Matthew Green and Bryan Doerries discuss the links between Greek tragedy, post-traumatic stress disorder and the cathartic power of drama.
Matthew Green: In your new book The Theater of War you recount how you convinced the US military to let your company perform Greek tragedies to soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq. The results are electrifying: the wrenching portrayal of the remorse, rage and grief suffered by warriors from the ancient world serves as a catalyst for a collective catharsis among their modern-day equivalents. Something about the performances, particularly of Sophocles’ Ajax, creates a unique space where serving men and women speak freely of emotions they may never otherwise have expressed. Such spaces are certainly few and far between in the British Army, whose own ambivalence towards psychological injury I explore in Aftershock.
From reading The Theater of War, it seems that one of the most potent extracts you employ is the demise of Ajax, the Greek hero. Ajax is driven to such despair through a sense of betrayal by his command that he falls on his enemy’s sword, despite the desperate pleas of his wife Tecmessa. The scene is as hypnotic as it is horrifying – and your book captures the highly-charged response it evokes among military audiences, as well as your own sometimes precarious campaign to win over generals, who are predictably nervous over such a taboo-smashing enterprise. At the same time, it does seem remarkable that a play written in the fifth century BC could have such a powerful effect today – acting like a solvent, capable of dissolving the boundaries of hierarchy, discipline and rank that are so integral to military life. What is it about the work of Sophocles, do you think, that speaks so clearly to today’s soldiers?
Bryan Doerries: Back in 2008, when I first started presenting readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes for US military audiences, it was still seen as a career-ending gesture for a soldier or marine to raise his or her hand and admit to suffering from a psychological injury. Also, if soldiers or marines attempted suicide in theatre, they could be court-martialed, drummed out of the military, stripped of the very medical benefits they so desperately needed. The stakes were high, the need was great, and, as one of the forward-looking generals who first supported Theater of War would often say, ‘Time is not our friend.’ The military leadership that embraced the project knew that for returning veterans to seek and receive help for invisible wounds, the culture would need to change. Theatre is a medium that is well-suited for disrupting presumptions because it confronts us – in a visceral way – with questions about what we claim to value. If the military’s value is to ‘never leave a soldier behind,’ as is said, then Sophocles’ plays are saying: Look how hard it is to live up to that value when it comes to these insidious, invisible wounds. Look what is required of us. Look at what we must endure.
At first blush, presenting ancient Greek tragedies to military audiences sounds a bit pretentious and ill-advised. But Sophocles served as a general in the Athenian army. The audiences for whom his plays were performed would undoubtedly have been composed of thousands of veterans, as military service in ancient Athens was a requirement of all citizens. Also, during the fifth century BC, the Athenians saw nearly eighty years of war. And so it is no coincidence that Sophocles and his contemporaries wrote plays that speak, not just to core military values that transcend time – honour, courage, sacrifice, commitment – but to experiences that those who’ve been to war, or cared for those who’ve been to war, intrinsically understand.
The plays we perform for military audiences describe warriors with visible and invisible wounds struggling to maintain their dignity and sense of purpose. At the heart of both plays is one central theme: betrayal. And it is this theme that speaks most forcefully and directly to veterans and their loved ones today. Betrayal, it seems, is the wound that cuts the deepest – what we are now calling ‘moral injury.’ Something happens that violates your sense of what is right and your whole moral universe begins to implode. Anyone who works in a complex hierarchy, especially those who make life or death decisions, runs the risk of being betrayed in this way on a daily basis. I also think that asymmetrical warfare raises the likelihood of experiencing this kind of betrayal. And so it follows that these ancient plays – in certain ways, for specific audiences – may be more relevant now than they were in their own time.
In your moving and illuminating book Aftershock, you report on the lives, struggles and triumphs of returned combat veterans and their families in the UK. From reading your book, I get the sense that the culture shift that was beginning here in the United States back in 2008 – which led to more resources for veterans and their loved ones who were struggling with the psychological consequences of war – is still in its infancy in UK. What is the discourse on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and moral injury like in the British military, and even among mental health professionals in the UK, right now? What is the government doing/not doing to support British veterans? What role do you hope your book, and other projects like it, will play in reframing how people think about these issues, and opening up pathways to healing?
MG: Before I respond, your comment about the risk of your performances seeming potentially ‘pretentious or ill-advised’ reminds me of a great moment in your book where you find yourself in an awkward stand-off with the wife of a general in the US Marine Corps. Enjoying a status akin to royalty, she gives you an ostensibly warm welcome while bristling with barely concealed menace. She’s clearly nervous about the Pandora’s box you’re about to open – perhaps justifiably so!
BD: She had good reason to be nervous. We were nervous, too. We had no idea what would happen. I had a hunch that something good would come from it, something constructive, but what we were asking them to do went against the grain of their culture and their traditional mode of communicating. The military is generally a top-down hierarchy. Those at the bottom are not typically asked to express their opinions or emotions in front of leadership. What Theater of War did that night, and still does today, is create a leaderless environment. For forty-five minutes to an hour, after one of our performances, the hierarchy dissolves, and it becomes permissive for a lance corporal or a private to speak the truth of his or her experience in front of the highest-ranking generals. That’s when I know it’s working – when the lowest ranking person in the room is the one speaking, even if he’s saying something offensive or repugnant. We’ve succeeded when we’ve created the conditions for a conversation to happen that never would have otherwise taken place, in which those who have lived the experiences described by the plays are the ones who are empowered to speak.
MG: To go to your questions about the British response to PTSD, there’s no doubt that the military has become much more cognizant of the realities of psychological injury after the intense campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The National Health Service (NHS), which takes responsibility for soldiers when they leave, is also doing what it can on a shoe string budget and there is an array of military charities. That said, I met many forces families who have faced a frustrating and demoralizing battle to find anything approaching effective help and the system is still failing to reach many of the most vulnerable – particularly the many veterans self-medicating with alcohol.
The second major unacknowledged problem is that much of the therapy we are offering trauma survivors in Britain – civilian as well as military – is, to put it bluntly, a waste of time. In many cases, a veteran suffering from PTSD will be referred for a form of talking therapy – where the aim is to work through the trauma during a series of conversations between therapist and patient. In some cases this can be a great help, but I discovered while researching Aftershock that talking alone is often practically useless for the most severe forms of trauma, and can even be damaging if not handled properly. This is because the oldest, most primitive parts of the brain that drive the flashbacks, insomnia, explosive anger and other signature symptoms of PTSD simply don’t respond to carefully worded argument. So you’re probably not going to get very far trying to talk somebody out of their worst trauma.
To stand a chance of really helping somebody to heal – rather than merely manage their symptoms – you have to go deeper. You have to find ways to engage with the layers of the brain that govern the flight or fight response and other delicate mechanisms. I explored a wide range of approaches – one of them involves bilateral stimulation of the eyes, which seems to help process traumatic memories in a mysterious way nobody fully understands. I also saw how one veteran experienced an incredible inner transformation through equine therapy, which harnesses the healing power of horses to effect profound change in the way you relate to animals – whether they have four legs or two. One of the most powerful techniques I write about is essentially a modern-day form of shamanism practiced by seasoned psychiatrists in Scotland and underpinned by the latest advances in neuroscience.
After learning about these kinds of therapies, I was forced to conclude that the British military and medical establishments, with some rare exceptions, are probably ten to fifteen years behind the best trauma work being done in the US – though the most cutting-edge work has yet to be rolled out to scale in America, too. I very much hope that Aftershock will encourage the powers that be to stop scoffing at the new wave of treatments and give them the serious consideration they deserve. With a little more open-mindedness and imagination, we could spare thousands of military families a lifetime of unnecessary suffering.
I also think we should be looking more closely at the potential for collective forms of healing. In your book you describe the catharsis that groups of soldiers experience during and after Theater of War. I’m curious: do you think the performances triggered an essentially temporary – albeit very welcome – emotional release? Or did they somehow serve as a catalyst for lasting change?
BD: True healing requires deep, holistic therapies. No question. And, though I am no expert, it seems apparent that talk-based approaches have their limitations, especially for talk-averse populations, like the military. And that’s one of the reasons why Sophocles’ plays have been successful. They provide a vocabulary, syntax, for starting a conversation. But to clarify, I don’t see Theater of War as therapy. It’s an anti-stigma campaign. And it’s a door. People walk through it, of their own volition, and toward various paths of healing.
For many people, it can be a profound experience – in the moment – to see their struggles reflected in ancient stories, to realize they are not alone across time. But for many more, the experience takes time to unpack, and the lasting effects of the plays can be felt for weeks, months, and years. We’ve had people contact us long after performances to say that seeing Theater of War prompted them to speak to their spouses about war experiences for the first time, to seek counselling, or to check themselves into alcohol or substance abuse treatment programs. We’ve even heard of suicides that were averted when people came forward after performances and revealed their plans to loved ones or friends. We’ve had audience members come back multiple times to see the project, travelling to different venues across the country. One veteran raised his hand during a discussion and said, ‘This is my twelfth time seeing Theater of War and I get something new from it every time.’
We’re currently working with a clinical team from a major research hospital in the United States to try to measure the intended and unintended consequences of our approach, and to quantify impact. But it’s a real challenge. How does one measure the impact of a single performance or experience in an individual’s life? I try to measure the impact of our performances on a case-by-case basis. The question I ask myself is: how far is this community capable of going? For some, just naming the issues, putting them into words in front of a crowd, is a huge accomplishment. For others, making and articulating huge discoveries may be possible. But I can usually tell, very soon after we start, where the walls are. And if we’ve expanded the space in some way, traversed some boundaries, then I consider the performance a success.
One of the most constructive things that Theater of War does is provide a safe space for the sharing of stories and the communalization of war that isn’t a pub or bar. For centuries, drinking establishments have been the place where veterans have gone to feel connected, to open up and tell war stories, and to numb their pain. The relationship between combat trauma and excessive drinking can be traced back as far as Homer’s Odyssey, and likely has been part of the equation for as long as humans have waged war. In your book, in a chapter called ‘Lager Therapy,’ you explore the combat veteran’s impulse to self-medicate with alcohol. In that chapter, I was shocked to read that of the roughly 350 military charities in the UK, you found only one that offered in-house addiction treatment. Is alcoholism really seen as a separate issue in the UK, rather than a direct result of combat trauma and the pervasive drinking culture in the military? Given the scale of the drinking problem, why aren’t more services being offered to veterans and what does this say about cultural attitudes toward addiction in the UK?
MG: It’s one of those problems that’s so glaring that we’re all too polite to mention it – some might say a very British response. You’re right – there’s a striking mismatch here between the amount of resources allocated to treating alcohol abuse among soldiers and the scale of the need. To give one rather poignant example, at the lone rehab charity you mention, I met a young man who had left the army a few years earlier. He wore a molded carbon-fibre blade in place of his right leg. I assumed he must have stepped on a Taliban bomb – in fact he had returned from Afghanistan unscathed but lost his lower leg after kicking through plate glass at his barracks during a drunken argument. As you say, many others resort to alcohol to self-medicate symptoms of PTSD. One Iraq veteran told me how he had begun by drinking a few extra beers – before long it was a bottle of vodka for breakfast. He has never found effective help to break the vicious cycle of having flashbacks, drinking to oblivion to blot them out, and collapse. I received an email from him earlier today after a long hiatus – he told me he’d been in hospital for the past two months. In the last few years, he’s been admitted more than thirty times.
Despite the enormous toll that alcohol abuse takes on soldiers and their families, it’s been treated almost as an afterthought by the authorities – which I think is telling on a number of levels. Firstly, alcohol has been such an integral part of military life that there’s still very much a nod and a wink attitude in the chain of command. In fairness, the drinking culture is not quite as outrageous as it was during the wild heyday of cheap lager at British bases in Germany in the 80s and 90s. And the army has, to its credit, started a pilot peer-to-peer monitoring scheme aimed at encouraging young men to moderate their consumption – a little like the military’s better established system for identifying individuals suffering symptoms of trauma. But there’s still only limited support available for soldiers with drinking problems and many find their lives only spiral out of control when they leave.
Second, Britain’s military charity sector, which has played a quasi-official role in supporting veterans since the end of the First World War, has largely been content to leave the problem of substance abuse to the NHS, which takes responsibility for veterans’ healthcare as soon as they leave the military. (There’s certainly no British equivalent to the Department of Veterans Affairs.) But it’s clear that the NHS is already overwhelmed and it’s widely acknowledged that many combatants find it very difficult to open up in civilian settings.
Thirdly, it’s a money thing. Military charities have enjoyed phenomenal fundraising success by tapping an outpouring of public sympathy for soldiers wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan – particularly amputees. Help for Heroes, for example, was only founded in 2007 but was soon raising more than £30 million a year. Many smaller organisations have sprung up in its wake with names on the ‘for Heroes’ theme – there is ‘Fishing for Heroes’, ‘Holidays for Heroes’ and ‘Rugby for Heroes’ but you won’t find ‘Rehab For Heroes’. No matter what the Odyssey may have to say about the relationship between alcohol and combat trauma, the idea of legions of troubled ex-forces quietly drinking themselves to death just doesn’t square with a deep-rooted impulse in our national psyche to project an aura of heroism onto our soldiers – no matter that most baulk at the label, and would much prefer to be recognized for what they are: highly-trained professionals (who may, at times, perform undoubtedly courageous deeds). Charities are well aware of the scale of the military’s drink problem, but I suspect they fear the public may be more ambivalent about extending their generosity to those with alcohol or drug addictions than those who have been shot or blown up.
Last but not least, many of the people in positions of power in Britain’s biggest military charities are themselves former officers who remain very loyal to the Army. I suspect many would baulk, perhaps unconsciously, at the idea of overtly acknowledging the corrosive impact of alcohol on the forces. Just as an individual can be in denial about a drinking problem, so can an institution.
There’s plenty more to be said on this, but I hope you’ll forgive a question I’ve been meaning to ask – related specifically to the plays you perform. We’ve talked about how they resonate with present-day audiences in a number of ways, but I’m curious if there are any particular lines from Sophocles that you can be almost certain will trigger a reaction – or does it depend on the audience which stanzas have the most impact? Let’s hear a few lines!
BD: There are so many to choose from that it’s challenging to pick just one. Here’s a speech from Sophocles’ Ajax, in which Ajax’s wife (or battle bride), Tecmessa, begs the warrior not to take his own life. As you know, the play tells the story of the warrior Ajax’s suicide during the ninth year of the Trojan War, depicting its impact upon his wife, son, brother, troops and the entire Greek chain of command. The original text is close to 2,500 years old, and yet I’ve had countless military spouses approach me after performances to say that Tecmessa’s words sounded like things they had said to their husbands and wives. For them, the play wasn’t effete poetry. It was kitchen sink realism.
Lord Ajax, there is nothing
worse in this world for men
than the necessity of fate.
I came from a wealthy family.
My father was the richest man
in Phrygia; now I am a slave.
The gods willed that you would
win me with your strength. And
I have accepted my destiny of
sharing your bed, and have come
with time to love you very much.
And so I beg you, by our home
and by the bed we share, do not
let me suffer at the hands of your
enemies, do not turn me over
to the men whom you hate, for
on the day you die, moments
after your death, your son and I
will be snatched up violently by
the Greeks and treated like slaves.
One of my new masters will sneer
at me and say: ‘Look. There is
that woman, the mistress of Ajax,
the strongest warrior in the entire
army. Can you actually believe that
people used to envy her? She is
nothing now but a common slave.’
That’s what he’ll say, and worse.
And the pain of it will be my fate, and
the shame of it will stain your family.
Think about your father, whom you
will be abandoning in the throes of
old age, and your poor old mother,
who spends all her days praying that
you will someday return home alive.
And what about your son? Can you
imagine how hard your death will be
on him, growing up fatherless and
without food on the table, living with
men who hate him for being your son?
I have nowhere else to go, no one to
whom to turn. My parents are dead.
You destroyed my homeland. You now
are my homeland, my safety, my life.
Nothing else matters but you. I ask you
to remember all the good times we had
and to treat me kindly, for a noble man
always remembers those who gave him
pleasure and protects them from danger.
Are there sections of Tecmessa’s speech that resonate with things you’ve heard military spouses say in the UK?
MG: The sheer desperation in Tecmessa’s voice echoes through the centuries, doesn’t it? It’s precisely the desperation I encountered among the wives, girlfriends or partners of soldiers struggling with symptoms of PTSD. In Liverpool, I got to know a support group for military carers called Combat PTSD Angels. They have a members-only Facebook page where they vent about their daily fight to hold their families together. One of them was a woman named Faye who had fallen in love with her husband when they were both teenagers and he was still a raw recruit. Fifteen years on, he had been diagnosed with PTSD, and his bouts of uncontrollable anger – reminiscent of Ajax’s rages – had driven her to despair. I think you’ll agree there’s an echo of Tecmessa in this post Faye wrote on the Combat PTSD Angels wall:
‘Through sickness and in health! I meant every word! What if the sickness is a rage redder than red that tears thru our house, our home leaving a trail of devastation and terror! Two years into full blown military ptsd and I’m asking myself where do I draw the line? When do I say enough is enough? Will my children grow up nervous wrecks, scared of their shadows and too afraid to speak up? How many more times do I have to work through tears trying to stop shaking as I fold clothes or wash up? I’m done! I’m tired!’
To my mind, a similar sense of exhaustion, loneliness and fear over the fate of children are the driving force behind Tecmessa’s admonishment of Ajax:
And what about your son? Can you
imagine how hard your death will be
on him . . . ? I have nowhere else to go, no one to
whom to turn.
The widespread feeling of having ‘no one to whom to turn’ among forces wives was the impetus for monthly meetings the Combat PTSD Angels held at a community centre in Liverpool. These small gatherings were characterised by a combination of dark humour, hugs, shared confidences and occasional tears that I suspect would have made Tecmessa feel very much at home. Women talked about returning to find police marksmen in the street after their husbands had wrecked their houses – just as Ajax did in the play – or being woken up in the night by their partner lashing out in his sleep, or screaming in the grip of night terrors – similarly Ajax-like behaviour.
Sometimes, the psychic residue of war resurfaces in more banal, but no less chilling ways. One ‘Angel’ described how her husband – a Gulf War veteran – had refused to help their young daughter when she got stuck in the mud during a beach holiday in Wales. He had told his wife he didn’t want to ruin his shoes. It was only later that she realized he was terrified to step onto the sand because the seaweed evoked memories of the tufts of hair of dead Iraqi soldiers, half-buried in the desert.
BD: Throughout Sophocles’ play, Ajax speaks to the overwhelming sense of powerlessness and shame that follows dissociation – when a memory or an event suddenly triggers a break with reality. He says, ‘The relentless, dark-eyed daughter of Zeus, ravaged me with madness,’ causing him to ‘stain his hands with the blood of cows.’
I vividly remember a combat veteran with severe PTSD, after one of our performances, relating to the helplessness that Ajax and Tecmessa both feel and express in the face of his temporary and involuntary separation from reality. The veteran said that some mornings, while sitting at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee, he ‘goes away . . . and then comes back.’ And, he continued, ‘It’s painful to lose control that way – to go away and then come back. But it’s even more painful to be observed by my wife, going away and coming back.’
Sophocles’ play names and articulates our individual and collective feeling of helplessness in the presence of these insidious, invisible wounds. Or, as a veterans’ court judge in Michigan remarked after a Theater of War performance, ‘Watching the play was like watching a 747 fall out of the sky and crash at our feet in real time.’ Ajax is painful to witness precisely because we know what’s going to happen.
Why would Sophocles wish to evoke such a sense of helplessness in audiences? Why would he place a military spouse on stage in front of a large crowd of citizen-soldiers that would likely have included few, if any women, and attempt to give voice to the helplessness and isolation experienced by military dependents and family members? I would contend that by creating a space for the Athenian audience to bear witness to the helplessness, guilt, isolation and shame that result from the trauma of war – impacting everyone, at every level – Sophocles challenged his community, and ours, to collectively shoulder the burden together, rather than ostracizing and isolating people precisely because we feel helpless in the face of their suffering.
MG: What you just said has crystallized a feeling I had throughout my research on Aftershock, but which I never quite managed to put into words: we ostracize and isolate people precisely because we feel helpless in the face of their suffering. Though there are many charities and support groups across Britain that help ex-forces to confront this suffering, these are almost exclusively veteran-only spaces – with the exception sometimes of support workers or supervisors. Providing such spaces – where veterans feel safe to open up among trusted and empathetic peers – is of course a vital first step. But we tend to stop there, leaving the bigger question Sophocles was trying to address in his plays unanswered: how to involve the whole community in the process of healing? War is an inherently communal enterprise, and the more society can acknowledge – and even at some level feel – the distress of individual soldiers, the more likely they are to survive their wounds and even transcend them. As you’ve proved with Theater of War, theatre can be an incredibly powerful crucible to realize this process. It’s encouraging to note that there are also a growing number of other companies – some comprised of former soldiers – seeking to facilitate just the kind of collective, transformational encounter with war trauma unleashed by Sophocles.
Having witnessed one of your Theater of War performances in London, I think it would be fantastic if you were able to do many more in Britain – for soldiers, their families and broader audiences. If you ever make it to Liverpool, I suspect that Combat PTSD Angels would pack the house. Many of the ‘Angels’ are very familiar with the dilemma that Tecmessa so powerfully portrays in the extract you cite: distinguishing aggressive outbursts as a symptom of trauma from deliberate acts of vindictiveness or cruelty.
Like Tecmessa, the women felt compelled to confront their men – but they knew that being too assertive could backfire. Many had considered walking out, but fleeting moments of normality persuaded them to stay. A wife called Sue, the founder of Combat PTSD Angels, whose husband had served in Northern Ireland, spoke for all when she said:
‘Those golden moments when you see your husband’s personality coming out – that’s what keeps us all going, isn’t it? You’ll have a golden moment every couple of months and you’ll think: “That’s what I’m fighting for and that’s why I’m still here.”’
Her words are not so far from Tecmessa’s final cry:
I ask you to remember all the good times we had
and to treat me kindly, for a noble man
always remembers those who gave him
pleasure and protects them from danger.
Tecmessa lost her fight to save Ajax, but there are thousands of military carers in Britain, and no doubt very many more across the US, who are engaged in similar life or death battles. I hope that Aftershock might show at least a few more wives and husbands living under the shadow of war trauma that they are far from alone, and illustrate some of the many ways in which heroism is not confined to the battlefield.
BD: After an early performance of Theater of War, a general officer stood up in front of an audience of high-ranking generals and defence officials in Virginia and said that she believed Sophocles had written his plays ‘to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.’ That’s the goal. It has become our motto.
Photographs © Carole Raddato, Gerard Collett