Tragic Heroes

What today’s veterans can learn from tales of the Trojan War

Spit flies from the wounded soldier’s mouth and his face pulses, red. “Death! Where are you?” roars Philoctetes, played by the actor Paul Giamatti. “Why, after all these years of calling, have you not appeared?” About 200 military mental-health experts watched him spiral into despair as they worked their way through box lunches, squeezed into a suburban-D.C. hotel conference room. “Earth, swallow this body whole, receive me just as I am, for I can’t stand it any longer,” he moans, breathless. “I am wretched, afflicted, and alone.”

Sophocles wrote these words 2,400 years ago when he inventoried the maladies of combat veterans in his plays Philoctetes and Ajax, which recount two Greek soldiers’ anguish during the Trojan War. Now the Theater of War project has revived these ancient stories, with a plain message for today’s veterans: your experiences are timeless. For as long as men have fought one another, they surely have been psychologically damaged by it. The diagnosis has changed over the years—shell shock, battle fatigue, combat stress, and now post-traumatic stress disorder—but the consequences have remained constant: anger, isolation, guilt, grief, helplessness, and, at the most extreme, wrecked families and suicide.

Most of the many recent plays and films about Iraq and Afghanistan have failed commercially. But the Sophocles readings target a much narrower audience. Director Bryan Doerries has shown his production to five military audiences since August and hopes to expand its reach and perform regularly for returning troops. “I would like to see these plays used to destigmatize psychological injury,” he said.

Indeed, overcoming stigma has been the Pentagon’s trickiest problem in treating PTSD in recent combat veterans, who are trained to suppress discomfort and focus on the mission, and who have difficulty acknowledging mental damage and asking for assistance. The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury invited Doerries to its November conference, a brainstorming session on ways to make soldiers more resilient in the face of combat and encourage them to seek help. Ajax and Philoctetes have much to say about both.

“War is war is war is war, and hasn’t changed in 3,000 years,” psychiatrist Jonathan Shay told me. He has treated Vietnam veterans for 20 years and has written two books comparing contemporary soldiers’ experiences—both in combat and at home—to those of the men in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. For the Athenians, Shay said, theater served as a bridge between the battlefield and civil society, a mix of therapy, purification, and reintegration. Communalizing combat trauma, he argued, can help heal it, making recovery a shared experience. I would have liked to see these plays when I came home from Iraq, not for insights on leaving the battlefield and reintegrating into old lives, but for commiseration and context in a disorienting moment, when I had more in common with soldiers two millennia dead than with people I passed on sidewalks.

“Our fierce hero sits shell-shocked in his tent, glazed over, gazing into oblivion,” says Ajax’s wife, Tecmessa, played by the actress Elizabeth Marvel, of Burn After Reading. “He started to make these low sounds, the kind I never thought I’d hear him make, for he always told his men that crying was for women and cowards.” Ajax won fame in the Trojan War as a feared warrior, but he spirals into a rage when his generals give the slain Achilles’ armor to his rival, Odysseus. Ajax plots to kill his superiors, but the gods intervene, and Ajax instead mistakenly slaughters a field of cows and sheep. The shame overwhelms him. “Do you see what I’ve done?” the Broadway actor Bill Camp wails. “I’ve killed these harmless barnyard animals with my hands. What a joke my life has become, my reputation, my sense of honor!” Beyond consolation, Ajax plunges the hilt of his sword into the ground and falls upon the blade.

While Ajax bears warnings about the failure to seek help and the potential impotence of caregivers, Philoctetes delivers a measure of hope. The eponymous hero lays bare his anguish and loneliness and asks his comrades for aid. They take him into their care, delivering him from his isolation and pain. War will damage minds, but the severity and the duration of psychological wounds can be contained when help is provided and sought. Otherwise, we have Ajax, dead upon his sword.