(Robin Wright’s article appeared in the New Yorkers, 9/19.)
On the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, I went to see two classical Greek tragedies about the toll of war on the human psyche. General Joseph Dunford, Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Armed Forces, was in the audience at the National Geographic Society. So were a couple of hundred military officers and veterans, with their families. They were rapt when the Emmy-winning actor Reg E. Cathey wailed in agony onstage, as Ajax, a great Greek warrior overcome with guilt, madness, and suicidal rage during the ninth year of the Trojan War. In a blind fury, Ajax slayed all the cows and sheep around him, believing they were the commanders who had betrayed him and his honor. He turned his home into a blood-strewn slaughterhouse. When he came to, he was overcome with shame.
“When a man suffers without end in sight, and takes no pleasure in living his life, day by day wishing for death, he should not live out all his years,” Ajax moaned. Tears flowed down his cheeks—and the play was only a reading. Moments later, Cathey enacted Ajax’s suicide. “No more talk of tears,” Ajax said. “It’s time,” and he lunged onto his sharpened sword.
The ancient Greeks, who lived in the world’s first militarized democracy, at one point faced war on six fronts. They understood the toxic costs of conflict. Almost twenty-five hundred years ago, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides wrote tragedies about the human spirit shattered, corrupted, and abused by war. Sophocles, who was also a long-serving general, wrote “Ajax.” Catharsis was so integral to Greek military life that war tragedies were performed during annual theatre festivals for seventeen thousand troops, from lowly cadets to commanders, writes the author and director Bryan Doerries, in his 2015 book, “The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.”