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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 27, 2011

Ajax fell on his sword, our soldiers shouldn’t have to

The burden of war has been carried on the backs of soldiers over centuries — not just the brutal act of fighting, but the isolation of its emotional toll.  In our society, with a volunteer military, the burden falls upon one percent of the population.  These soldiers have been cycled through war zones in two countries over the last 10 years and suicide has outstripped combat deaths for the last two.

We sat among half-a-dozen veterans on Monday during a performance of Sophocles’s Ajax and Philoctetes — plays that the ancient Greek general wrote 2,500 years ago, illustrating the psychological torment of soldiers.

The story of Ajax, driven mad after nine years of fighting at Troy when he feels betrayed by the generals who pass him over for honors, was familiar to Mike DiNitto.  He spent 24 out of 27 months in Iraq and Afghanistan, having been assured a break after his first deployment.  “They lied to me and sent me there,” he said, explaining that he understood the rage that Ajax felt.

After Ajax, one of the strongest soldiers in the Greek army, had been passed over, he crept under cover of night to the generals’ tent to take revenge and kill them.  He was stopped by the goddess Athena, who blinded him, and he mistook the camp’s livestock for his enemies.

In his rage, he slaughtered cattle and sheep, dragging them home to torture like prisoners.

His wife, having been a witness to his madness, seeks help, explaining that, since he has grown sane, he is horrified with what he’s done.  The chorus responds that his rage has passed and things will be good again.

“But if you had the choice of causing grief to your own friends while feeling good yourself or of grieving too, a suffering man among a common sorrow, which would you choose?” she asks.

The grief for two would be worse, says the chorus.

Ajax’s wife explains that, while they are plagued no more, they face disaster.  “That man in there, when he was still so ill, enjoyed himself while savage fantasies held him in their grip, but we were sane, and, since he was one of us, we suffered.  But now there is a pause in his disease; he can recuperate and understand the full extremity of bitter grief, yet everything for us remains the same — our anguish is no milder than before.  This is surely not a single sorrow, but a double grief?”

Bryan Doerries, founder of the Theater of War that performed the plays, translated that phrase as, “Twice the pain is twice the sorrow.”

The spouses of soldiers who come back from war can often identify with that sentiment, Doerries said.  The memory of war reverberates.

Watching the theatrical struggle is often a comfort to veterans, Doerries said, because they see that they are not alone in what they are feeling.  Even across time, soldiers grapple with the same basic issues.

“Suicide is a big problem in the Army,” said Mariya Kristeva, an active-duty soldier, after the play.

Ajax, ashamed and inconsolable, falls on his sword, killing himself.

Now in our 10th year at war, we must not just welcome home our soldiers, but provide for them the services they need to cope with returning.

Nearly 20 percent of those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression but only about half seek treatment, according to a RAND Corporation study.

Productions like those given by the Theater of War give comfort to those who feel alone and start a conversation about society’s greatest enduring scourge.

“Tragedy is so far from being a proof of the pessimism of the Greeks that it may, on the contrary, be considered a decisive rebuttal and counterexample,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols, “saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heros.”

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