A Conversation with General Samuel V. Wilson, Part II

On Homer‘s Odyssey and Coming Home from War

Dr. James A. Arieti, Thompson Professor of Classics

In the spring of 2006, General Samuel V. Wilson visited a combined session of Professor James Arieti’s “Advanced Readings in Greek” and “Humanism in Antiquity” classes to discuss Homer’s Odyssey and its continuing relevance to the challenges soldiers face when they return home from war. General Wilson responded to questions with his private memories and general reflections.

Dr. Arieti would like to thank General Wilson, Professor David Marion, and Angus McClellan '05 for their help in preparing the transcript for publication in this and the previous October issue of  The Record of Hampden-Sydney College.

Lt. General Samuel V. WilsonThe Discussion

JAA: Odysseus travels to the underworld, where he sees the souls of some of his dead comrades. In this episode, Homer seems to be bringing up questions of how veterans carry the weight of friends’ death in war and after war. In some cases, they may feel responsible for the death of a comrade, as does Odysseus for Ajax. In other cases, they may feel that a better man than they has died. What is the effect of “survivor guilt” on veterans? Does it manifest itself in moral pains, self-reproach, self-criticism? And do we ever find veterans who feel a total absence of any of these responses? And what kind of people are they?

SVW: Very quickly to that last question. Yes, there are some like that, and I think it’s because they want to put the pain out of their minds. But there are many, many soldiers who have been in close combat and who have lost buddies, and from what I have seen and experienced, the bond that develops among soldiers who are sharing the experience of combat, of facing death together, is probably one of the strongest human bonds that we could find under any circumstances. As a member of the 82nd Airborne Division Association, I go to its annual meeting. I’ll see two old veterans looking at each other across the hotel lobby. One will scream out a nickname and say, “Ug,” and the other one will say, “Ugly, G-D you,” and they’ll run and grab and hug and cry, because the last time they saw each other, one was being taken back on a stretcher and the other one was stumbling forward. And neither knew how it turned out, and so when they come back together, you can see just how intense that feeling was that they had for each other. They tremble from that feeling.

Now that bond—when you lose a buddy—it’s like losing your father, your mother, your brother, and your sister—kind of all together. It is a tremendous blow. And if somehow, when you look back over it, there is something you see that you might have done that could have kept that individual from being killed, or, if he was killed doing something to keep you from getting hurt, that simply deepens your anguish.

And so in Homer these are all like real life. We may be talking about circumstances from over two millennia ago, but they are as real today as they were then. And so these are true, vital, valid, real questions. I’ve heard soldiers many, many times saying, “You know, I don’t know why he got it and I didn’t. He was so much a better man than I. Why it didn’t hit me, why it got him, I’ll never know. I’ll never understand it.” And so they anguish over it, they think about it, they talk about it, and for many of them it remains on their minds for the rest of their lives.

JAA: Is there something that the army or the Veterans Administration does to help people cope with the problems that they have?

SVW: Oh yes. They have psychological, psychiatric consulting services and so on. They get people together in groups to talk this out. And soldiers often will cross the continent to visit the family of their fallen buddy—which is a wrenching experience in itself. But it also gives them a little bit of a feeling of closure. The important point when you are suffering from this kind of trauma is that you want to reach the point where, as we say, you get a rope around it and arrive at some form of closure so it is not an open wound that is hurting you all the time.

JAA: Does the psychiatric counseling work?

SVW: Somewhat. It works in some instances very well, and in some instances moderately. In some instances it has no effect at all. It varies. The incidence of helpfulness is high enough to justify its continuance.

JAA: Is this [counseling] something that happened just recently? I can’t imagine that it happened after the Civil War or World War I, or maybe even after World War II.

SVW: I think it began happening only a little bit after World War II, a lot more after Korea, especially when we had a number of people who had been taken prisoner and who had undergone Communist indoctrination. We used the term “brainwashing,” if you recall. We were concerned to help a man get his mind refocused and on the proper compass azimuth. I guess it’s out of this that we get the Manchurian Candidate and that kind of story. And so it’s mostly after Korea that this picked up, and it has been very, very important since Vietnam and subsequent wars.

JAA: We can think how hard it must have been for people in Homer’s time or previous wars when there was no help whatsoever. Odysseus didn’t even have the Odyssey to help him to see that he wasn’t alone. It probably helped others.

SVW: Yep. They had it much harder than our returning soldiers. There is no question. For them, I guess, the main surcease from that kind of anguish and getting rid of some of the garbage in their minds and hearts was the love of the family. You can return to a family that still loves you—you know, they’re glad to see you and you’re fully accepted and so on. That’s the best surroundings, atmosphere, in which to begin to get well.

JAA: Does it happen that some who were too young or too frail or too old to fight feel that they have missed something significant and spectacular, and do they therefore feel a sense of envy for the returning veteran—that he has lived something great that they will never experience? And does he in turn envy their innocence, that they have neither harmed nor been harmed as he has?

SVW: The answer is “yes” and “no” to questions one and two. Those who were too young to participate in a war, as they hear the stories and become aware of the returning veterans and learn what has happened to them and learn the story of the war itself, tend to have a little bit of a feeling of having been left out, and so… I was talking to a lad today at lunch in this same area. We were talking about Merrill’s Marauders and Burma and so on, and he was reading the book.

And he said, “I’ve read the book with mixed emotions. I don’t know whether I would be willing to go through that or not. I asked myself a question—would I volunteer and go through that kind of experience?”

And I said, “Well, how did you come out?”

And he said, “I still don’t know.”

And I said, “But you would like to have it in the past tense, behind you, as part of your experience, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “I’d love that.” [SVW laughs].

So that’s real. That part is real. I think there are young men who “didn’t make the cut,” so to speak, and for whatever reason, largely age, envy those who went and came back. At the same time, they will never know for themselves whether or not they could have faced danger and remained whole. As far as the veteran himself is concerned, I don’t believe that he envies them. He says, “You’re lucky that you didn’t have to go through it.” But once he’s returned and has it behind him, there’s a sense of pride in having survived that awesome experience.

JAA: Your lunchtime companion reminds me of something when it comes to foreign languages. Students would very much like to be in the position of knowing a language very well; they just don’t want to study it and go through all the trouble of learning it. [SVW laughs]. And, I guess, we can’t blame them.

Dr. James Arieti at Hampden-SydneyThere was in the ancient world a word, epigoni, that we still use in English, and it refers to the generation that lived after a famous incident known as the “Seven against Thebes.” There’s a play of Aeschylus by that name. And the children of the heroes known as the “Seven against Thebes”—the children being the ones known as the epigoni—[thought that they] could never live up to what their fathers had done, that somehow they were doomed to a life less glorious, that all of the great deeds had been done in the generation before them. So I’m thinking that the younger brothers, who were just a year or two too young and so missed the war, have that sense of being epigoni, of having come after the great deeds were done. I remember feeling that way about some of my professors when I was a student. They had discovered everything. There was nothing more to be said. But sure enough, there were other things to be said, so you don’t have to worry about not living up to your fathers’ generation. There’ll still be more things to do.

Let’s get to the next question. When Odysseus returns at last to Ithaca, he must contend with people who hate him and wish that he were dead. These are the suitors and some of the parents and families of the men he commanded who did not come home. In the Odyssey, it takes the intervention of a god to restore peace in Ithaca. Is antipathy of those back home also a danger to the returning veteran? You mentioned this before in the case of those coming back from Vietnam. And the other part of the question is, if it does exist, how can it be overcome?

SVW: Vietnam, I think, becomes an exception in terms of the public attitude toward the returning soldier, as far as American history is concerned. It was rare indeed in World War II to encounter antipathy, although on occasion you did. I was a captain when I came home. I had been in some of the most savage combat that we underwent in World War II. There were three thousand of us who started out on this campaign. Much later, when the campaign was ended, there were approximately one hundred soldiers still in the line fighting. The rest were either dead, wounded, or evacuated for a whole variety of diseases. We got a lot of publicity. Because of the exposed nature of my duty as one of Merrill’s reconnaissance officers, out front screening the movement of his force, I was always encountering the Japanese before the rest of the outfit did, so by simply surviving, actually, I wound up with a handful of decorations—because I was in such high danger, practically all the time. And arithmetically, mathematically, I have to make the case that I should never, never, never have survived, that the law of averages should have run out for me a long time ago. But it didn’t.

Anyway, when I came home, I got a lot of publicity nationally and at the state and local level. And I found that there were people here, whose sons I had grown up with, from whom I unexpectedly encountered hostility. I heard things like, “Reed would have done as well as you did but he just never had the chance—he was killed in Italy. We’ll never get over that.” And somehow I was to blame because Reed was killed in Italy. Or I would hear, “Philander was senior to you and would have done even better than you did, but he never had the chance.” So I ran into some of that.

Now some of this has been personalized, I recognize. So it’s hardly a data point. It’s on that narrow, personal experience level.

I also recall once, when I was in uniform traveling from Fort Benning, Georgia, back up here to Virginia, I stopped to get gasoline. A car pulled up behind me and began bumping my bumper. When I got out of my car, a drunken redneck got out of his and said, “Well, Captain, you’d like to take me on, huh?”

He obviously was a fellow who hadn’t gone to war. Whether he was a draft dodger or whether he was 4F for physical reasons or not, something had troubled him so that when he saw a man in uniform, it roused his ire, and he had something to prove. Well, I had just gotten out of the hospital, and I was not in a condition to fight him, and so we had to talk our way through this one in a hurry. And I had the pluck just to tell him, “Mister, I’ve been trained to kill people with my hands. So please let there be peace between us. I wish you no harm—God loves you and I am trying to. Please, let’s not do something here that your family is going to feel very regretful about.”

And while he was noisy, I was quiet. And the very fact of the contrast between my quietness and his noisiness somehow seemed to fix him and he, quietly grumbling, got back into his car and drove away. So you encounter those kinds of things. That one probably doesn’t prove very much. There are all kinds of little examples like that that you run into. Generally speaking, that kind of antipathy is found only from a small minority. And it is not a general thing—we don’t expect to find it every day or every week.

JAA: Let me ask you the question that we spoke about the other day; it isn’t among the ones written down. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he has to disguise himself as an old beggar to go into his house because he doesn’t know how he’s going to be received. As soon as he arrives at his palace, he notices his old dog Argos, who’s been there lying on this trash heap for twenty years, missing Odysseus. Although Odysseus is disguised, Argos smells him, sees him, his ears pop up, he moves his tail, and then he dies of joy. The episode indicates several things: that Odysseus, even though he is in disguise, can still be recognized, at least by his dog. It also indicates a relationship with an animal that is different from the relationship with the people left behind. You come from a farm… did you have any kind of animal experiences analogous to Odysseus’ with his dog?

Odysseus and Argos

SVW: Absolutely, absolutely! I had that kind of experience in combat with my horse, as well as at home, when I came home. The dog has a sense of smell which is five hundred times more detailed and accurate and powerful than a human olfactory sense is. So, yeah, Homer is right. The dog was probably blind at twenty years old, but he could certainly tell from the smell: “This is he. I’ve been waiting for him.”

When I went off to war, I had had a German shepherd that I raised from a puppy, Mike. And I slept in an old doctor’s office out in the front yard, and Mike slept in the med-room with me, and we’d sit out there by the fire in the wintertime and listen to the radio. I was strumming my guitar, and give him little tidbits, and I’d get my clarinet out—except that he didn’t like that very much. He’d begin to howl when I’d start playing. Anyway, we were close—we kind of grew up together. When I came home and he spotted me, he literally knocked me flat on my tailbone in the front yard, he was so excited. When he smelled me and heard my voice, he came like an express train—ram—and then was straddling me and licking my face. That’s how he felt. He wasn’t twenty years old, so he didn’t die of a heart attack at that point, but that was his response.

I stayed at home for about ten days, and then I had to leave. And that was very, very hard for him to take. In fact, as the days passed and I did not come back, he disappeared there on the farm. My folks didn’t know where he was. Then several weeks later, an old woodcutter who used to cut firewood over by the Norfolk and Western Railway, now the Norfolk Southern, told my father, “I believe I know what happened to your dog. I was down by the railway, cutting myself some firewood, and I heard a dog howling. And I looked up and there was this huge German police dog standing there right between the rails along the railway track.” He said he was kind of skinny and emaciated but still a great dog—black and silver. And he said, “I could hear a train whistle in the distance. And the dog’s ears pricked up and he began to get kind of excited, and then I could hear the train coming. It was the 4:30 Pocahontas.” (That was a crack train that came whistling through here at about sixty miles an hour at 4:30 in the afternoon, called the Pocahontas.) “When that dog saw that train in the distance, he began to run toward it. And he ran straight into the train and destroyed himself.” Then he said, “That was the first time I ever saw a dog commit suicide.”

So that to me illustrates the fact that [animals can be] more than our pets—they are our best friends. Particularly it’s the dogs, but I’ve got a fondness for cats, too. I have a dog right now, and I feel the same way about him, and he feels the same way about me. I had a hard time leaving him this morning. He loves to come out and lie down in my room and go out here to campus and chase squirrels. But I can only do that on weekends when I’m relaxing. So that’s a real question, too, Jim, and an important one. And that too is an emotion that can be both draining and sustaining, depending on what the circumstances are.

JAA: We have a couple more questions. What we’ve done is mingle some of them together. There might be some overlap in some of the questions.

In Book I of the Odyssey, Athena describes Odysseus as forever trying to “wipe all thought of Ithaca from his mind”:

But he, straining for no more than a glimpse of hearth-smoke drifting up from his own land, Odysseus longs to die … [Tr. Robert Fagles]

From this description it seems that although Odysseus is trying to forget Ithaca, thoughts of home are pushing him to the brink of self-destruction. But the thoughts of home, of his wife, of his kingdom, are what give him the strength to endure. How do soldiers cope with ambiguous feelings towards their home? Should a soldier forget his former life and focus on the war at hand, or should he allow thoughts of home to enter his mind with potentially harmful side-effects? If a soldier forgets his former life and returns, is it better? How does his forgetfulness affect his former life?

SVW: In my experience, when a soldier’s mind—like most soldiers’ minds—is filled with thoughts of home on a continuing basis, you rarely can shunt them aside. If in World War II you had asked a soldier in North Africa or in Italy or in the Ardennes, “What are you fighting for?”—trying to get him to give you some lofty goals toward which he is fighting and risking his life—he would answer, “To get this over and go home.”

And that in itself can be interpreted, I believe, as a patriotic statement because home, to him, is a place of security, mutual love and respect, a place of relative law and order, a place where he has an opportunity to better his condition, and so on. We take these and express them in more lofty terms, but home to him embodies all of these things and more. And that’s what he’s fighting for. So, rarely indeed does he put them out of his mind. And obviously there are soldiers who had unhappy homes or no homes, so they have to have something else, some surrogate, for that. 

But the well-trained soldier has been so indoctrinated for the shock of combat, which is like having lightning striking all around and the world exploding in your face, that he automatically, when given certain commands and signals, carries through as he was taught and drilled to do. And that is what saves him when otherwise he would be simply frozen in fear, and either do nothing or do the wrong thing. And that’s what training means. And if he is capably led and has had that kind of training, it is unlikely that thoughts of home, however homesick he may get from those thoughts, are going to negatively influence how he handles himself under fire.

This is the one instance where I don’t find my experience parallels what Homer is talking about. I didn’t have an ambiguous feeling about my home. I went through three wars—in one way or another—and had thirty-seven years of military service. And there was always a little blue pin in my map which pointed to a farm twelve miles from this campus on which I was born and raised and to which I eventually returned.

JAA: I think that question perhaps should be combined with another one. Where Odysseus really feels those thoughts of home is principally when he is on the island of Calypso. He’s a sort of prisoner of war—he is on an island in the middle of nowhere, and he has no hope, really, ever, of going home. And so this will be the prisoner of war question. Does a prisoner of war have this sense of trying to forget his home?

SVW: That’s a different kind of circumstance. And it seems to me that in this case, what he is trying to do is find something in his mind that can take the place of thoughts of home because he has given up on ever seeing home again.

JAA: Yes. You had no experience of this.

SVW: No.

JAA: There’ll be one more question, and then we’ll let the students ask questions at will. This last question concerns the soldiers who died on the road home, and I’ll read the question as it was submitted: “It is given that casualties are expected in combat. But how are casualties and fatalities that occur outside combat different for soldiers to handle, say, in mop-up or post-combat operations? The one that applies most to our class are the casualties that occur on the trip home. Is it harder to deal with casualties on the trip home like those which affect Odysseus’ crew, and if so, why is it harder to deal with them? Can you compare how families of different soldiers might handle the deaths when the soldier dies in combat or from an accident or sickness or dies on the way returning home, in a boat accident or in some other way?”

SVW: I think, at bottom, the catastrophe is certainly sensed as such—the individual who has survived the dangers of combat and then either has died from an illness or arrives home and the first morning home gets hit by a beer truck and flattened into the pavement and dies there. That’s so ironic and so—people would say—unnecessary. It happens. And it is much, much more difficult for a family and loved ones to come to grips with that kind of death taking place in the context of war. The soldier who dies in combat, or as a direct result of combat, can be considered, at least by many, as having died for a cause, as having given his life for something, which he and his loved ones may consider more important than life itself. So there comes from that a kind of a justification for the sacrifice. But when it is needless, like the result of a drunken driver killing a returning soldier, it is much more difficult to find emotional closure. It is much, much more difficult in my experience.

JAA: Well, these have been our formal questions.

SVW: [To a student]. Sir.


Mark Tassone ’08: In the Odyssey, all of the deaths that occur are the result of close hand-to-hand combat with spears, swords, and sometimes bows and arrows. I’m wondering: is the psychological effect of such close hand-to-hand combat—being able to stare into the eyes of your enemy—different from being at least the distance of a gun?

SVW: That is really an excellent question. And in this case I can form a qualified answer because I’ve known it all three ways. I’ve known it hand-to-hand; I’ve known it with a rifle at close range; and then I’ve known it using mortar fire or, later, artillery fire on an enemy position when I really couldn’t see what was happening. It’s different in each instance. The most difficult one is the hand-to-hand combat that Homer is telling us about, where you see the dazed eyes of the man who is dying because you’ve just stuck a knife in his gut. That’s about as personal as you can get. When the individual is as far from here as Eggleston Hall [the former College library—about sixty yards away from where General Wilson is speaking] and you have a bead on him as he’s beginning to move, and you see him crumple and fall—that’s a little more impersonal. And if he and his buddies are on that ridge-line over there by about Cushing [a dormitory about four hundred yards away] and you are back here with 81mm mortars you have to give a barrage and you see a number crumple and fall—and you have to see that with your field-glasses—that’s even more impersonal. Each one of these is a different emotional experience. The intensity is highest close-up and less intense when it’s at a distance, almost as though you were looking at a movie or a painting or something.

JAA: Let me ask a follow-up to that. In Homer, warriors on both sides speak the same language. Before a hand-to-hand combat, they speak to each other, hurl insults at each other. And sometimes, when one is dying, he asks to be ransomed and not killed. This wouldn’t happen in modern wars, where the people don’t speak the same language.

SVW: I think there have been instances, maybe not in all wars but in the three I’ve been involved in, where an enemy at the last instance gestures with his hands up and says, “Kamerad, I give up.” In some instances he was too late; in other instances, he threw down his weapon and was taken prisoner. That’s a very, very delicate moment—to turn off that finger which is already tightening, curling on the trigger, by simply saying [gestures with his hands up], “I surrender.” That is rare. That happened in World War I and II, of course, where it got very, very personal from trench to trench.

JAA: You mention that sometimes you couldn’t stop the trigger finger. Though we’re not discussing the Iliad, allow me throw in an Iliad question. As Achilles sends his friend Patroclus into battle, he says, “I want you to keep the Trojans away from the ships, and then I want you to come back.” Patroclus is unbelievably successful, but he keeps going. He doesn’t follow Achilles’ advice. He wards the Trojans off from the ships, but he can’t stop fighting because he’s on a roll—he’s so victorious. And so he disobeys that particular order, and he gets killed—because he went too far. 

I discussed this with the students here. I compared Achilles to an archer who shoots an arrow, and the arrow is just about to hit the bull’s eye, and the order to the arrow is “stop, and come back.” It’s unnatural, and analogously, I think it would be unnatural for a person who’s on a roll just to stop. And that’s how Homer portrays it. He has Patroclus violate Achilles’ instructions. Is that true to life?

SVW: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s true to this extent. This rarely happened in World War II—it happened from time to time when we had to send men to charge in with fixed bayonets. When men are charging an entrenched enemy with bayonets, and all of a sudden the whistle blows and says, “Halt,” it’s pretty hard to check that momentum. These guys are locked in, and they are so frightened, and so imbued with the necessity to continue on, it’s going to take some real shouting, some real noise, to stop them. So that hair-trigger point is a real one. And it’s a dangerous one, which says, “You’d better know whether you really want to carry through with it or not before you launch it.”

Student: General Wilson, what difference does it make that Homer’s generals were all hand-to-hand fighters whereas the generals of today mostly communicate their orders to other officers as the fight goes on?

SVW: It’s technology, of course, that has caused that. Probably Homer’s generals, because they had hand-to hand combat, had a keener sensitivity for what it is like at the point of a spear than a four-star general in the rear, looking at a bunch of maps or charts or his television screens and being briefed on the course of battle and trying to decide what to do the next day.

What that general has to be careful about is that he does not reach the point where he begins to suffer from a myopia, where he really doesn’t see the field of battle in as realistic terms as the old-fashioned general who was closer to the front. Some of our more famous generals in our immediate past history, in the last hundred years or so, have been those who pushed themselves to the front—Patton being a case in point. And the famous Marine Corps general, a Virginian, who died—[Student: Chesty Puller] Yes, Chesty Puller—another case. These were commanders who commanded forward. Each general officer of a major formation has a forward CP [i.e., command post] and a rear CP. The real combat generals practically live with their forward CP’s up as close as possible to the battle as they can. Those who are kind of political generals tend to spend more time in their rear CP. The first division CP, for example was “Danger Forward” and the rear CP was “Danger Rear.” This is how you knew which one was which.

JAA: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.

SVW: My pleasure.


General Sam by Drew Prehmus

A Biography of Lieutenant General Samuel Vaughan Wilson

By Andrew James Prehmus ’08

From the jungles of northern Burma in 1943 to the far side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, Lt. Gen. Sam Wilson’s long and storied military and intelligence career spans nearly 40 years. While he was a student at Hampden-Sydney, author Drew Prehmus ’08 spent a year and a half listening to Wilson’s recollections, and in 2011 he published his well-written and engaging 246-page biography. To order a copy, visit the online Campus Store or call (434) 223-6117.