There is little doubt that the tendrils of America’s global military presence have proliferated and strengthened since 9/11, and that the deployment by our government of that protean enemy, “terror,” against which we purportedly are at war, assures they will continue to do so for years to come. Yet there is also little doubt that, as war fronts keep popping up, fewer Americans are fighting our wars than ever before, creating social conditions that cry out for deeper understanding that we can begin to bring about through the stories we tell, the songs we sing, and the images we create.
A predictable, but troubling, result of how few Americans actually fight our wars can be seen in the deepening gap that is perceived between those who have served in the military and those who haven’t. A recent Pew Research survey reveals that “84% of [. . .] modern-era veterans say that the American public has little or no understanding of the problems that those in the military face.” While those who haven’t served in the military share a similar view—the same survey shows that 71% percent of non-veterans polled agree with the veterans—that’s cold comfort when that lack of understanding affects real consequences, such as the push from Congress this past fall to reduce increasingly expensive healthcare benefits for members of the military.
One can almost hear the reasoning behind cutting these benefits: economic times are tough; everyone has to buck up. This, of course, while Republicans insist on maintaining unsustainable tax breaks initiated during the Bush presidency and that for a small, but very rich, percentage of the population who benefit most from those tax cuts, “tough economic times” means losing annual profits from investments it would take most middle class families several lifetimes to earn. And that’s to say nothing about the sacrifices veterans have already made in the name of our country.
The possible psychological impact on soldiers and veterans of such wholesale misunderstanding from the public is raised in Ellen McLaughlin’s astute new play Ajax in Iraq. Bringing together scenes from Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax with original material representing the plight of American veterans of the Iraq War (among other conflicts),
McLaughlin reminds us of the historical depth of this issue. And, in fact, we have already seen in western art a number of representations of veterans being mistreated because they have been misunderstood: the plight of physically and psychically wounded Vietnam veterans in late ‘70s American cinema; the mauled veterans of WWI, missing legs and arms, their faces deformed from wounds or eaten away by STDs, begging on indifferent street corners in the drawings and paintings of Georg Grosz; the elementally efficient killing machine Coriolanus unable to secure a place in Rome in times of peace, his power, even his allegiance to Rome, called into question in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus; and on and on, going all the way back, of course, to at least Sophocles, in Ajax.
In Sophocles’ play, the mistreatment of soldiers by Greek society occurs when the morally upright Ajax is denied Achilles’ armor—armor that he had been all but assured would be his—after losing a contest to Odysseus. As a result, Ajax snaps. As McLaughlin has Athena, essentially Ajax in Iraq’s narrator, conclude:
And it’s not like everybody thought Ajax would be fine with [losing Achilles’ armor to Odysseus], it’s just that no one expected him to go completely bananas. Well, they didn’t. I did. I knew exactly what would happen. ‘Cause a guy like him, he’s got a rudimentary but absolutely infallible sense of justice and when you take away from him the thing he’s spent his whole life earning, you better duck. KABLOOEY!
And Ajax definitely goes “kablooey.” Angered beyond consolation, he decides to kill Odysseus and all who allowed him to win the armor. Athena intervenes, however, blinding Ajax with a momentary madness, and he ends up killing a herd of sheep instead.
In McLaughlin’s play, Ajax’s crime is repeated, perhaps a bit too literally, in the story unfolding in Iraq. A.J., for a while the only woman in her unit, goes on a routine mission that ends badly, when a house she and her companions were preparing to search explodes and, under enemy fire, she drags every person she can find out of the house, in case any had survived the blast. None had. After the mission, she is called in to see her sergeant with whom she had been trying to break off a sexual relationship. After congratulating her on her bravery, the sergeant turns on her:
SERGEANT: Get your ass over here, Soldier.
(A.J. takes a step toward the sergeant. He grabs her and
spins her around so that he has her pinned from behind,
clamping her throat with his arm, breathing into the back
of her neck.)
SERGEANT (cont.): Yeah, that’s it, that’s the smell I miss so much.
A.J.: This isn’t what I deserve.
A.J.: Sergeant. It isn’t what I deserve, Sergeant.
SERGEANT: Huh. So you really thought I was going to pin a medal on your tit? Is that what you thought when you came in here?
A.J.: No, Sergeant, not you.
And, as with Ajax, A.J. responds to the disservice done to her by going “kablooey,” killing an entire herd of sheep that she thought was “someone else [. . .] A whole lot of someone else.”
I don’t think it’s necessary to be literal here, which is why I don’t think McLaughlin needed to be so literal in her update of Ajax’s story: this is not about soldiers not getting medals, and it’s not about soldiers killing indiscriminately when they don’t get them. It’s about the very real problems that arise—which most definitely can include violence and too often do—when veterans do not get what they deserve, but instead are left to fend for themselves or are even discouraged from getting the help they might need. As the number of soldiers suffering from PTSD is on the rise, and more veterans find themselves without jobs and homes, these are pressing concerns that need to be addressed and dealt with. As McLaughlin shows us with Ajax in Iraq, art can be, and should be, on the forefront of closing a rift that is beginning to tear this nation apart.