Captain America & Achilles: Jaded War Heroes

Hello, everyone! I was sorting through old essays today and remembered that I meant to post some of the work I wrote during my Superheroes Unleashed course last fall. I’d completely forgotten about this particular essay until now, but I want to share it because I’ve been having approximately 194728 different emotions about Cap & Bucky ever since I watched Civil War.

So, yeah. This is an essay comparing Cap & Bucky to Achilles & Patroclus. My professor returned it with exclamation point scattered all over the margins. About half the things I’ve written in her classes have to do with Captain America and it’s SO satisfying to be able to write academic papers about something as fun as this. Like… oh, you mean I can quote directly from a comic book and it counts for school?! NICE. 

Enjoy!

Although the United States has not formally declared war since 1941, this nation has been continually at war – unofficially, of course – for the past several decades. The effects of war on soldiers is, therefore, an important topic even today. Many returning soldiers experience PTSD, depression, and feelings of guilt – symptoms which can be greatly exacerbated by the loss of a friend on the battlefield. Such experiences often result in a feeling of jadedness. Captain America and Achilles are prime examples of this – the broken, jaded, no-longer-naïve war hero.

Both characters began their journeys with an idealistic vision of war. Achilles fought alongside the Achaeans in the Trojan War because he yearned for honor and adventure. In Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships, Eric Shanower retells the story of how Diomedes and Odysseus visited Lykomedes’ house – where Achilles was in disguise as one of his daughters – with gifts.

All of the girls eagerly looked at the trinkets Diomedes and Odysseus brought, but Achilles was drawn to the only spear they brought, and in this way it was shown that it was Achilles, not “Pyrrha,” who had been under Lykomedes’ roof all this time. Achilles thirsted for battle so much that he was willing to come out of hiding if it meant that he could lead the Achaean army to Troy.

Similarly, Steve Rogers attempted to enlist in the army over and over again. Although he was rejected multiple times due to health problems, he was undaunted by this. Eventually, he was recruited by the Strategic Scientific Reserve, which chose him for his character – he is “not a good soldier, but a good man.” The SSR gave him the Super Serum, and Steve Rogers became Captain America. He soon balked at the role of performing in shows for the military – he wanted to get out there and fight!

Eventually, both of our heroes joined the battlefield alongside their friends. Historians disagree as to whether Achilles and Patroclus were best friends or lovers – either way, though, Homer’s The Iliad makes it clear that they shared a very strong bond.

Steve Rogers, now Captain America, joined the fight in the European Theater only to discover that his best friend, Bucky Barnes, had been captured and was behind enemy lines. The two had grown up together and, until the moment that Bucky enlisted and was shipped off to war, had been inseparable. (And some fans theorize that they, too, were boyfriends, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Bucky protected Steve when he was sickly, and now he had been captured. Now it was Steve’s turn to save his friend – and he did so successfully, but it is worth pointing out at this time that this was only the first of many instances in which Steve lost Bucky.

In Book XVI of The Iliad, Patroclus begged Achilles to let him wear his armor if Achilles himself would not fight. Achilles agreed, but only under the condition that Patroclus would return as soon as the ships were saved from the Trojans. However, Patroclus disobeyed Achilles and continued to fight the Trojans all the way back to the gates of Troy. There, he was slain by Zeus as punishment for killing Sarpedon.

In Book XVII, Antilochus returned to Achilles with news of Patroclus’ death. Achilles lost all control, crying inconsolably and uttering a “terrible, wrenching cry.” At this moment, Achilles shifted from the stereotype of a strong, unbreakable war hero into something much more vulnerable and broken.

Patroclus’ death motivated him to return to battle and avenge the death of his friend by killing Hector, who led the Trojans. Vengeance was, essentially, the only motivating factor in his return, as the death of his friend had caused him to grown disenchanted with and tired of the battle.

In Book XXI, it is said that Achilles, in a fit of grief and rage, slaughtered so many Trojans that the river grew clogged with their bodies. Additionally, he did succeed in killing Hector.

Bucky Barnes, on the other hand, never really died – but for the longest time, Steve Rogers had no way of knowing that. On a mission to capture Zola, one of the Red Skull’s top henchmen, Bucky fell to his “death.” In The First Avenger, that scene is immediately followed by one with Steve and Peggy. He, too, was disconsolate, but she managed to talk him out of blaming himself by saying:

“You did everything you could. Did you believe in your friend? Did you respect him? Then stop blaming yourself. Allow Barnes the dignity of his choice. He damn well must have thought you were worth it.”

Having realized that what she said was true, Captain America returned to the front lines to destroy the Red Skull once and for all. It is there that his plane crashes into the Arctic, and his story shifts to a new time and a different world when he woke up.

The story of the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus ends here, but the story of Captain America and Bucky Barnes does not. In The Winter Soldier, Steve continued to process his friend’s death. Despite Peggy’s words, he continued to blame at least a little bit of himself, and he was haunted by the war as well.

The Winter Soldier is almost a case study in depression and PTSD: Steve Rogers was sad, exhausted, and guilty, and lacked interest in social activities. He performed reckless acts such as jumping out of a plane without wearing a parachute, and was perfectly willing to let the Winter Soldier kill him. He lost the naivety present in The First Avenger and began to question Nick Fury and others, eventually discovering that S.H.I.E.L.D. was in league with Hydra. In this way, he grew disillusioned with war.

It is here, however, that we see some definite differences between Achilles and Captain America. Both of them have lost a dear friend (if not a lover). Both of them felt sad, immensely guilty, and probably depressed. However, Achilles acted out in a more violent manner.

Steve Rogers, even in his lowest moments, could not bring himself to act that way. He accepted the possibility of his own death at the hands of the Winter Soldier – AKA a brainwashed, Hydra-controlled Bucky Barnes – but, unlike Achilles, sought to avoid the death of others by attempting to subdue the Winter Soldier before he could hurt any more civilians on that freeway. This was the third time Steve had lost Bucky, this time in a much more figurative sense, but he was determined to do the right thing anyway – by saving lives, not taking them in his grief.

Both Achilles and Steve Rogers are fascinating examples of the ways in which the war hero archetype can be subverted into something different – a hero who no longer yearns to prove his worth, but one who has gone face to face with the horrors of war and loss. Both heroes were affected psychologically by their battles – the Trojan War and WWII, respectively – and this topic is still widely discussed today, in the light of today’s conflicts.

As long as we continue to fight wars, the archetype of the war hero will be relevant – and the archetype of the jaded, broken war hero will be even more so, as men and women return from conflicts overseas with PTSD and the knowledge that some of their friends whom they fought alongside will never return with them.

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About nevillegirl

Elizabeth, University of Iowa class of 2019. Double majoring in English & Creative Writing and Journalism. Twenty-year-old daydreamer, introvert, voracious reader, and aspiring writer. Passionate about feminism and lesbian positivity.
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