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Ajax and the Pentagon: Shaping the Domestic Legacies of Violence Abroad

International Relations
Political Theory
Political Violence
Critical Theory
War
Memory
Narratives
Alison Bond
University of California, Berkeley
Alison Bond
University of California, Berkeley

Abstract

Since 2009, the Pentagon has funded the performance of ancient Greek plays as part of an outreach program to raise awareness of the potential mental health effects of war. Active-duty soldiers and recent veterans watch Tecmessa, distraught over Ajax’s madness and potential suicidality, and Philoctetes, enraged that he has been abandoned without adequate care or support. The performances are followed by facilitated town-hall style discussions where audience members reflect on their own experiences. High profile news media, including publications like The New York Times, Harpers and the Guardian, further the reach and impact of these events by offering prominent accounts, and describing the events as opportunities for “liturgical” and “compassionate” reflection. These performances contribute to a post-Vietnam trend of veterans’ advocates connecting soldiers’ suffering to ancient Greek literature, including texts by Homer and Sophocles. While earlier contributions (from mental health professionals like Jonathan Shay in the mid-1990s) presented the Greeks as a resource that could prompt engagement with the costly psychological consequences of ethical violations during war, the current Pentagon-backed examples overtly exclude criticism of the current wars, and limit audience responses to problems with military health policy, symptom removal, and civilian responsiveness. Further effects that limit critical engagement with war can also be discerned: the scene selection, translation, and staging choices attempt to shock the audience into opening up emotionally, in close alignment with the culturally prominent Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) and Prolonged Exposure (PET) therapeutic approaches that are preferred by the military. Furthermore, the invocation of ancient characters (like the language of “wounded warriors” so commonly used today) tends to underscore the heroic aspects of soldiers’ suffering, and creates distance from the more immediate (and often contentious) associations with the aftermath of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Finally, the frequently invoked idea that soldiers’ distress is “timeless” aligns with the naturalizing use of medical categories to portray suffering: both can create distance from key political and social concerns, and have the side-effect of presenting war itself as natural, timeless, and inevitable.