‘Nobody can understand, ‘cept maybe another ‘Nam vet.’
- Vietnam veteran, quoted in Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam, 1994

william-the-conquerorIf William the Conqueror had PTSD­­­­––post-traumatic stress disorder––and recovered in any measure from it, an important factor may have been his lasting connections with comrades-in-arms. His close friend William fitz Osbern comes to mind. Having shared battle experiences, they would have spoken the same language as only combat veterans can. To the extent that talking about war relieves the pain of the wounds it inflicts, it does so in proportion to the listeners’ understanding.

But what if the warrior never stops fighting?

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Michael Corleone – Godfather III

As William saw it, his enemies always pulled him back in. From his point of view, he could never stop fighting. Did this account for what seems to have been his increasing brutality as the years went on?

In an age when physical cruelty was common, William does seem to have been regarded as especially cruel.
– David Bates, William the Conqueror, 1989

Was he so exceptionally cruel from the beginning of his career, or did this characteristic emerge and deepen as, targeted from boyhood, surviving against great odds through narrow escapes and many battles, he grew older and more powerful?

The mercy that was quick in us but late . . . is suppressed and killed.
– Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 2, Scene 2

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., sets forth in Achilles in Vietnam “the specific nature of catastrophic war experiences that not only cause lifelong disabling psychiatric symptoms but can ruin good character” (emphasis in original). Quoting from the first-person accounts of Vietnam veterans (whom he was treating for PTSD, it is worth noting, twenty years after the end of that war), he shows how, in combat, a soldier’s rage, grief––and, often, his sense of betrayal––can explode into a “berserk” state in which he commits atrocities.

“The betrayal most bitterly recalled by one veteran, the awarding of individual medals, Combat Infantry Badges, and a unit citation for an attack on unarmed civilians, occurred six months before the death of his closest comrade, the death that began his berserking.”
(Shay, 95)

The betrayal that Shay speaks of is the betrayal, as he puts it, of “what’s right.” In the Iliad, the incompetent commander Agamemnon violates “what’s right” by taking the prize of war that the other troops awarded to Achilles. In William’s life the violations of what was “right” encompassed attempts from his boyhood on to wrest the duchy of Normandy from him and the assassination of all his guardians, the last and most important of them in his presence when he was twelve, in the chamber where they had been sleeping. The violations built to their climax when Harold Godwinson turned against him and, as William saw it, usurped the throne that had been promised him in England. True, Harold had sworn fealty and promised to support William’s claim to the English crown; but those may not have been the most compelling points in William’s mind. If Harold felt coerced into swearing his oath of loyalty, no one knew that better than William, who did the coercing. William may have felt, however, that no oath should have been required: Harold had been his comrade-in-arms; had fought at his side and been knighted for it.

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