Ajax in the 21st Century
Bryan Doerries, The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (Knopf, 2015).
How can I say something that should never be spoken?
You would rather die than hear what I’m about to say.
— Tecmessa, in Sophocles’ Ajax
After 14 years of combat operations overseas, veterans from America’s longest war — wounded warriors and the walking wounded — return year after year to a nation that in many ways has forgotten their sacrifices. “Thank you for your service” notwithstanding (how easily those five words roll off the tongue!), coming home from a deployment is often times more difficult than leaving. In his new book The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, writer and director Bryan Doerries offers us a glimpse of the social and psychological cost of warfare through the lens of ancient Greek tragedies. Based on a dramatic project he started with Phyllis Kaufman in 2009, the book chronicles Doerries’ experience presenting Greek tragedies to audiences of veterans, their families, health care workers, and other concerned members of the community.
“Tragedy,” said Aristotle in Poetics, “is a representation not of people as such but of actions and life.” In his book, Doerries writes that his goal is to help readers “listen closely to ancient tragedies and ask, ‘What do we recognize of ourselves and our struggles in these stories?’” Using ancient plays like Ajax, Doerries’ dramatic performances bring to audiences powerful lessons about the universal experiences of warfare, including its physical and psychological wounds. Doerries employs tragedy to awaken compassion and understanding and to de-stigmatize post-deployment mental health issues.
I recently had the opportunity to meet Bryan Doerries at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA, and see the 328th Theater of War presentation from the play Ajax. Written by Sophocles in the 5th century B.C. at a time when Greece had suffered more than 80 years of conflict, the play depicts the mental unraveling of the mighty warrior Ajax following the death of his friend Achilles during the Trojan War. With actors David Strathan and Heather Goldenhersh as the lead characters and Doerries as the chorus, the struggle of Ajax and his wife Tecmessa to emerge from the misery of war came to life. Afterward, a small panel of veterans and community supporters led the audience in discussing the play’s themes of shame, betrayal, hope, fear, and loss. “How do we honor men like Ajax without honoring the violence?” Doerries probed a reflective audience.
Recently, Professor Anthony King recounted the tale of another literary figure haunted by psychological health issues in his review, Macbeth as a PTSD Victim. Like the hero Ajax in Sophocles’ play, King notes that “Macbeth is a combat veteran and, despite his courage, he is plainly severely traumatized by his war experiences.” Perhaps so, but not all psychological wounds of war can be classified under the familiar (possibly overused) diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There is another kind of trauma that soldiers suffer, especially in the conflicts of the 21st century where preemptive war has usurped just war and combatant status is often ambiguous. This is the wound of moral injury, and it results from the violation of conscience, a kind of “moral suicide.” Whereas PTSD develops as a response to physical harm or the prolonged threat of physical harm, moral injury is a blight on the soul. It is the internal judgment against one’s own actions.
In Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, the lead character, a psychiatrist, is able to measure the state of someone’s soul with his Ontological Lapsometer. Sadly, such a device does not exist in reality. If it did, doctors might be able to more quickly diagnose and treat a moral injury. As it stands, moral injuries show up in different ways within military organizations: a predilection towards excessive work, a tendency to drink too much or self-medicate, or a growing alienation from one’s relationships. Most alarmingly, it shows up in the increasing number of active duty and veteran suicides. Although Sophocles and Shakespeare lacked the vocabulary to describe it, their characters Ajax and Macbeth likely suffered from this type of injury too.
The Theater of War project started with the hunch of its creator, Doerries: “Put ancient Greek tragedy in front of audiences, and power and healing will happen.” It doesn’t take a play, however, for a concerned friend or family member of a veteran suffering with a moral injury to help their loved one begin to heal. According to Doerries, non-judgmental listening is the first step: “Let me hear the story of your deployment.” Movies like The Hurt Locker or We Were Soldiers may provide a springboard for starting such a conversation. For some veterans, telling the story of their combat experience is easier in a group of other veterans. Support groups like Talking Service are a great resource. For other veterans, soul anguish is only relieved through service in the community, particularly in helping other veterans.
Doerries’ Theater of War book and project are much-needed efforts by the civilian community to address the psychological and moral suffering of veterans returning from wars that we asked them to fight. His unique approach has worked to bring healing to thousands, not only because of the cathartic effect of Greek tragedy, but also because such plays give us a window to see into the pain of war-scarred veterans, and a common vocabulary with which to discuss the impact of war on our communities. With no end in sight to some of our nation’s conflicts, it is imperative that the military and civilian communities unite to address the urgent needs of returning warriors.
Amy Hunt is an active duty Commander in the United States Navy. She is a veteran of OPERATION UNIFIED RESPONSE, OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM, and OPERATION NEW DAWN.