances. It is not common and widespread. But it does occur. And it normally involves not only becoming a sex-aholic, but becoming an alcoholic, simply running wild, running out of control, until somehow they hit a wall and the wall will be an accident or when someone beats the hell out of them or what have you. And then most of them wake up and come back to themselves and straighten out.

End of Part I