Through drama, toll of war resonates across the ages

Times Staff Writer

At a conference dedicated to finding new ways to help Marines recover from post-traumatic stress and other disorders after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, the Marines are looking to an ancient source: the plays of Sophocles.

An audience of 250-plus Marines, sailors and healthcare professionals Wednesday night watched a dramatic reading by four New York actors from two plays that center on the physical and psychological wounds inflicted on the warrior.

When it was over, Sgt. Maj. Tom Hall, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and will redeploy soon, said he could identify with Ajax.


“Ajax was infantry, just like me,” Hall said. “The kinds of moral and ethical decisions he was facing are just the same as what Marines are going through now.”

Retired Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman, who fought in Fallouja, Iraq, was taken by the scene in which Philoctetes and a younger soldier, Neoptolemus, talked of comrades killed in combat. Kopelman said he’s seen Marines have similar discussions.

“That is something all warriors can relate to,” Kopelman said. “It bonds us and makes us even tighter.”

The readings from “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” were presented by the New York-based Philoctetes Project, whose artistic director and translator is Bryan Doerries, who has a master’s degree from UC Irvine. The group has done numerous readings for literary gatherings and recently at the Cornell University medical school.

When the chance arose to bring his troupe to the Marine Corps Combat Operational Stress Control Conference, Doerries did not hesitate. “I think there is no better audience in the 21st century to be hearing these plays,” he said.

Sophocles (circa 496 BC to 406 BC) was an elected general of the Greek forces during decades of constant war. Military service was compulsory. As a result, almost all the men in his audiences were combat veterans.


The character of Ajax, Doerries said, “is an ancient textbook description” of post-traumatic stress disorder. Ajax feels cheated of honors due him, betrayed by the generals and alienated from his wife and the society he fought to protect. “Incurable Ajax,” the chorus says, “his mind infected by divine madness.”

Philoctetes, marooned on an island after suffering a debilitating injury, also feels betrayed by an army that tossed him aside when he was of no further use.

The “take-aways” from the two plays fit the principal themes of the conference: PTSD and other maladies are real; the military and society need to better prepare the warrior for combat and then help him readjust afterward; and the warrior has to accept help, even if he has lost faith in his family and fellow soldiers.

As the chorus says in “Ajax,” anger and violence will not relieve a soldier of his demons: “We will not cure evil with evil, for if we try, the pain will only grow worse than the illness that brought it upon you.”

Ajax takes another path. He kills himself by falling on a sword given to him by Hector, “my deadliest enemy.” Some scholars see his death as a purifying act, but Marshele Waddell takes away a grimmer meaning.

“By giving up, we fall on the enemy’s sword, and the enemy has it their way,” said Waddell, whose husband, a Navy SEAL, has done four combat tours and been diagnosed with PTSD.


The parallels between the Trojan War and the current wars were striking, said retired Sgt. Maj. Eduardo Leardo, who fought in Fallouja. “The combat stress, the inner conflicts, the loss of your self, all are the same,” he said.

For the actors, it was new kind of audience. All have substantial film and stage credits: Bill Camp, Jesse Eisenberg, David Strathairn and Heather Raffo. Raffo, whose father is from Iraq, used an Arabic-style accent in the role of Ajax’s wife, Tecmessa.

Eisenberg, who played the chorus and Neoptolemus, said the audience was one of the most attentive the group has ever had, including a recent tony gathering on New York’s Upper East Side. The Marines responded at the finale with a prolonged standing ovation.

Strathairn, best known for his Oscar-nominated role as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck” said the civilian and military worlds exist side by side in U.S. society but rarely interact.

“This is kind of an extraordinary moment for us as artists to be able to apply our craft” to this military world, he said. Next month, the group will do a reading for a group of veterans in New York gathering at the Juilliard School.

The actors sat at a table and read from scripts. They wore no costumes, but their powerful voices filled the hotel ballroom. Some of the lines seemed to have particular resonance, as when Tecmessa recounts being told by Ajax to shut up: “He turned to me and firmly said: ‘Woman, silence becomes a woman.’ ” Said Waddell, “I’ve heard that -- in other words.”


Retired Navy Capt. William P. Nash, part of a panel discussion that followed the readings, pointed to the scene in which Tecmessa says of Ajax, after he has flown into a violent rage, “there is nothing more troubling than to discover an evil crime of which one is the culprit.”

That line, Nash said, reminds him of a Navy corpsman tortured by the fact that he killed Iraqis in ways outside the rules of engagement. “That is the corpsman’s burden: how to forgive himself,” Nash said.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Johnson, a chaplain set to deploy to Iraq with Marines from Camp Pendleton, said the moral from the two plays is simple.

“War really hasn’t changed in 2,500 years, whether the troops are in chariots or Humvees,” he said.