Reading Lysistrata in Kuwait

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Still in Kuwait, waiting to fly -- Longstanding orders from on high forbid U.S. soldiers in Iraq from doing most of the things soldiers historically like to do, such as drink, gamble, screw, and keep exotic pets. The rules do not, however, forbid soldiers from reading about these vices. In Kirkuk in 2005, one of the most popular authors in the Air Force library was Zane, a soft-core pornographer whose work is apparently just clean enough not to offend "military values."

One of the odd pleasures of military bases is the eccentricity of base libraries. The libraries' holdings come mostly from donations, and stickers on their covers often specify the charity that sent them. Their selection is bizarre. When you scan the shelves you can immediately tell that no single human or bookseller would have amassed such a random group of books. Harold Robbins, Lampedusa, Louis L'Amour, Tommy LaSorda, and Jerry Seinfeld's Seinlanguage could easily share a shelf. Self-help, religion, and airport best-sellers are perennial favorites. Once, in Mosul, I saw soldiers filling a footlocker, and one of the last items they put in it was a volume of the complete works of William Blake. The owner of the footlocker had been wounded or killed, and the soldiers were rounding up possessions to send home to Fort Lewis.

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Three books dominate the holdings here in Kuwait. Robin Wright's book on the Middle East is on nearly every shelf, as is Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. (I wonder if any young soldier, on his first deployment overseas, has picked up Two Years and taken strength or comfort from "learning by harsh contrasts.") And copies abound of a surprising third, the Signet Classics edition of Aristophanes's Lysistrata, about a title character who organizes a sex-strike among the women of Athens to convince their men to end the Peloponnesian War.

No one has cracked the spines of these copies of Lysistrata. I wonder what an American soldier would make of it now. It has, first of all, plenty of drinking and screwing and fighting, and the title heroine's name means "army disbandment." (If that doesn't offend military values, it probably should.)

Did some peacenik Hellenist send these copies as a joke? If so, the irony cuts both ways. The play is undeniably anti-war, and its presence in a military morale center gives me a subversive thrill. But Lysistrata is also about the irresistibility of the urge to party, and the nobility of efforts that involve abstaining from this basic human instinct. The Athenian women complain desperately about how much they will miss sex -- and when finally Lysistrata convinces them to cross their legs, she does so only by bribing them with another vice, a slug of wine. Except for this last part, the sacrifice the women of Athens feels a bit like the kind of self-denial imposed on US soldiers. In any case, withholding sex, the Athenian women's tool for ending the war, evidently now works to prolong it, or at least fight it more effectively.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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