In ancient Athens, during the fifth century BC, military service was required of all citizens. To be a citizen meant being a soldier, and vice versa. Because every citizen served in the military, the health of the democracy depended upon the health of its soldiers, and the ability of citizen-soldiers to move fluidly and frequently between the worlds of military service and civic participation. And so it is no coincidence that roughly one-third of the Athenian population would gather each spring in the Theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis to watch plays that expressed the anguish, loss, betrayal, confusion, and horror of war. The Greeks knew that it wasn't adaptive to cry during combat, but they also knew that the emotions associated with war couldn't be bottled up forever, and that they needed to be released in the presence of a community, rather than in isolation.
In the United States today, less than one percent of our population has served in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of compulsory service, we have an all-volunteer army, one that has been leaned upon far too heavily over the past decade, while many Americans have remained largely untouched by war. As I once heard a one-star Army general say, borrowing from Winston Churchill, "Never has so great a burden been placed upon the shoulders of so few on behalf of so many for so long." The long-term cost of repeatedly deploying our volunteer military to land wars in the Middle East is just now beginning to be felt, and yet most Americans remain inured to the struggles of our veterans.
The news of late has been flooded with stories about the signature injuries incurred by those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — such as traumatic brain injuries, multiple amputations, and posttraumatic stress — along with stories of corruption and scandal at some of our nation's top military medical hospitals and Veterans Affairs facilities. And yet there is little sense of urgency in most American communities with regard to the importance of helping veterans and their families reintegrate and heal. Without a draft, the ever-growing divide between military and civilian cultures continues to widen. In spite of this gulf, the health of our democracy still depends upon the mental and physical health of those who have served.
When I founded Theater of War in 2008, a public health project that presents readings of ancient Greek war plays for military and civilian audiences as a catalyst for powerful town hall discussions about the impact of war on individuals, families, and communities, I didn't know anyone in the military. I was a citizen who had opposed the wars, but who had also grown outraged about the treatment of veterans by the very government that had sent them into harm's way. Over the past six years, Theater of War has presented more than 320 performances of Sophocles' Ajax and Philoctetes — two tragedies that timelessly depict the visible and invisible wounds of war — for over 60,000 service members, veterans, and their loved ones on military installations throughout the world.
During those performances and the discussions that have followed them, I have observed that people who have lived lives of mythological proportions, who have faced the stakes of life and death, who have loved and lost, and who know the meaning of sacrifice seem to have little trouble relating to these ancient plays. And what I have seen, night after night, in the faces of military audience members, is a palpable sense of relief to discover that they are not alone. While the response to the project by military audiences has been overwhelmingly positive and strong, many service members and their spouses have approached me after performances to say how vitally important they believe it to be that civilians are also exposed to these stories and participate in national dialogue about the human cost of war.
Very early in the evolution of the Theater of War, in service of expanding the reach of the project beyond fences and guard posts that circumscribe and isolate most military communities, we began performing in public venues for mixed military/civilian audiences, with the hope of beginning to bridge the divide. One of the questions at the center of those early performances was whether military and civilian audiences would be able to hear each other.
In 2009, after a dramatic reading of scenes from Ajax and Philoctetes for a mixed audience in a large, neoclassical auditorium at the University of Virginia, a retired Army captain leaned into a microphone and shook the crowd to its core, as he slowly and methodically described his darkest moment during the Iraq War. The captain had ordered a missile strike on a house, thinking — due to faulty intelligence — that insurgents lay in wait within. But when the smoke cleared, he discovered that he had in fact killed an innocent family, including children who were the age of his own kids back home. He'd never been able to shake the image from his mind. On good days, he was able to live with it. On bad days, he was overwhelmed and debilitated with guilt for what he had done.
When the captain finished telling his story, the room fell still. Then, after a long, uncomfortable silence, an older man in the far back of the theater raised his hand and asked for a microphone. "I have no idea what I'm going to say," he began, haltingly, "I am a doctor. I live in this community and I have no connection to the military. And I guess I just want to say to you, sir, that I feel that I do not deserve to have been here tonight to hear your story."
The captain took a moment to let the words sink in. Then he looked up at the man in the back and said, "Thank you for saying that. I, too, feel that I do not deserve to be here."
As illustrated by the doctor and the soldier that night, and after many Theater of War performances since, in order to bridge the divide that exists between our military and civilian cultures, we must approach each other with compassion, a willingness to listen, and — above all — humility.
After an early performance of Theater of War, a general stood up and said that she thought Sophocles had written the plays we perform, "To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." And that is what happens every time we present Theater of War for diverse audiences. We are comforted by what brings us together across vastly different life experiences. We are comforted by our collective ability to have a reaction to a portrayal of human suffering. fulmira And we are afflicted by the reality that there is so much more to be done to mitigate the suffering of those — who may be suffering in silence — sitting to our left and our right. We are afflicted by the fact that facing tragedy as a community is just the beginning.