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How Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Help Veterans Deal with PTSD

Iraq war veteran Colby Buzzell talks with "Theater of War" author Bryan Doerries about how the story of Ajax can literally save lives.

Like the ancient Greek story of Ajax itself, Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today is at times not an easy read. But it should be on all must-read lists and for all the right reasons. Drawn from classicist and translator Bryan Doerries's experiences as the founder of Theater of War, a theater project that performs at military bases all over the world, Doerries's convincing book shows us how performances of fifth-century Greek tragedies—and the discussions that follow—can help us understand a part of war that's highly overlooked and yet is something that forever effects those who participated in its unique hell. It's a striking and important document that anyone from a four-star general down to your everyday low-ranking infantry grunt can understand and be deeply moved by.

To be honest, when I first received this book, I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? As someone who's witnessed the theater of war up close and personal as an infantryman in the United States Army (Iraq 2003–4) and has lived to tell about it, I found the whole concept to be a bit absurd. I know there's all sorts of crazy shit out there beyond the conventional VA-prescribed prescription medication and/or therapy sessions to help those returning home after war "adjust": yoga, nature hiking, scuba diving, filmmaking, horseback riding, tai chi, herbal and dietary supplements, group drum circles, art projects, meditation, ballet dancing, getaway vacations, bright-light therapy, music therapy, companion dogs, medical marijuana, acupuncture, and other such things. But now there's this bright idea of exposing soldiers to Greek tragedies that were written 2,500 years ago as a way to help those struggling with readjustment issues and PTSD?Get the fuck outta here.

So, to say that I was at first was a bit skeptical of this concept would be a bit of an understatement. Initially, I found myself regarding the project in the same weary way as many of the soldiers, who had been forced by their chain of command to attend these performances, soldiers who soon found themselves not only captivated by these performances but, most importantly, identifying and relating to the story of Ajax. Some to the point where they literally said out loud and to one another: "I am Ajax."

It also didn't take me long at all to be in full agreement with the ambitious Army brigadier general Loree Sutton, who, after witnessing the reaction and success that these performances had, suggested, "Here's what we do, gang. We rent football stadiums, pack them with soldiers—30,000 a performance."

This book needs to be read by that larger audience as well.

Written by the famous playwright Sophocles, who was also a decorated general, Ajax is an uplifting and heartwarming story about a warrior who returns home from war and feels as if he's been betrayed, gets depressed, snaps, goes on a blind killing spree, then kills himself with his own sword. I recently spoke over the phone with author Bryan Doerries about his new book, Ajax, and Sophocles.

VICE: How did you come up with this idea of connecting the ancient Greek tragedies with helping soldiers struggling with PTSD?
Bryan Doerries: I'm not the first person to make the connection between ancient Greek tragedy and the military. There have been people writing about that for a long time with far more scholarly credentials than I have, but I was the first person I guess crazy enough to take ancient Greece plays and to use them to help contemporary soldiers engage in these issues. The idea that Jonathan Shay and others have made really popular starting in the early 90s is that, in ancient Greek storytelling from the Homer epics The Iliad and The Odyssey to Greek tragedies, the very impulse to tell stories in the ancient world in the West was born from the need to hear and tell the veterans' stories. Ancient Greek tragedy, in particular, was a form of storytelling aimed at communalizing the experience of war for an audience that could be comprised of 17,000 citizen-soldiers in a century in which the Athenians saw nearly 80 years of war. Sophocles was a general—he was elected general twice. On Aeschylus's grave, it doesn't say, "Here lies the greatest playwright in the Western world"—it says, "Here lies a man who fought in the battle of Marathon."

I didn't know a single active-duty person in the military when I started Theater of War, so I went with that impulse, I thought, as a civilian, What can I do?

For me, what made your book compelling were the stories about the soldiers responding and relating to the story of Ajax.
I think Sophocles wrote the play to convey to all the citizen-soldiers in Athens that if they had any of the feelings that were being expressed onstage—not those exact feelings, but anything that would even resemble them—then they were not alone. Not alone in a community, not alone in Greece, and not alone across time. He was talking about the Trojan War, which was as distant to them, in some ways, as they are to us.

I was motivated to do [Theater of War] when I read about the Walter Reed scandal in the newspaper in 2007. I was not a great supporter of the decision to invade Iraq. But politics aside, when I read stories about veterans and their families not receiving proper health care on their return, it sounded both like the Vietnam era and it sounded like some of the characters in Sophocles's plays, [where they've] been betrayed by people above them and around them. I just got incensed. I didn't know a single active-duty person in the military when I started Theater of War, so I went with that impulse, I thought, as a civilian, What can I do? It's not helpful for me to be sanctimonious or judge and I can't sit on my hands anymore after reading these stories. There must be something I can do and all I had was Greek and Latin, but I got this idea. It took me a long time to convince anyone in the military that this was a good idea and also how I came without any agenda so they could trust me. Now I've been in front of 60,000 service members and their families, and that experience of hearing their stories has touched me very deeply. It's changed my motivations over and over again. Because the deeper I've gotten into this process, the more motivated I've become and the more I felt an obligation to the people who shared their stories with me.

Recently the New York Times published a pretty bleak and devastating story about a Marine unit that, after returning home from Afghanistan, has been plagued with guys committing suicide. I was never a Marine, nor have I ever been to Afghanistan, but let's say I'm an Iraq veteran, which I am, diagnosed with PTSD and all that good stuff, having difficulty assimilating back to civilian life after war and lately I've been thinking about turning myself into a statistic by blowing my head off. Can you explain to me how an ancient Greek play, written over 2,500 years ago, a story in which you've translated yourself and is performed in an auditorium setting by a bunch of theater actors dressed in street clothes sitting down behind a table, can help a veteran such as the one I described?
I've seen it night after night after night, when veterans recognize their own personal experiences and own internal struggles in an ancient story, and it comes out of left field, they don't expect it. What they expect is hopefully this will be better than a PowerPoint presentation. Their expectations are very low, and they're probably thinking this can be worse, given all the things you've described. So when out of left field they see their own thoughts and their own words and their own ambivalences and their own struggle reflected in something that's 2,500 years old, what I see in the faces of veterans, spouses, and their family members is a palpable sense of release to discover that they are not the only ones who've thought and felt these things. And what that does is opens people up when we get to the discussion—which, to me, is the most important part of every event. We leave time for discussion after every performance, and people stand up and they share incredibly harrowing and incredibly personal stories about their struggles, and they relate them to things they've heard in the plays. The plays give people permission to acknowledge, as a community, what many people have been struggling with alone.

I think the power of these ancient Greek tragedies is to bring these stories out of the dark and into the light because pain is so isolating. I think the feeling of you're the only person having these thoughts, or a pariah for even thinking these thoughts, is common. But there's something in seeing an ancient Greek play where the thoughts are normalized. And it's clear that others have had them and [that], ever since the beginning of humanity, we've been struggling with these issues. Oftentimes we're preforming for mandatory military audiences, that have been "volun-told" as they say, to attend. So it's a great act of courage in front of one's unit, in front of 400 Marines or soldiers, to get up and be truthful about it. But once someone breaks the ice and does that, others follow. And what's most powerful about the Theater of War, for me, as a civilian, is watching veterans take ownership of the project and turn it into something that's useful for them.

On Aeschylus's grave, it doesn't say, 'Here lies the greatest playwright in the Western world.' It says, 'Here lies a man who fought in the battle of Marathon.

Can combat soldiers ever heal from war?
[Long pause] I don't think so. I think it's something you live with. Again, I'm speaking from the outside in, but it seems to me not something you heal from. Sophocles in the play Philoctetes that we do for military audiences describes the wound that the warrior is struggling with as a wound that never heals. And I think that's a helpful way of thinking about it because the half-life of trauma and the half-life of these experiences is decades, and though it's something people live with and manage, it changes them. I think it makes people stronger, too. I believe that, but I'm weary of words like resilience because I think resilience is a word that carries with it a moral judgment of those who don't necessarily display signs of recovery, and I don't think that's something that should be judged.

Let's just say I went ahead and attempted what you did, I translated and adapted the exact same storyline of Ajax, but set it to modern times. Let's say I made him a returning vet from the Iraq or Afghanistan veteran war, had him plagued with PTSD, frustrated with the VA, depression, alcoholic, and drugged him up with all kinds of fun, VA-prescribed pills, and then I had him go out in some John Rambo First Blood-kind of killing spree just like the one Ajax did in the play, and ended the story with him committing suicide also like how Ajax did. People would tear me the fuck apart saying, "Not all veterans are fucked up," saying how I was somehow feeding into this negative veteran stereotype implying that all veterans are more or less ticking time bombs waiting to explode. Have you received any such criticism like that for your translation of Ajax?
I'm sure there's people who feel that way about our work, but it's almost the opposite. The play is almost 2,500 years old, no matter what you see in it—we're not doing [a] documentary representation of soldiers, Marines, or veterans at the VA. It's an ancient story and a lot of it may not even resonate. It's super old, so we're not saying to the audience or to the public: "This is you." We're asking people to make connections. It's putting people in a less defensive place. I'm very wary of theater and film that represents the military. I know that six years into this project I barely have an understanding of the highly coded way people in the military communicate to one another, and I think there's a responsibility of the storyteller not to presume that we could ever to be able to present that truth fully, especially to an audience that's lived it. So what I love about Theater of War and Sophocles' plays is A) they were written by someone in the military and B) they're not describing the present moment so people can make whatever connections they want, but it's not full of judgment and it's not thinking of broad statements about veterans.

Author Bryan Doerries. Photo by Howard Korn/courtesy of Knopf

Theater, as a medium, delivers an experience that no other medium can that shakes people to their core and causes them to question all their presumptions about the military, about democracy, about the impacts of war.

Now, about your question, if all we did was do a play and when it was over everyone went home I would 100 percent agree with that criticism if it were leveled against me or our work because that would be totally irresponsible, to just come in a do a play that described the things that you described in an ancient world and then wash our hands and say, "OK, we've told that story." But the goal of Theater of War is to have a discussion that wouldn't happen otherwise, where people take off the gloves and speak truthfully. In order to get people to that place, whether they're civilians or military, I feel like the power of tragedy is to present the most extreme story possible and then you walk back from that extremity. And not everybody in this room is going to relate to the extremity of the story personally, but we've all felt something in the spectrum to what's been described. I also think that, that fear that you talk about, that judgment, those clichés, of the veteran being a ticking time bomb is real. That people in the civilian world, especially given the disconnect that exists between the civilian and military culture, they think those things.

So, one of the other things that is powerful about the public performances of Theater of War is [that] we can acknowledge the worst nightmare and people can speak truthfully about it and people will say what you just said and it will be acknowledged that not all veterans experience these things at this intensity. In fact, this story, in ways, is trying to depict the most extreme case possible so we can walk back from it and talk about where we stand in our own experiences. You know, people criticized us at the beginning saying, "Oh, you shouldn't stage a suicide for an audience who may be contemplating suicide." What we've learned is that in order to talk about it, you have to name it. In order to name it we have to depict it and by depicting it, Sophocles created the conditions in the ancient world for these Athenians to come together and acknowledge that this is real. The most common response I hear to the question, "Why did Sophocles write these plays?"—and I hear it from military audiences over and over and over again—is the opposite of the criticism you mentioned. The most common response is he writes the plays because it's the truth and not being whitewashed.

I think this is a really challenging question that you've raised, because how do we bridge the divide in a culture that is disconnected from its military? I mean, in theory, people might care about it, but how do you engage people not in their heads but in their guts to really care? I feel that theater, as a medium, delivers an experience that no other medium can that shakes people to their core and causes them to question all their presumptions about the military, about democracy, about the impacts of war, and that's the goal of what we do.

Back when Ajax was written, there was no Department of Veterans Affairs, whose mission is to fulfill President Lincoln's promise "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." Soldiers coming back from war back then didn't have the VA, suicide hotlines, group-therapy sessions, drugs. Now let's say that there was a Department of Veteran Affairs back when Ajax came home from war—do you think there's anything the VA could have saved him?
Oh, absolutely. After a performance of Theater of War on an Army base, a solider stood up and he said, "I think Ajax was thinking of about killing himself when he deceived his family and told them he was OK and walked away brandishing a weapon. But I don't think Ajax knew he was going to kill himself until he was alone, on the sand dune with his gods." And an Air Force guy stood up and said, "Those were his demons." But I think the operative word is alone. The Greeks knew something about suicide that we have yet to figure out as a culture. Very little is known still about why people take their own lives and military suicide is a great mystery to many scientists. We've made some advancements in regards to trauma, but it seems with suicide we're just treading water. And I think the wisdom of the ancient world—the wisdom of the ancient VA, so to speak, because I think the theater of Dionysus was the VA, where the plays took part—is that the healing comes through community. It comes through being brought out of isolation and into the company of others, not others who are struggling with the same things that you are struggling with, but with a community that's willing to collectively shoulder the burden of what has come back with you from war.

I think the VA is a place where veterans go to get the experience of sometimes being connected with fellow veterans. But we as a democracy need to do a better job of creating safe environments where veterans and larger communities can engage in healing dialogue and veterans can be brought out of isolation. This is such a complex problem. This is not something you simply do very easily. I think in some ways American need to wake up to the fact that its our moral obligation, regardless about how people feel about conflicts, to live up to Lincoln's promise as you said, and I don't think Americans are ready to understand or hear that.

The ancient VA, what they did in the theater of Dionysus was Sophocles brought veterans by tribe, which was their military unit, and they would seat them according by rank the generals up front and the cadets in the nosebleed sections in the back and 17,000 people—one third of the population of Athens—would sit for four days and together bear witness to stories that were as graphic or as powerful as Ajax about experiences that only those who've been to war could possibly understand. And I just think there's power that we're lacking in our public discourse on how to help veterans heal.

How has this experience changed the way you now personally interpret the ancient Greek tragedies?
The biggest lesson I've taken away from the Greeks, by way of the military, is I've changed my understanding of relationship between theater and audience. Now, I don't see theater or storytelling as simply culture, but I see it as a really powerful tool, a really powerful intervention to get human beings to face some of the darkest aspects of humanities in a healthy way that helps people reintegrate and heal.

In a way, doesn't that kind of sums up the subtitle of the book, "What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today"?
I'm not a big fan of the subtitle. Because "teach" sounds so academic. I don't know if Greek tragedies teach us anything, but they show us to do something. I see these plays as a door and people walk through the door in their own volition. We can't walk them through the door, but we can present the door, an opening. We can learn from audiences like the military what these ancient stories signify and why they're still so powerful today and why storytelling is so important, but unfortunately in the publishing world, they need something short and spiffy. All the other subtitles we came up were too academic or self-help, and I didn't want it sound that way.

The core question I'm asking is: Whose stories are these? To whom do they belong? And the answer I come up with time and time again is these stories are not the proprietary right of the educated elite who may care about them—which is terrific, and I mean them no disrespect—but I think these stories belong to the people who've lived them.

The biggest misconception about ancient Greece, the thing that we've been missing all this time is all of the wisdom, all of the intuitive genius of the philosophy, of the art, the architecture, playwriting, for better or for worse, was forged in the crucible of war.

Theater of War has toured extensively all over the world to hundreds of military bases, performed to thousands of soldiers. You've listened to countless soldiers and their spouses tell their stories afterwards. What can we learn today from our current military veterans?
Oh, man... [Long pause] that's a great question. [Pause] I just wish that CSPAN could follow us around to every performance and then you could—wherever you were, in a hotel room or in a restaurant—turn it on any time of day and just get the feed of veterans responding to the Theater of War. Because if that happened, it would change everyone's relationship to the military, military conflict, what it means to live in a democracy.

Veterans have taught me—it almost sounds cliché—but I did not understand what the word sacrifice meant until I got started with this project. I certainly didn't understand the level of sacrifice that veterans and their families make and their profound love for one another. I didn't understand the way the military community can come together and act like families in a necessitated way. Because of a vicissitude of multiple deployments I've met children of other families that have [been] split up and the countless adoptions, and all of that was so powerful to witness. I think if you're looking for a condemnation of war, that's way more powerful than people marching in the streets or shouting about their moral positions.

I think if you're looking for that you can find it most powerfully articulated in the mouths of veterans and the words of veterans. Like Sophocles, but also in contemporary veterans. But if you're looking for a celebration of values that have been lost in nearly every other sector of our society, [values] that were the core values of ancient Athenians in Greece, and in our society is just rarified, completely marginalized, if you're looking for a celebration of those values, you can find it in the Greek tragedies. And you can find it in these stories I hear and the people that speak and their actions.

And I think since Vietnam, as a culture, we've paid a lot of lip service to supporting veterans and the military. But I think civilians would benefit by opening up to the values of military culture and military ethos, the warrior ethos. It's not so much that they could learn something from that, but it would enrich their lives in such a profound way to internalize some of those values. The biggest disadvantage of having the military be less than one half percent of our population is that less than one percent of our population is engaged in debating about, concerned with, [or] agonizing over those core values that we see displayed in these stories and in the monologues that we hear.

The biggest misconception about ancient Greece, the thing that we've been missing all this time is all of the wisdom, all of the intuitive genius of the philosophy, of the art, the architecture, playwriting, for better or for worse, was forged in the crucible of war. You cannot extract war from the greatness of that civilization, and we've whitewashed the Greeks in our own mind, and we've marginalized what remains of the heroic values of ancient Greece and our culture and you can find it in the American military. Not that everyone lives by those values, but there was an ongoing struggle and discussion about those values. The thing I keep in contact with everywhere we go is a reverence for the fragility of and the preciousness of human life that those who've confronted death—especially [the] death of friends, death in combat. [Their experience] makes things that are trivial fall away and brings into focus what's important.

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The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today by Bryan Doerries is in bookstores and online from Knopf.