Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sophocles Soothes the Traumas of War

The NYTimes has a nice piece about how a few critically acclaimed actors in the acting troupe The Theater of War have been performing readings of Sophocles' Philoctetes and Ajax, for troops dealing with the traumas of war.

November 12, 2009
The Anguish of War for Today’s Soldiers, Explored by Sophocles

The ancient Greeks had a shorthand for the mental anguish of war, for post-traumatic stress disorder and even for outbursts of fratricidal bloodshed like last week’s shootings at Fort Hood. They would invoke the names of mythological military heroes who battled inner demons: Achilles, consumed by the deaths of his men; Philoctetes, hollowed out from betrayals by fellow officers; Ajax, warped with so much rage that he wanted to kill his comrades.

Now officials at the Defense Department are turning to the Greeks to explore the psychic impact of war.

The Pentagon has provided $3.7 million for an independent production company, Theater of War, to visit 50 military sites through at least next summer and stage readings from two plays by Sophocles, “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” for service members. So far the group has performed at Fort Riley in Kansas; at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md.; and at last week’s Warrior Resilience Conference in Norfolk, Va.

The scenes from “Ajax” show the title character plotting to murder Greek generals who have disgraced him. Under a trance by the goddess Athena, he ends up slaughtering farm animals he thinks are the officers. Ajax’s concubine is depicted as trying to bring him to his senses; the final scene shows Ajax in agony, committing suicide.

The “Philoctetes” segment portrays Greek military leaders plotting to trick the hero into leading an attack on Troy, and shows Philoctetes struggling with both physical and emotional pain.


“Sophocles was himself a general, and Athens during his time was at war for decades,” he continued. “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.”

Film screenings and theater performances have long been staples of mental health and rehabilitation services, intended to provoke discussions among viewers who might dislike talk therapy but who can identify with characters or plot points.

For active-duty soldiers, stigmas about therapy can be even greater, psychologists say. Concerns that they might be passed over for promotion or regarded as weak have prevented some from seeking help from mental health professionals.

“There is good evidence that active-duty personnel worry about the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Richard J. McNally, the director of clinical training in the psychology department of Harvard University.

Some troubled veterans do not seek help even after their service careers are over, said Dr. McNally, who has worked in the field of trauma and memory, especially with war veterans, since the mid-1980s but is not involved with Mr. Doerries’s project.

“If seeing the Theater of War can reduce stigma and help veterans seek these treatments, then that will be wonderful indeed,” he added.

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