November 11, 2019
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What we can learn from Ancient Greece on Veterans Day

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

A generation of U.S. warriors and their families have fought ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Our obligation to support veterans returning home has a moral urgency that demands we mobilize our fullest resources to assist them. That an ancient Greek play could speak directly about this pressing social issue might seem absurd. In our moment of digital obsession, when a seven-second Vine can make a five-minute YouTube video seem like a magnum opus, how can a prize-winning playwright from the 5th century B.C. possibly speak to us today?

Sophocles’ tragedy “Ajax,” about a triumphant Greek hero of the Trojan War who was driven to suicide, powerfully explores the anguish of war and the searing challenges that service members face when coming home. Along with Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” probing accounts of war and its consequences are at the very foundation of western culture and society. Jonathan Shay, the MacArthur prize-winning psychiatrist and author of “Achilles in Vietnam,” has argued that theater achieved enormous public importance in ancient Athens precisely as a means to reintegrate those returning from war into a functioning democratic polity. We can benefit today from hearing these ancient stories, discussing what they mean to us and acting to lessen the pain of coming home from war.

In the 15 years that the global war on terror has been waged, an estimated 2.5 million American service people have been in theaters of war. One-third of them have been deployed more than once, and, as of 2012, nearly 37,000 had been deployed more than five times. Those who have gone to war have experienced horrendous destruction and chronic pain. As of September 2013 some 1.6 million men and women have been granted veteran status in the U.S., and that number will climb for decades. According to an analysis of major 20th century wars by Harvard professor Linda Blimes, the maximum cost to the federal government will come due as veterans age some four decades after the wars have ended.

These are daunting figures to contemplate as Veterans Day arrives on Nov. 11 as a time to celebrate those who have served in the armed forces. Since Maine has one of the highest per-capita rates of military participation in the U.S., the place of veterans in our communities is of enormous importance.

To collectively address this issue, the Maine Infantry Foundation, University of Maine Humanities Center, Maine Masonic College, Acadia Hospital and other partners have joined together to bring “Theater of War” to the Bangor Opera House for a free performance on Nov. 12 at 7 p.m.

This is an opportunity to move beyond numbing statistics and to think more deeply about the ongoing impact of war by using the humanities as a resource for transforming our communities. This profound program begins with professional actors reading from Sophocles’ “Ajax,” turns to brief responses from a diverse local panel, and then “Outside the Wire” artistic director Bryan Doerries will facilitate an audience discussion about the transcendent qualities of human experience in war and the challenges of coming home.

Darryl Lyon is president of the Maine Infantry Foundation. He led an infantry company in combat in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, and he currently serves in the Maine National Guard. Liam Riordan is a professor of history at the University of Maine, board member of the Maine Humanities Council and director of the UMaine Humanities Center. Email theaterofwar@penobscottheatre.org or call 942-3333 to reserve free tickets for the Nov. 12 event.



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