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Professional News
Homer's War Experiences Resonate With Today's Troops
Psychiatric News
Volume 45 Number 5 page 8-9

A 2,400-year-old play set in Greece opens the eyes of 24-year-old troops just home from Iraq and—maybe—gives them the impetus they need to begin talking about their own journeys through war.

The Department of Defense commissioned "Theater of War" to present excerpts from Sophocles' "Ajax" and "Philoctetes" to military audiences throughout the United States. Both plays draw on events in the Trojan War first described by Homer in The Iliad.

The psychological intersection of ancient and modern warfare was brought to prominence by VA psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D., in his 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam. Shay found insightful parallels between the rage, guilt, depression, and PTSD that followed combat on the plains of Troy and the war in the jungles of Vietnam (see also Families Have Long Borne War's Consequences).

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Actor Bill Camp (left) plays a weary Philoctetes, listening to the youthful Neoptolemus (Francois Battiste) try to entice him to give up his weapons. "Theater of War" director and translator Bryan Doerries (right) provides commentary and explanation to an audience of U.S. Marines at Henderson Hall in Virginia. 

Credit: Aaron Levin

Bryan Doerries, a New York—based writer, director, and educator, conceived "Theater of War" and made a new translation especially for the project.

"Sophocles was a former general writing for an audience of veterans and soldiers," said Doerries. "Recapitulating these incidents of war served as a community reunification experience."

It still does, according to psychiatrist Col. Charles Engel, M.C., assistant chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the director of the Department of Defense Deployment Health Clinical Center at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. "It's not about in-the-head intellectual knowledge," he said. "It's about in-the-gut experiences of the consequences of war."

In "Theater of War," four actors, all veterans of television and the New York stage, interpret Sophocles' drama. They're not in costume, and they sit behind microphones at a long table before the audience. Only their voices convey the agony of war and its consequences.

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Gunnery Sgt. Wayne Bowie (left) and Sgt. John Eubanks, both U.S. Marines and combat veterans, take turns commenting on how the two ancient Greek plays by Sophocles resonate with their own experiences in combat. 

Credit: Aaron Levin

"Ajax" tells of an officer driven mad by the slights of his comrades when they award the spoils of war to his rival Odysseus. Ajax decides to sneak into their tent at night and kill those responsible for his shame. The goddess Athena intervenes, however, making him delusional and leading him to slaughter a herd of cows and sheep whom he takes for the men who have wronged him.

"Let's see them steal my arms now!" he roars.

Odysseus stands to one side, unobserved, near Athena.

"A savage infection confuses his mind," he says. Tecmessa, Ajax's wife, emerges from their tent. Ajax is clearly symptomatic, she says, "strangely silent, refusing food and water."

Soon enough, Ajax moans out his agony of paranoia, shame, and guilt. Members of his unit try to talk him out of his depression. He takes leave of Tecmessa and their child, goes to a remote area near the sea, buries his sword in the ground point up, and falls upon it.

In the other play, Philoctetes is abandoned by his fellow Greeks on the way to Troy after a snake bite leaves him with an incurably suppurating, vile-smelling wound. He languishes alone on an island for nine years as the Greeks and Trojans battle to a virtual stalemate. He remains alive by virtue of his mighty bow and unerring arrows, which the Greeks must have if they are to triumph.

The slick-talking Odysseus brings a young officer, Neoptolemus, with him to manipulate the weapon from Philoctetes. Despite his original intention to deceive, Neoptolemus develops a bond with Philoctetes, and the two eventually sail together back to Troy with the bow to fight and win the war.

The classics are classics for a good reason. "The ancient Greek poems and plays offer a pathway for contemporary thinking about the meaning of human life," said Thomas Van Nortwick, Ph.D., a professor of classics at Oberlin College in Ohio. "The Iliad and Greek tragic literature focus on the question of what it means to be a creature who knows it must die. It is an acknowledgment of the struggle against mortality, an idea accessible to someone who has been in combat."

After the performance, a panel of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan take the stage to comment on the plays and their meaning to those who have experienced war and military life.

Marine Sgt. John Eubanks went to Iraq twice and was injured twice by roadside bombs.

"I can relate to both Ajax and Philoctetes," he said. "I've had a head injury, I felt isolated on my return, and I felt like a burden to others."

Eubanks' mental state declined until friends confronted him—as the chorus of shipmates do to Ajax—and made sure he got psychological help.

Other Marines saw more lessons in the plays.

"Odysseus is not a good leader," said Sgt. Megan Kavanagh, a veteran of Iraq (2006-2007) now serving as a Marine liaison to the U.S. Senate. "He is self-centered and creates a destructive work relationship. A good leader shouldn't leave a man behind."

Why should modern soldiers and Marines turn to ancient Greek literature?

For one thing, the power in Greek literature comes through in translation for modern audiences, said Van Nortwick.

Also, the war literature of the 20th century (with some exceptions) is largely prose, anchored in a particular time and place, said Lawrence Tritle, Ph.D., a Vietnam War veteran and a professor of history at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, specializing in the ancient Greek and Roman world.

"But Greek drama is poetry, set in a neverland of gods and heroes, making it abstract," said Tritle in an interview. "It is timely because it is timeless."

Tritle also wrote From Melos to My Lai: War and Survival, tying together ancient and modern ideas of heroism, mourning, and the effects of combat trauma.

Rereading Homer after his time in Vietnam provided a context for his own experience.

"You feel that you're not alone," he said. "You understand that you're not really crazy; you just experienced something beyond the normal. Then you can open up and talk about it."

People writing and watching the plays would have understood what is going on, processing the experience of surviving war and violence and coming up with answers to it all, he said.

Audience members at each performance of "Theater of War" again and again make clear what may be the most common reaction to the struggle with the aftermath of combat and military experience: the sense of being unique in one's suffering, alone in pain and failure, like Philoctetes. That feeling is hard to overcome.

Tritle could only speak about Vietnam at first with fellow former soldiers. He and his wife developed a "no talk rule." She, like Tecmessa and the wives of many soldiers today, felt excluded.

"That's why so many veterans don't talk to civilians," said Tritle. "And it's why some of us who can talk about it should talk about it."

"Theater of War" will be presented to 200 military audiences over the next two years. If the response is similar to the presentations in Washington, D.C., the words of Sophocles, echoing across 24 centuries, may help break down their often painful isolation.

"This is a way of bringing us together, instead of pulling us apart," said Engel.

More information about "Theater of War" is posted at <www.philoctetesproject.org>.blacksquare

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Actor Bill Camp (left) plays a weary Philoctetes, listening to the youthful Neoptolemus (Francois Battiste) try to entice him to give up his weapons. "Theater of War" director and translator Bryan Doerries (right) provides commentary and explanation to an audience of U.S. Marines at Henderson Hall in Virginia. 

Credit: Aaron Levin
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

Gunnery Sgt. Wayne Bowie (left) and Sgt. John Eubanks, both U.S. Marines and combat veterans, take turns commenting on how the two ancient Greek plays by Sophocles resonate with their own experiences in combat. 

Credit: Aaron Levin

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