Friday, May 15, 2009

# Posted 10:39 AM by Patrick Porter  

AJAX IN IRAQ: Classical Greek tragedies, particularly those about traumatised and mentally wounded war veterans, are resonating for American soldiers returning from Iraq:

To 1st Sgt. Stanton Brown of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, watching a performance of the play last week in a bar on an Army post, the plight of Ajax is a story from his own life: In January, he lost his best friend, a man under his command, to suicide two months after their return from Iraq. It was the dead soldier’s third deployment in five years. Like Ajax, Brown says, “he had been so stressed for so long.”

The ancient drama addresses a most contemporary problem: the psychic damage of war. Amid the military’s stepped-up effort to combat post-traumatic stress and suicide in troops that have been through multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the performance is designed to provoke soldiers into greater awareness of the emotional toll on themselves and their families…

‘We’re calling it PTSD now … but it’s timeless,” Gen. Kevin Mangum tells the audience of brigade commanders and their spouses. “Ajax’s ego drove him to his ‘divine madness.’ … I know a hell of a lot of Ajaxes out there.”

There is a clue to why these tragedies are so appealing:

About three-quarters of soldiers who have post-traumatic stress have not sought help for it, fearing it will hurt their military career, he says. In some ways, seeking help is counter to Army training, he says. “We’re taught self-sacrifice,” Engel says. “It’s a value. Part of self-sacrifice means you learn to ignore your own needs at times.

Ajax’s “divine madness” reminded Capt. Christopher Tramontana of his own: the day he was in the Fort Drum motor pool about two months after returning from Iraq and heard a fleet of Humvees fire up their engines. “They have a very distinct motor sound,” Tramontana says. “That brought back everything.” He was panicky until a sergeant told him he could ride in a different truck if he preferred.In an effort to remove the stigma of needing help, he says, he has told his support maintenance company that he has post-traumatic stress disorder.”The Army’s putting a lot of focus on it now,” Brown says, “but why did it take 2,500 years for us to say this is a real problem?”

In other words, the plays show that the soldier’s psychic distress is not the symptom of an unmanly modern condition, but is an old affliction that happens to warriors across time. For those who worry that naming the problem will hurt their careers, Ajax names it for them. Like the best tragedies, it is not about solving problems but about facing them. The insipid and therapeutic language of our time, of ‘closure’ and ‘moving forward’, doesn’t do the job nearly as well.

So big congratulations to Bryan Doerries and Respect-Mil for helping soldiers so intelligently.

Cross-posted at Kings of War.
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