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Ajax and Philoctetes

In Thursday's New York Times (The Arts section, that's why I just got to it) Patrick Healy reports on an interesting program that uses stage readings from Sophocles; it is called a "public health project" to "help service members and relatives overcome stigmas about psychological injuries by showing that some of the bravest heroes suffered mentally from battle."

The founder of Theatre of War said: ""Sophocles was himself a general, and Athens during his time was at war for decades.  These two plays were seen by thousands of citizen-soldiers. By performing these scenes, we're hoping that our modern-day soldiers will see their difficulties in a larger historical context, and perhaps feel less alone."  A soldier is quoted after a reading: "I've been Ajax.  I've spoken to Ajax."

Categories > Education

Discussions - 22 Comments

In fact, this is probably a much more sensible approach to the problem for most people than it seems so-called "therapy" with psychologists and psychiatrists is. I think it is what we used to call "perspective" or "education" . . . amazing.

Julie - On what basis do you say: "this is probably a much more sensible approach to the problem for most people. . . ."?

Terrific book in a similar vein, Jonathan Shay's "Achilles in Vietnam" ( A bit clinical at times, but his readings of Homer are powerful.

Because it norms it, I would think--that if one eventually behaves "well"--with honor and manful courage--then not only will one be "healed", but society must accept you back not just as an equal, but as one who has been tested and has finally proved his mettle in a way that his fellow citizens perhaps have not. In other words, a person of strength.

And the military may want to get this message out--if they believe it--for it is my personal opinion that they actually will abandon, willingly, those who succumb, and while they would gladly send back into the combat zone an amputee, one who has fought himself is over and done with. Period. No redemption. And thus, for those with problems, I would strongly suggest "physician, heal thyself" by reading, because the military is going to do what they think is right for the greater good, and only partially right for yourself. "In short, the military cares, but it no longer cares for you particularly as a useful warrior for the future. Or so it seems to me.

Having said that, none of these stories turn out particularly well, so I wonder if they are the best thing.

On this topic especially, I highly recommend "Shadow of the Sword" by Jeremiah Workman.

It was one day before Christmas, Dec. 24, 2004, and the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines were battling their way through the streets of Fallujah as part of a mission code-named Operation Phantom Fury.

Then-Cpl. Workman and his squad were removing weapons and rubble from the streets left behind from an earlier battle when they heard gunfire down the street – an instant indication that trouble was nearby.

Workman and his squad ran down the street toward a two-story house, where a large number of insurgents had pinned down some Marines. Workman poked his head inside the enemy-infested building and saw Marines on the ground level trying to communicate with the trapped men upstairs. Insurgents were firing heavily upon those below, making communications and movement nearly impossible.

Charging into the house first, Workman ran up the stairs, dodging bullets and firing at enemies as he went. His actions allowed those Marines on the ground floor to quickly exit the house. When he realized none of his squad members were able to follow in the attack, Workman ran back down the stairs and rejoined the team. They regrouped and Workman led a second charge up the stairs; this time, the team was able to follow.

They started clearing the second level, room by room, killing insurgents as they went. Workman alternated between his rifle and grenades, eliminating numerous enemy fighters. Running low on ammunition, the team headed back down the stairs to stock up when an insurgent launched a grenade at the team. The blast went off, embedding shrapnel in Workman’s leg.

Despite being wounded, Workman gathered his team a third time for a final assault strike. Remaining insurgents started firing upon the group from the second floor, but Workman led his team through the ambush to clear the house and retrieve all trapped and injured Marines.

Workman is credited with eliminating more than 20 enemy fighters during the battle. For his actions, Workman received the Navy Cross on May 12, 2006.

Staff Sergeant Workman’s military awards include the Purple Heart, Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medal, and the Combat Action Ribbon.

On the basis that most people struggling with a traumatic event are not ill or abnormal people who need the assistance of a doctor to overcome it. Some probably do. But I would guess a larger number of them just need some context for understanding it. It seems to me that this is a clever way to offer that to people not otherwise educated in these things.

I applaud the initiative: I would especially love to see Sophocles' ANTIGONE played to soldiers in this context. It's probably the single most powerful literary statement of defiance towards heartless authority ever written.

In my experience, there are few Antigones, no matter what the form of the "authority."

Finally, if I were the troops listening to this, it would be well to realize they will never be accepted as equals on the political plane. Past experience hath shown that the Democrats, in particular, like to silence their critics with charges of mental debility. How much more effective will be such charges--and how more scurrilous--if one ever had such an episode. But that speaks more to the honor of Democrats, and the media that allows it to happen. Nevertheless, the warriors affected should understand their country caused their condition and will will will abandon them, even if it be the abandonment of ever again being a man among men, as if the event never happened. One should think long and hard before thinking of again sacrificing for such a nation, and should definitely think hard before recommending others do so.

Ajax commits suicide after killing sheep while under a spell from Athena. Despite the direct interference of a God this reflects poorly on Ajax, to have killed tame beasts (or innocents). Ajax also has a great line about lifting the fog of war to fight and die in the light of day. I still think that if you are speaking to Ajax you are in trouble. I had a drill Sergeant who spoke of being so crazy one would snort Ajax but the context was always clearly the cleaning materials used to clean barracks. Private, you so crazy you been snorting Ajax! With enough Ajax all sorts of stains can be lifted. I don't know, I think you guys are crazy. I don't see Antigone doing much one way or the other. I don't know that Dr.s do much one way or another, but again there is a triage of sorts in post-deployment situation. Personally I think time off, leave, weekend travel passes, and a sort of half day duty schedule for a couple months do the most for morale. While Horatius is right about the cold calculation, a lot of these decisions are made by First Sergeants who do care about soilders and do as much as they can. I also highly prefer Workman's book as an accurate description of what he faced with PTSD and its stigma to just about any other authority. I am worried that the educated followers of the New York Times or literary savants might be diverted by a choice of plays, and carried away by this taste for greek tragedy immagine something innacurate as to its fitness or utility in other contexts. What works as Lotus for the Lotus eaters may not be best. I second Steve Thomas.

That is a good question, how has America lost the sense of appreciation for veterans? We say we appreciate their service, but much of America seems not to appreciate them. I would rather have veterans in my classes, even when "coping" with PTSD, than many of the other young men I see there.

I would agree that much of the problem that veterans have when they return to civilian life has to do with the incomprehension of Americans as to what military experience gave them. My son took an online history course at my college and when the professor found out that he was a Marine vet, every disagreement with her was met with an accusation of violent intimidation. I have heard this from colleagues, too, a presumption of some horrible and barely restrained aggression in returning military men. No one has actually encountered it, though they are always looking for it and, again, every manly difference of opinion is seen as a threat rather than what it is. Actually, if I were in those classes I might have a barely restrained aggression, myself.

One veteran read "All Quiet on the Western Front" and wrote about how hard it is to come home and his relief and wonder to find that even in WWI and maybe always, soldiers had found returning home difficut to do. Maybe all of America should be watching the Theater of War.

A recent book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer is about how Israel uses it's former military men, putting them to better use. Here is an interview:

"The military is where many Israelis learn to lead and manage people, improvise, become mission-oriented, work in teams, and contribute to their country. They tend to come out of their years of service (three for men, two for women) more mature and directed than their peers in other countries."

I find that of my student veterans, except for those who believe, with so much of America, that they are damaged goods, now. That is a heartbreak.

"I would agree that much of the problem that veterans have when they return to civilian life has to do with the incomprehension of Americans as to what military experience gave them."
If the people comprehended war would they support it under the current circumstances? I base this on talking to people from my grandpa down to friends who have served. It's a mixed bag at best when you ask if they made things better. The needs of the politician is for war to be about glory and parades. My grandpa had nightmares till the day he died about the reality of war.

I tend to think this strategy is better than drugging people, but it varies from person to person. I am not shocked, but it is sad to hear how your son was handled. Fear, afterall, is the emotion of our time.

If you are correct about fear being the emotion of our time, then all the more reason for society to embrace those who have been trained to face down their fear.

Oh, please Kate - enough with the cliches from Chuck Norris movies.

I am sorry Craig, I do not watch Chuck Norris movies so I did not know I was borrowing from him. Tell me which movie that is from?

I thought I was quoting something my sons had discussed from Marine basic training. They have their cliches, too.

Well, you better catch up Kate! Chuck and his wife were on Hannity the other night, and it looks like he's going to jump-kick his way into the hearts of right-wing America soon enough.

No time. You and Chuck Norris are on your own. I am sure you will keep telling us all about him, so I don't ever have to watch.

While preparing dinner I was thinking about what you said and realized that my sons must have told me about being told to face their fears for two reasons; first because it was the sort of thing I had told them as I raised them and second because it was probably one of the few things said to them in training that they could actually repeat to me.

That was a little harsh, but since you brought the topic up I think this seen sums up the struggle ahead. David Caradine plays the new world order and chuck norris stars as a battered America.

"If you are correct about fear being the emotion of our time, then all the more reason for society to embrace those who have been trained to face down their fear."

Well, Kate, we can skip the Chuck Norris levity and address your proposal directly. It appears that our troops from the Army and Marines are having some real difficulty facing down their fear. Suicides are a real problem:

"The Marine suicide rate is still below that for civilian populations with similar demographics -- 19.5 per 100,000."

Yet it still shouldn't happen. You say they are not facing their fear, but if their fear is of death, then that is not the fear they are having trouble facing. What do you suppose is the problem?

One veteran's paper spoke to this saying that soldiers fear coming home. They fear that their wives or girlfriends have been unfaithful and given the trends of the day that is a less unreasonable fear than it once was. They fear trying to find civilian work and a place in the civilian world. Those articles both say that the different branches are investigating the causes, which I had also first read in a student/veteran's paper.

Maybe there worried that Arab-loving terrorist sympathizers like Scanlon are going to put them on trial as babykillers. Who knows what awaits them in HUSSEIN Obama's America.

An update on our discussion (not including Hal's "contribution"):

"More U.S. military personnel have taken their own lives so far in 2009 than have been killed in either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars this year, according to a Congressional Quarterly compilation of the latest statistics from the armed services.

As of Tuesday, at least 334 members of the military services have committed suicide in 2009, compared with 297 killed in Afghanistan and 144 who died in Iraq, the figures show."

More here:

I'm surprised that the conservative support-the-troops blogs aren't covering this. Well, no I'm not.

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