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Tragedy as Therapy

FEATURE: What I saw at the book launch for ‘Theater of War’

Reg E. Cathey / Theater of War Facebook
• September 25, 2015 5:02 am

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My schedule and the weather permitting, I like to run home from work. It’s not very far—only a couple of miles—and I finish at the Arlington County war memorial, a modest obelisk at the corner of Wilson and Washington Boulevard in Clarendon. There are plaques on each side listing the names of Arlington’s war dead from the First World War to Iraq and Afghanistan. Having joined the Marines out of Arlington, I have reflected more than once that, had I been a bit to the left or right on a few occasions, my name could very well be up there.

Each evening after reaching the threshold of the memorial, I then circle it once or twice to cool down. I have lately taken to whispering to myself the names of the Marines who died with my company in Afghanistan in 2010—Dan, Zach, Jonathan, Bull, Josh, Nicolas, Joe—as I do this. I’m not sure how it got started, but this circumambulation of my little civic Kaaba has become something of a ritual.

I wonder if my father, drafted for the Second World War and subsequently a career officer, had any comparable practices. If he had, he would have been unlikely to want to talk about it, but I do know that my approach would have been too cumbersome for him. Six deaths may seem like a lot today (the seventh, Joe, was killed in a car accident after returning to America, but we all know what he might have been thinking about, or trying not to think about, when it happened) but one of my dad’s experiences had been going on a company patrol as a young corporal in Italy and coming back as the acting first sergeant, because everyone in between had been killed or wounded. Life was like this for him for the better part of two years.

In sustained slaughter like that, a man faces a choice: bottle it up, or quit. Contemplating the enormity of the violence is too much. This dilemma actually strikes me as something of a perverse mercy, when compared with the Chinese water torture-quality of taking casualties in a nasty little war like we had in Marjah. Sometimes, a whole week or more could go by without someone being seriously harmed, giving Marines time to grieve or even begin to recover, before someone else would get shot or blown up and the whole process would begin again. Drip, drip, drip. The time to have a basically human response to each loss was not as much of a blessing as it might seem.

So even though the total number of deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan is much smaller than the toll America has sustained in past wars—something also attributable to incredible progress in battlefield medicine—the psychic toll certainly doesn’t feel less to those who have served. Politicians, the defense establishment, and the media have become much invested in questions of how best to respond to all this, believing that the gruff preference for silence of earlier generations was harmful, that an epidemic of suicide plagues veterans, that PTSD and now something called "moral injury" is stalking many of us in our private moments.

It was with great interest, then, that I considered the invitation from the Center for a New American Security to attend a book launch for Brian Doerries’ The Theater of War. I had heard of Doerries before—a theater director, he founded a company at the peak of the Iraq war initially dedicated to visiting military bases and, with the help of prominent actors, performing scenes from Greek tragedies, to the end of helping the troops to … well, to experience catharsis, I suppose. The book launch, at an auditorium in the Carnegie Library in Washington, was to include a discussion, involving experts, and a reading of scenes from Sophocles’ Ajax by Reg E. Cathey and Elizabeth Marvel, both of whom would apparently be flying in from the Emmys, which had been the night before. (Cathey with a brand-new Emmy to his name, as it turned out.) Interested to see what The Theater of War was all about, and figuring I could put up with experts in order to have the opportunity, I decided to go.

What a scene it was: all the trappings of well-meaning, well-funded, center-left Washington wonkdom, with an appropriate social ill for the agenda, a handful of minor celebrities, and a book to plug. I could not suppress a smile at the banner which was prominently displayed by the entrance: "The Center for a New American Security: Bold, Innovative, Bipartisan." I’m all for boldness, as far as it goes, but generally find "innovative" to have become a nonsense word through overuse. As for "bipartisan"—well, I’m sure it’s important to have that one up there for tax purposes. In fact, shortly after arriving, I spotted John Podesta across the room. I’ve heard this about Podesta and bipartisan events. You can’t keep him away with a stick.

In addition to the former White House chief of staff, the crowd waiting for the performance to begin was what you might expect—a few members of the military, to judge by their haircuts; defense policy types; and at least two cases of what I can only describe as young 20-somethings out on a think tank date: their body language too flirty not to have something romantic going on, but neither affectionate nor sullen enough to signal a dedicated relationship. One can only imagine how such an outing gets planned. ("Hey, Casey, so, I registered for this CNAS event, and, uh, it actually looks pretty cool…")

The emcee for the evening was Phil Carter, the director of CNAS’s Military, Veterans, and Society Program, and a former Army officer. I’m not much of a judge of men’s clothing, but I had nothing but admiration for Carter’s sartorial decisions as he took the stage wearing a dark suit, nicely cut but not too nicely cut—you can look too stylish for the Washington defense policy crowd, but Carter found the golden mean. He introduced Doerries and the actors, and after a fluent introduction to the plot and themes of Ajax, Cathey and Marvel did their thing. It was just a reading, seated at a table jammed awkwardly into a very narrow space between the curtain and the edge of the stage, but had there been scenery it would have been thoroughly chewed.

Doerries claims that he typically meets with success in the face of audiences of young infantrymen, and having seen Cathey and Marvel’s performance I don’t doubt it. The themes of Ajax that Doerries draws out in these scenes—dishonor, betrayal, rage—are more than relevant to service members, and there is something uncomfortably intimate about sitting in a room with two professionals as they turn in a performance dialed up to 11. It wouldn’t work with amateurs, and even though things are far from perfect—Cathey, an avuncular sort who may as well sweat charm, is not an Ajax—that doesn’t matter for the evocation of raw emotion.

In the panel discussion that followed, Doerries, who never served in the military, explained that he began his company after experiencing a significant trauma in his own life—the death of his young girlfriend from cystic fibrosis in the early part of the last decade—and then later after reading news reports in 2007 of the mistreatment of patients at Walter Reed. Having relied heavily on a literary education and training in classical theater to cope with his own grief, he felt that he had something to offer the troops.

Now going on a decade later, the original company has an offshoot, Outside the Wire, that does shows for servicemen overseas, and has even taken up performing in prisons and at hospices. In a self-deprecating mode, Doerries remarked, "I had a degree in Greek and Latin and everyone told me you couldn't make a living with that. Now I’m a defense contractor!"

Doerries is that rare type, a self-promoter whom it is hard to dislike, even up close. Perusing his book—part memoir, part reportage on the issue of wartime trauma, part essay on ancient Greek literature—it is impossible not to admire the earnest zeal with which he has taken on the project of serving as a missionary for the classics in such unlikely precincts as Fort Riley, Kansas, and Camp Pendleton, California. He is at his best when in confessional mode; it is impossible to read his account of the death of his girlfriend at the age of 22 without being moved.

He is on shakier ground when it comes to the classics themselves. His book moves quickly, and he makes one vast generalization after another, often without any sources to support a given assertion, before hurtling on to the next topic. (If the Theater of War goes belly up, Doerries should really consider journalism!) We learn, for example, that, "The philosopher Plato was no fan of Greek tragedy," which would likely have been news to Plato, and raises the intriguing question of how Plato might have felt about, say, Scythian tragedy.

Doerries’ undergraduate error here, of course, is assuming that the beliefs of a dialogue’s main character are necessarily those of the dialogue’s author. By way of a prophylactic for such complaints, Doerries claims up front that his book is "not a work of scholarship," but the problem is not the occasional error—who cares, really—but that his broader intellectual project seems to have a significant flaw on its own terms. Doerries says he wants to go back to the Greeks for their wisdom, but I couldn’t avoid the impression that he was projecting some very contemporary American beliefs back on classical authors, among whom he was cherry picking to confirm his own preconceptions. This despite the rather grand Nietzschean epigram with which the book opens:

People have always endeavored to understand antiquity by means of the present—and shall the present now be understood by means of antiquity?

Good intentions notwithstanding, Theater of War, as both a book and a project, is largely stuck in the first half of the saying. The emphasis on tragedy as the primary way of interpreting the experience of war is itself a narrowing anachronism. The tragedies of Sophocles were, well, tragic, but Sophocles’ own education would have been heavily reliant on epic poetry, on Homer. (Plato's Socrates may have called Homer the first of the tragic poets, but there is still a useful distinction.) Doerries, like many Americans, seems to believe that the experience of violence itself is so unnatural as to be necessarily traumatic; he frequently implies that a moral injury, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, is caused not only because something terrible has happened—you have accidentally killed an innocent, for example, or lost a friend because of your own mistake—but because you have served in combat, full stop. Combat, in the modern liberal vision, constitutes a kind of immorality.

As far as what we might understand from Homer, or from the philosophers, or perhaps even from the tragic poets too, this is at best a one-sided view of the experience of war. But it has become modern dogma, as Doerries’ fellow panelists attested after the performance concluded and Cathey and Marvel escaped in a hurry, to wherever TV stars escape, never to return. Jason Dempsey, a retired Army officer and scholar of civil-military relations, compared Doerries’ project approvingly to the fiction of Tim O’Brien, quoting O’Brien’s assertion that no war story can be both true and uplifting. Dempsey also cited Wilfred Owen’s rejection of the "Old Lie"—narrowly, that it is "sweet and fitting to die for one’s country," but in the broader sense that Dempsey seemed to intend, that war has any other dimension to it beyond suffering.

To which I can only respond: check out the new lie, no more true than the old lie. Indeed, classical texts are the perfect place, it seems to me, to see a rich literary representation of men at war that lies somewhere in between discarded clichés of easy glory and new clichés of the necessary immorality of combat—but that’s not how Doerries is using them, nor was it what the panel appeared to be interested in. The discussion turned to the problem of military and veteran suicide, into which Ellyn Dunford, the wife of the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, introduced the important observation that there is still suicide among young Marines and soldiers today, even though diminishingly few troops on their first enlistment in 2015 have seen combat.

On the conversation went. People suggested that more funding was needed for these issues; that more mental health professionals need to be deployed for the troops and for veterans. It turns out social science has concluded that the leading predictive factor for trauma among military members is combat experience. Then it was out to the reception hall for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. There were these little cheese balls that were really excellent. Doerries signed books and people gathered in small, happy groups, discussing how to boldly achieve innovative solutions to the serious bipartisan challenges that face us as we move forward together. As I observed the crowd I couldn’t help thinking of my ritual at the Arlington war memorial: well-intentioned souls performing a routine in order to feel as though we are doing something meaningful in the face of things we do not, and perhaps cannot, understand.

Published under: Veterans