Report — From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

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With its winding lanes and stands of cherry trees, Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base twenty-five miles outside Tokyo, feels more like a meditation retreat than a military facility. Until it was seized by the First Cavalry in September 1945, Zama was the West Point of the Imperial Japanese Army. Through the decades, the forest has been pushed back to accommodate a larger airstrip, a fire has taken out the old Japanese barracks, and most of the camp’s remaining structures have been replaced with drab buildings set discreetly into the lush green prettiness. One structure from the Imperial era remains: a large theater. Its exterior is plain but grand; its cavernous interior is decorated like a wedding cake, white with yellow piping. The charm of the building is difficult to reconcile with what happened outside its walls, in 1945. When the few Japanese soldiers left at Zama learned of their country’s surrender, some drew swords, cried, “Long live the emperor!” and stabbed one another to death or committed hara-kiri.

Illustrations by Hadley Hooper

Illustrations by Hadley Hooper

Early one clear morning in September 2012, this former Imperial theater was again filled with anguished cries, though there was no violence. Five young actors, members of an unusual theater company called Outside the Wire, had flown in from New York City and been delivered bleary-eyed by Army escort through Tokyo sunset traffic to the base late the previous night. They had come to perform in an ongoing project called Theater of War. First funded by the Pentagon in 2009 to the strategically modest tune of $3.7 million, Theater of War has staged more than 250 shows for 50,000 military personnel on bases from Guantánamo Bay to Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. In front of a full house of soldiers on Zama, the actors performed an ancient Greek play about war’s costs — Sophocles’ Ajax. In Zama’s audience were many soldiers who had seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan on multiple deployments; many were still dealing with battle trauma and post-traumatic stress. The play that would unfold before them tells of a soldier’s march toward madness and suicide — a warrior falling onto his own sword. The audience understood the connection implicitly. Suicides by U.S. soldiers are at unprecedented levels: nearly one a day among active-duty personnel and one an hour among veterans — some 8,000 last year. As Zama’s base commander, Colonel Vivian T. Hutson, told the crowd that spilled onto the theater floor, the play would address how “eleven years of continuous war” had left a legacy of “stress, sacrifice, and separation” on the nation’s soldiers.

Despite Colonel Hutson’s assurances that what would follow would be “gripping, emotional, and very effective,” the soldiers on hand were not a vision of precurtain excitement. Some were already dozing; a few toward the rear quietly snored. The Army’s weird, soon-to-be-phased-out pixilated camo blurred the room into one great body. As several soldiers had told me when we’d walked in, they’d been “voluntold” to attend this latest “stand-down” — a day when military business on bases around the world is halted to allow for presentations on hot-button topics: alcoholism, sexual health, suicide. Despite the novelty of the subject, the soldiers knew what they were in for: another well-intentioned but ham-handed attempt by the Army to edutain them on an issue getting bad civilian PR. Given what I’d witnessed earlier in the year, their collective pessimism was reasonable. I’d visited Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, during an alcohol stand-down, where, before the Outside the Wire performance began, 2,000 Marines sat through a PowerPoint slide show that had all the charm of an infomercial.

At Zama, it became rapidly clear that ancient Greek tragedy made for an improvement on bullet-pointed lists. Although the five actors sat side by side at a table in front of the stage in their street clothes throughout the performance — and although the “performance” turned out to be a table-read from bindered scripts — as soon as the actors began to deliver their lines, the energy in the room changed. Sleeping soldiers awoke. Others smiled unself-consciously. The actors — four men and one woman — weren’t reading, not exactly. It was more like they’d been chained to their chairs and were doing everything in their power to escape using words alone. Lines flew back and forth with mounting speed, each seeming to drive the next to a moment of greater desperation. From where I stood off to the side, I could see soldiers’ faces registering the strangeness of this sudden tumult. I felt it, too. The actors’ voices and their language seemed large, urgent. When the actor who occupied the table’s central spot — the lone woman among them, her long blond hair regally braided — began to scream at the top of her lungs, the noise she made wasn’t theatrical. If you were to hear it on the street, you would either race toward it to help or run away from it to hide.

“Wretched!” she screamed. “I am wretched! Everything is lost.”

We were at the point in the play where Ajax has killed himself, and his concubine, Tecmessa, has just found out. The hall of soldiers seemed to register each of her words like a blow.

Illustration by Hadley HooperOne of the most celebrated Greek fighters of the Trojan War, Ajax was nicknamed the Shield. No enemy could get past him. But after nine years of active-duty combat on foreign soil, he’d lost his mind. Playing a soldier who had been in Ajax’s battalion, one of the heretofore silent actors began to speak. You could see whole rows of soldiers leaning forward now, elbows on knees, chins on balled fists.

“He has killed us with his death,” the man shouted, face reddening with feeling, the enormous room silent as he paused. “Where is he? Where is unbending Ajax whose name is now a sad song?”

The actors weren’t famous. They’d been on Broadway, in the odd commercial, in a guest spot on Law & Order. None had served in the military, but each was channeling grief and rage and loss that seemed pure. Certainly, the actors were capitalizing on the way the setting affected the material. And whoever cast them had a good eye and ear. But perhaps most unusual of all was the language in which they were delivering this ancient play: contemporary without being casual, emotional but not melodramatic.

Both the casting and the translation of the text were the work of Bryan Doerries, Outside the Wire’s thirty-eight-year-old cofounder and artistic director. Doerries was one of the five actors at the table in the Imperial theater that day; he tends to perform with his troupe but gives himself the fewest lines and sits at the table’s end. During the dozens of performances by his company I’ve attended over the past two years, Doerries has done as he did at Zama: as his actors went back and forth in rapid-fire dialogue, he rocked with manic energy in his seat. He chimed in now and then with one little part or another (the actors typically play multiple roles), almost always stepping on the end of another actor’s line — a deliberate tactic, a nip at the heels of the speaker. It had the effect of increasing the pace of all the actors, a way of directing them from inside the performance.

Part professor, part carnival barker, Doerries is a tireless evangelist for the Greeks and the gains that tragedy can provide to a community in pain. He studied Latin and Greek as an undergraduate, and since college he has been retranslating — in his spare time and initially only for himself — plays from the Greek canon as well as Latin plays by Seneca, tuning their language for modern performances that have found fans in uncommon places. (Vintage will publish Doerries’s translations of Sophocles and Aeschylus next year as All That You’ve Seen Here Is God.)

“The ways we had been addressing post-traumatic stress disorder weren’t working,” Brigadier General Loree K. Sutton told me after an Outside the Wire performance in New York City. Sutton, who served in Iraq during the first Gulf War and was the highest-ranking psychiatrist in the Army at the time of her retirement, in 2010, was responsible for first bringing Doerries onto U.S. military bases. “Rather than trying to build out an additional layer of command bureaucracy,” she said, “we were trying to reach out to the wider world and integrate what it knew and what we knew. We’d learned that we could do everything right in conventional domains of recovery — training, education, medication — and newer modalities — yoga, meditation, Eastern approaches — and even make use of artificial intelligence from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But beyond explicitly therapeutic approaches, we knew another vital role would be that of culture and the arts.”

After the show on Zama, Doerries walked me through the crowd that came to the front to talk to him and the other actors. Doerries took the hands of soldiers, listening intently to their stories. A retired lieutenant with deeply bagged eyes and a black bristle of mustache was brought to the performance that day by his wife, an active-duty colonel. Since he’d gotten back from his tours in Afghanistan, he had refused to get the help his wife said he needed. But he confessed he’d broken down while watching Ajax unfold.

“Because of you guys,” he told each of the actors afterward in an improbably explicit but nonetheless persuasive moment of frankness, “I’m going to seek help. I’ve been in denial for three years.”

Doerries also introduced me to Master Sergeant Chris Elliot, a Delta Force special-ops satellite engineer he had met the year before. Elliot had spent forty-two months in Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of eight deployments. Heavyset with a boyish face and the slicked hair of a 1940s movie star, Elliot said things had gotten “real raw over there.” He spoke of his wife of seventeen years, their two children, and the anger he began exhibiting once he had come back home. Small things made him crazy — a trash can that had been moved from where it was before he deployed. As he spoke, the fingers of his right hand fiddled with his wedding ring, spinning it as if trying to keep it screwed on.

“I lost combat friends,” he told me, “friends returning from combat who’ve committed suicide. Most people don’t realize that those wounds don’t heal in a year. A friend who was four years out stumbled. Couldn’t get his feet back under him.” A pause. “I’m combat wounded. I refused to say something was wrong with me. I wanted to see a scar. I wanted to see an X-ray. I didn’t want to believe that I, as a person, was wounded.”

I asked him what had changed.

He told me it was seeing Ajax last year. “The first thirty days after that performance . . . it hurt. I just wasn’t right. Whatever that was . . . catharsis. . . . People don’t understand. The Army uses the term ‘resilience’: we bounce back . . .”

He spun his ring.

“. . . but even a ball, if you throw it, doesn’t bounce back all the way. I wasn’t the same guy. It was acknowledging that I wasn’t right. Looking in the mirror and realizing: That’s me?”

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He teaches at Bard College and, through the Bard Prison Initiative, at Eastern Correctional Facility.

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