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A production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq by the Flux Theatre Ensemble

Warriors on Stage

For military veterans, the arts can help - but can they heal?

Scott Beauchamp

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I returned from my first deployment to Iraq as an infantryman in late 2007, but I still heard the war – it was alive in the voices of my fellow soldiers. There was a rawness to them, a balance between elation at having survived and the pain of the experience. The military communities in Germany, my duty station, were bubbles where everyone saw each other in the same bars. It was a social hothouse. Drunken soldiers would perform their pain with one another in predictable ways.

I began to call it “The Bluster.” They’d take any excuse – a jostle, a joke, a glance – to start a confrontation. They repeated certain phrases: “I’m already going to hell, so what does it matter if I kill one more person?” It was sad, of course. But The Bluster was also so over-the-top, so out of proportion to whatever slight had triggered it, that it was hard to take at face value. Instead, it seemed a dramatization of the guilt and anger of war itself. The beer-soaked bar floors felt like a stage and the veterans like actors in a production in which they only dimly realized they had been cast.

Returning warriors publicly performing their guilt and anger: it’s a phenomenon with ancient roots. As Bryan Doerries explains in The Theater of War, much Attic Greek drama was intended to speak to the pain of people enmeshed in combat. These plays were not simply lurid stories. Rather, playwrights understood that “live drama had the power to convey the spirit of an ultimately indescribable experience.”

A production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq by the Flux Theatre Ensemble

A production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq by the Flux Theatre Ensemble.

The original audiences of Greek drama were veterans suffering the wounds of war and the civilians to whom they returned. For veterans, the experience of war demanded articulation. This could purge it of its power to swamp them in pain. For civilians, the realities of war needed dramatization. This could bridge the gap that now existed between them and their returned brothers, fathers, and sons. Doerries writes that for the Greeks, “Storytelling, philosophy, art, and war were vitally and inextricably interconnected. Perhaps one of the most overlooked yet crowning achievements of this ancient democracy… was the wholesale use of the arts to communalize the experience of war.”

Psychological distress from combat is as old as combat itself.

Bringing the experience of war into the community is the animating purpose of Doerries’s Theater of War Project. His purpose, as he states on his website, is to forge a “public vocabulary for openly acknowledging and discussing the impact of war on individuals, families, and communities.” By presenting readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes by actors such as Jeffrey Wright, Adam Driver, and Martin Sheen to military and civilian communities, the Theater of War Project hopes to accomplish what Athenian theater did: “to destigmatize psychological injury, increase awareness of post-deployment psychological health issues… and foster greater family, community, and troop resilience.”

Greek drama is particularly suited to these tasks, Doerries says, because the tragedies were “designed to elicit powerful emotional, biochemical, and physiological responses from audiences.” Tragedy, he argues with a nod to Aristotle, aims to arouse and then purify strong negative emotions. Tragedy thus is a powerful tool for positive change. The goal of tragic drama, according to Aristotle’s Poetics, is catharsis – a purging of the soul through the play’s power to evoke pity and fear.

A production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq by the Flux Theatre Ensemble

By this account, the way that Greek tragedy “works” bears some resemblance to contemporary exposure therapy. By exposing veterans to familiar but terrifying psychological states through actors on a stage – a safer setting than either the battlefield or their individual psyches – their feelings about combat can be purged of their toxicity.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider what this toxicity looks like when it’s left to fester. Since what has come to be called the Long War against global terrorism began, American citizens have been made more aware of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Despite the modern acronym, psychological distress from combat is as old as combat itself, though it’s gone by other names: soldier’s heart in the American Civil War, shell shock in World War I, combat fatigue in later wars. Each of these shifting terms, which reflect the social and political understandings of their time, attempt to name a wide spectrum of negative human reactions when faced with violence, extreme fear, death, and the guilt of killing.

For the American soldier, what complicates and even exacerbates these symptoms is that war so often happens in a place very different from home. The line dividing home and battlefield is stark, and to return to a home you don’t recognize and to friends and family who don’t recognize you is profoundly disorienting. The clinical psychologist Jonathan Shay calls PTSD and its associated symptoms (such as hypervigilance and sleeplessness) the “primary injury” of a returning soldier.

A production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq by the Flux Theatre Ensemble

But there’s another, deeper element to veterans’ suffering as well. As Doerries puts it in his book, “many veterans are suffering from something far more insidious, destructive, and complex than the neurological symptoms from exposure to war-related trauma. Rather, it is something of a spiritual and moral nature that… a growing number of prominent mental health professionals now refer to as moral injury.”

Shay describes moral injury as a sense of “betrayal of ‘what’s right’ in a high-stakes situation by someone who holds power.” Having served two deployments in Iraq as an infantry soldier, I know this sense of betrayal well. I’m intimate with it. And I can tell you that it cuts across the plane of your life completely, touching everything you hold dear, and metastasizing into an alien force dragging you beyond the event horizon of its terrible logic.

It begins with guilt, a sense of self-betrayal. When you kill, you feel set apart and secluded in your guilt. It’s as if you’re the only person ever to have killed another in combat, and you’re burdened with a wrathful isolation. You blame yourself, of course, but the taking of another life is simply too consequential an event to stay confined in your individual persona. The guilt becomes larger than you. And so you blame the enemy. You blame the leaders who planned the mission. You blame your fellow soldiers, whom you told yourself you were protecting with your violence. You blame the civilians back home who don’t – can’t – understand. And finally, you blame your family for their love not being enough to save you from the dead weight of your moral culpability.

When you kill, you feel set apart and secluded in your guilt.

“Moral injury,” Doerries writes, “may, in fact, be the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not only during deployments but also when veterans return from war to pink slips, skyrocketing unemployment, and an apathetic, disengaged nation. Betrayal might just be the wound that cuts the deepest.” And so here is where we find ourselves: with combat soldiers girding the world, endlessly deployed, and a veteran suicide rate of twenty people per day.

Our global War on Terrorism might be unique for its cutting-edge tactics and relentless pace, but the psychic wounds of the soldiers are timeless. There’s a shock of recognition from veterans and their families who attend a Theater of War Project performance. They encounter human minds and hearts thousands of years distant, but familiar in their distress.

The first performance of the Theater of War Project was a reading of Sophocles’ Ajax. You’d be hard pressed to find any drama, modern or ancient, more resonant with the anguish of combat. The plot is simple. The Trojan War has been raging for nearly a decade. Ajax, the greatest Greek warrior now that his friend Achilles has been killed, is losing his grip on reality. The armor of the dead Achilles should have been given to Ajax, but the kings award it instead to the wily and silver-tongued Odysseus. In a rage at his superiors and comrades – an anger that any combat veteran has likely witnessed – Ajax means to kill and torture his Greek allies. Temporarily confused by Athena, he instead slaughters the livestock taken as spoils of war. When Ajax comes to his senses and sees what he’s done, he takes his own life, falling onto his sword after a final invective against Odysseus and the rest of the Greeks:

The stern, far-ranging Furies. Let them mark
How I am ruined by the sons of Atreus.
Strike that evil pair with the harshest evils!
Obliterate them! And as they see me fallen
From a self-inflicted blow, so let them perish
At the hands of their own beloved children.
Come, you Furies, swift avengers! Glut your rage!
Do not spare a soul in the army! And you
Who steer your chariot along high heaven,
Helios, when you spy my native land,
Check your reins, all laden with gold,
And tell my aged father and poor mother
Who raised me of my disastrous downfall.
(Translation by Shomit Dutta)

This is Bluster of a cosmic order. Feeling isolated from his family and betrayed by his comrades, Ajax murders himself. His death comes as a punishment to his allies, an unambiguous communication of pain to his loved ones, and a final confirmation of his isolation in the universe. It’s no wonder so many veterans and their families have discovered that this ancient play speaks to their own incomprehensible anguish. It is uncannily familiar.

A production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq by the Flux Theatre Ensemble

Scene from the play Ajax in Iraq

And yet it’s almost equally alien. How far outside their original context can these tragedies be taken and still retain their integrity, their depth? Seeing them as we do now, stripped of their religious roots and cut away from the tight communities in which they were performed, are we not just playing at a cargo cult of tragedy? Doesn’t the soul require deeper healing and more profound community than secular, government-sanctioned theatrical readings can provide?

Ajax, like most other Greek tragedy, is rich with gods. Its meaning is tethered to an Attic conception of reality, and it’s hard to understand how a contemporary audience could separate aesthetic value and secular therapeutic use from a performance originally so bound up with religion. These plays simply aren’t themselves without their transcendent order.

Ajax was probably first performed around 441 BC as part of the annual religious rite of the Great Dionysia, held every March in Athens. Historians suggest that this festival included both theatrical competitions in which playwrights staged newly-written tragedies, and accompanying rituals. The day before the performances animal sacrifices were made to a wooden image of the god Dionysus, which was then brought into the theater as a member of the audience. The mythological origins of this festival lay in an incident when Dionysus appeared to a group of women, who rejected him; to assuage his fury, they had to worship him. In this way, Attic theater in its depiction of blood and rage wasn’t simply a cross between a Hollywood blockbuster and a therapy session. Rather, it was more like a powerful religious ceremony meant to soothe the anger of a god.

A production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq by the Flux Theatre Ensemble

William James writes in “The Moral Equivalent of War” that the military experience is “a great preserver of our ideals” and “a permanent human obligation,” without which life is insipid. The reason that many join the military in the first place, as James implies, is a desire for meaning. We have a hunger for coherence and depth that is difficult to find in the civilian world.

But too often that meaning for which veterans long remains absent from their experience. Once returned they still need healing, but the moral and psychological stakes are even higher, and the only real medicine for their wounds is meaning itself. The civic attempts that are made to confer or recognize the meaning of their experiences often fall short. When American veterans return home and are “honored for their sacrifice” at professional sports games or airports, this sacrifice is usually thought to be the time and effort of their service, the wounds that they have suffered, or even their willingness to die.

The sacrifice they have made that matters most is not addressed.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes in “Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War,” the greatest sacrifice of war is the sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill. This is why war is at once “so morally compelling and so morally perverse. … This sacrifice often renders the lives of those who make it unintelligible.” And so the returned veteran floats through the world, his sacrifice unnamed. Without this naming, redemption remains impossible. The strong medicines of community and meaning are withheld just when they’re needed most.

A production of Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq by the Flux Theatre Ensemble

Hauerwas also tells us of the long tradition of reintegration ceremonies bringing the warrior back into civilian life: Maasai purification rites; Roman bathing; Native American sweat lodges; Christian confession and penance before taking the Eucharist; even Greek tragedy itself. Programs such as the Theater of War Project, as laudable as they might be, ultimately fail to function with the same power as the predecessors they’re trying to replicate, for two reasons: first, they’re secular programs unable to address the spiritual wounds of violence; second, they are attempting to reinte­grate the soldier into a larger society that is also fragmented, confused, and broken.

As harrowing as are the statistics on the mental health and suicides of returning veterans, the civilian world isn’t much better. More than twenty percent of Americans will experience clinical depression. Suicide is increasing across all demographics of society. There are reports of a growing epidemic of loneliness, with people feeling disconnected and isolated from one another.

My transition back to civilian life, as smooth as it was, was marked by my shock at how listless and sad the civilian world was. Comrades who were almost like family slowly but surely lost touch. Our military experiences over, it felt as though we were drifting in the wreckage of a great ship, gradually drowning in the lonely depths of the larger world. We were acclimating, but to isolation, depression, and torpidity.

What exactly are veterans to be reintegrated into? Where is normal life? Hauerwas writes that the sense of betrayal, isolation, and silence that attends the moral injuries of war stands as an indication that we are made for reconciliation with one another and with God. In fact, how could we have one without the other?

What exactly are veterans to be re­integrated into?

The Bluster of my comrades was truly a struggle to communicate the desire for this reconciliation. Somewhere between the bravado and the pitifulness of The Bluster was a provocation leveled at the world: an injunction to break the silence. To see the wrong. To speak the truth.

And this is where we bump up against the limits of what art and psychology can achieve in an atomistic world denuded of transcendent hope. The Greeks had their gods and community. They had a shared language, derived from their deepest religious understanding, used to achieve an imperfect but profound shriving. Absent a language to speak to the spiritual nature of violence – to address sin and redemption with words adequate to the task – we’re left silent, brooding, and unfulfilled.

In Sophocles’ play, after Ajax falls into insanity his wife Tecmessa asks, “How can I speak what is unspeakable?” When I think of the men and women I served with, I prefer to put the question another way: “Why does killing leave us speechless?” It’s a question I asked myself often when I returned from war, a question posed pitifully and in isolation. The answer came to me with the slow comprehension that I wasn’t just talking to myself: I was simply trying to pray.

Healing is to be desired, certainly. But our wounds require more. There can be no true healing without salvation.


Photographs by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Used by permission.

Contributed By Scott Beauchamp

Scott Beauchamp is a writer and veteran whose work has appeared in Paris Review, Atlantic, and New York Magazine, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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