Five Things The Army Can Learn from Greek Tragedy

A few weeks ago, I met an American theatre director named Bryan Doerries. In 2008, he began staging readings of Greek tragedies at US military bases – usually a play by Sophocles portraying the psychological turmoil and suicide of the warrior Ajax.

The results were remarkable. In discussions afterwards, soldiers from the lowest ranks to the highest began to open up about the strains they faced on returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that would otherwise have been unthinkable.
Doerries had created something new in the US military: a space for a collective catharsis. This open confrontation with suppressed emotion prompted many soldiers to begin personal healing journeys through subsequent individual therapy they may never otherwise have attempted. After 300 such performances at military bases in the US, there’s no doubt many lives were transformed, and a good number saved. (I recommend Doerries’ excellent book Theatre of War).
I saw a Theatre of War performance at the Frontline Club in London in January and was blown away. Here’s why the British Army should immediately invite Doerries and his company to every military base in the UK:

1. Ajax was written by a soldier for soldiers. Sophocles served as a general in the Athenian army and wrote his plays for audiences of veterans. He was interested in honour, courage and sacrifice – but also betrayal, remorse and despair. These themes are as relevant today as they were in the fifth century BC.

2. Sophocles speaks directly to forces wives. One of the main characters in Ajax is Ajax’s wife Tecmessa, who bears the brunt of his rages and bouts of morbid introspection, and who pleads with him not to take his own life. The plays present an opportunity for catharsis among all those in the forces family – not just those who bear arms.

3. PTSD is about tribe as well as trauma. As the US war correspondent Sebastian Junger argues in his new book Tribe, the struggles of many ex-forces are not necessarily primarily because of horrible things that happened on tour. Rather, they are undone by the disconnect between the values of brotherhood and self-sacrifice they embodied in war and the individualistic, consumer-driven society they confront on return. The British Army needs to find ways to ease the transition for soldiers as a collective, not just as individuals, and Theatre of War would be one way to start.

4. Officers fear the plays — then end up loving them. The plays are so raw that in the discussions afterwards boundaries of rank and hierarchy temporarily dissolve. Officers and men meet as equals in confronting their own buried emotions. This might go against Army culture – but it means that ordinary soldiers feel heard. It also gives officers space to provide real leadership in the fight against stigma by sharing their own struggles. If US generals can do it, why not the Brits?

5. The Army needs new ways to fight stigma. It’s great that the military has launched The Don’t Bottle It Up Campaign to encourage soldiers to come forward. But by creating a space for a collective catharsis, the Theatre of War shatters stigma in a way that no amount of posters or video promos ever will.

Though I’ve not seen it, I’ve heard excellent reports about Nobody’s Home — a play by the London-based company Theatre Temoin — that explores PTSD through a modern retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. The play is showing in towns across the UK in the next few months, including Salisbury.

To close, here is a story I wrote for Vice on the remarkable Liverpool rehab treating ex-forces with alcohol and drug problems.