Friday, February 05, 2016

What We're Reading: For Veterans and Active Duty Military

The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today
by Bryan Dowries

I first heard about Bryan Doerries’s “Theater of War” project when the library hosted a talk by David Morris on his book The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In his exploration of PTSD, Morris made connections between the experience and emotions of warriors depicted in ancient Greek literature and those that face modern soldiers. He mentioned the Theater of War project. As Tim O’Brien observed in reviewing The Theater of War, the ancient Greek tragedies embodied important understandings about “warfare and human values and the desperate moral and psychological struggles that soldiers still undergo today.” Morris expressed interest in the ideas about psychological healing that were explored in Doerries’s project, and related those to his own therapeutic experiences. Now Bryan Doerries, the creator of the Theater of War, has written about the origins of the project and gives us examples of how his translations and performances of ancient Greek drama have been applied, and to what ends, in military, prison, and healthcare settings.

A bust of Giambologna, 1570, after the
Greek original by Antigenes.
This book about the program Doerries has developed should be of interest to veterans as well as to active duty military. The "Theater of War” has performed at a number of military-sponsored venues, and Doerries describes how the performances have worked at these events, how they connect to the audience and how they spark discussion about the kinds of issues that are usually subjects of taboo and stigma, especially among active duty military. This is particularly the case in discussing “moral injury,” the anger and psychological problems that come when soldiers are asked to do things that they feel go against their personal value system, interfere with their loyalty to their fellow soldiers, or constitute some sort of betrayal by their military and political leaders. These often involve issues of military command, and so it is difficult to discuss or address them among active duty soldiers. Doerries believes that the plays resonate with soldiers because they were written for an audience of soldiers. Sophocles, for example, had been an Athenian general, and two of his plays used by Doerries, Ajax and Philoctetes, indicate his understanding of the some of the traumas soldiers face. When he wrote his plays, Athens was perpetually at war. Military service was universal for all men. The audience in the amphitheater would have had generals sitting in special seats at the front, and men of various lower ranking military units sitting behind them.

Ajax with the body of Achilles, from an
ancient Greek vase. Ajax felt he was unfairly
cheated of the honor of receiving Achilles'
armor, the source of his deep aggrievement
and dishonorable actions that lead him
to take his own life.
One of the most illuminating things about The Theater of War, something that should be of interest to students of Greek tragedy as well as to contemporary dramatists, is that the performances Doerries has re-staged have given him new ideas and insight into why Greek tragedy was written and how it functioned in Greek society. There is more to it, he finds, than Aristotle’s famous formulation of tragedy providing a catharsis of the “pity and fear” he said it was designed to arouse. Doerries believes that the performance of Greek tragedies functioned socially, providing a safe venue in which to bring up issues that could not be discussed in other settings, and that by doing so Greek dramatics provided a therapeutic outlet, one in which the psychological burdens of war became communally shared among soldiers and among the populace at large. They were written and performed to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” In Greek society, they were part of a public ritual that served to reintegrate those who had borne the battle back into their society. They were rites of recognition as well as reconciliation, public art that expressed an understanding by that society of what a soldier had been asked to do on their behalf and the resulting wounds and suffering, a sharing of the burden that was designed to ease the reintegration of the soldier back into civilian society.

David Morris felt that the lack of effective rituals of this sort in our own society had a lot to do with the prevalence and severity of PTSD and the problems of readjustment that a veteran soldier faces. And unlike the society of ancient Athens, where military service was universal, we live at a time when military experience is shared by only a small fraction of our population. It may be not a matter of us not having rituals, but rather that the ones we have are ineffective and, in fact, destructive. I could not help think, while reading The Theater of War, about Ben Fountain’s caustic depiction of one such “ritual” for a group of hero soldiers at Cowboy Stadium in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a deeply satirical look at what has gone awry, of the profound nature of the disconnect in the relationship between those who serve and the rest of the country.

Philoctetes by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1852.
On the way to Troy Philocotetes was exiled
by his fellow soldiers on the island of
Lemnos because of a terrible and incurable
wound to his foot.
Doerries has expanded his performances of ancient Greek tragedies to other contemporary venues fraught with the tensions of alienation and moral challenges--to prisons and to medical and elder communities where there is conflict over the nature of end-of-life protocols. All of these issues have contexts that are unique to our times, whether it is the nature of modern warfare and contemporary social ideas about military service, current debates about the nature of our justice system and incarceration, or the way new technology raises moral questions for us about medical issues concerning life and death. But what The Theater of War shows us is that there are things that remain timeless and universal about these issues, things that are constant because of our nature as human beings. And one of them, one that we seemed to have forgotten, is that the suffering of others is made more bearable for those who suffer when we are willing to share in that suffering. Heraclitus said that “War is the father of all,” but as Doeries shows us in The Theater of War, it is art that can do much to heal the wounds.

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