The Warrior’s Homecoming

Today is Remembrance Day.

On November 11th, at the eleventh hour, I’ll be at my local cenotaph, standing alongside my fellow civilians, veterans and emergency services crews to honour and remember those have served, and those who have fallen in the line of duty.

I suspect that most of us have a connection to someone who has served in one of the many conflicts across the world since WWI and WWII to the present day. Or perhaps you know someone who battles to save lives on the streets of our cities?

For myself, one of my grandfathers served in both World Wars, and my other grandfather in WWII.

This is a time of year when I think of them more than usual.

The Normandy Landing – WWII

I write a lot about warriors in the ancient world, and the struggles they face on and off the battlefield.

My protagonists have fought long, bloody campaigns, far away from the comforts of civilization.

They’ve faced enemies that will not come out into the open, and sometimes must rely on supposed allies that they cannot trust.

For the warriors in my books, life is a constant fight for survival. They fight and kill and die for Rome, all for the purposes of advancing the Empire’s plans for conquest.

Artist impression of Roman cavalry ala engaging Caledonians

Indeed, one of the themes running through all my books is that of the powerful few sending many to die on the battlefields of the Empire. The soldiers are at the whim of those roaming and ruling the corridors of power.

Sound familiar?

My, how history does repeat itself.

Always at the back of my protagonist’s mind is the family that he misses. But if he thinks on them too much, if he loses his focus at any time, his enemies will tear him apart.

The warrior’s life has never been an easy one, especially when you have something to lose.

Mother and son reunited

But what happens when it’s time for the warrior to ‘come home’?

How is it even possible after the life they’ve led? Can they really ‘come home’?

How have warriors, men and women, dealt with the aftermath of war?

In his book The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield asks a pertinent question:

All of us know brothers and sisters who have fought with incredible courage on the battlefield, only to fall apart when they came home. Why? Is it easier to be a soldier than to be a civilian?

In one way, perhaps life at war is more straightforward. Every day, every moment perhaps, your thoughts, your purpose, are focussed on the objective – take that position, hold that region, protect your brothers and sisters in arms, stay alive. In some situations, it’s kill or be killed.

We’re back to primal instincts here.

Stepping from the world of war into the civilian world is an unimaginable transition.

Today, we have any number of soldier’s aid societies and government programs and guides that are intended to help veterans of wars reintegrate into society.

These groups do good work that is much-needed, but is it enough? How can non-combatants in civilian society understand the physical and emotional trauma that is experienced by warriors after the battle?

In the ancient and medieval worlds, there were no societies or organizations whose purpose was to help returning warriors.

British Troops in WWI

Granted, in warrior societies such as Sparta, the majority of warriors probably enjoyed the fighting. All Spartan men were warriors. That was their purpose.

But in the Roman Empire, returning warriors would have had to reintegrate in a way similar to today, rather than ancient Sparta. Later Roman society valued not just fighting prowess, but also political acuity, the arts, rhetoric, skill at a trade, generally being a good citizen in society.

Many veterans are homeless when they come home…

Going back to peace time in a civilian society after the straightforward survival life of a prolonged campaign would have been tough.

We read about legionaries coming back to Rome and getting into all sorts of trouble, their days and nights taken up with gambling, brawling, and whoring.

It’s no wonder that generals and emperors created coloniae for retired soldiers on the fringes of the Empire. In these places, veterans would not be able to cause trouble in Rome, but they would also be given the opportunity to have some land and make a life for themselves.

Thamugadi – A Roman colonia in North Africa for retired veterans

In my book Warriors of Epona, my protagonist is reunited with his family. He has to face peace time.

How does he deal with this? How does his family deal with him?

War changes a person, whether it’s in the past or the present day. It’s an experience unlike any other and I salute anyone who faces the conflict that comes with stepping from the world of war into the world of peace, and vice versa.

In the Roman Empire, they were two very different battlefields, as they are, I suspect, today.

I imagine that reconciling the two worlds can push a man or woman to their very limits.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real.

I’ve often thought that governments should step up more when it comes to helping veterans. How about free college education for veterans and their families? Or exemption from taxation for them and their families for all they have risked and sacrificed? What about a good pension?

Veterans today shouldn’t have to worry about finances or a roof over their heads. They have enough to deal with when the fighting is done.

I’ve read that Alexander the Great actually did these things for his veterans, and the Roman Empire granted lands to hers.

Any government people who happen to be reading this should take notes.

We can also do our part, whether it’s wearing a red poppy, thanking a veteran for their dangerous work, or donating to an organization that directly helps veterans and their families.

The very least we can do is be quiet for a minute at 11:00 a.m. on November 11th.

As ever, at this time of year, I feel like my words fall short, that they are not nearly enough. I’d like to close this by expressing my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to the men and women in uniform who have risked, and are risking, their lives to keep us safe and free.

THANK YOU.

And thank you, dear readers, for following along.

In future, when you read a novel about warriors in the ancient world, do bear in mind that there are modern equivalents. The homecomings for many of them are far more difficult than we can imagine.

 

Today, there are numerous organizations whose sole purpose is to help veterans, young and old, to make the transition from war zone to home front.

This year, Eagles and Dragons Publishing has made donations to two organizations whom we believe are making a real difference in the lives of veterans.

Wounded Warriors Canada’s mission is “To honour and support Canada’s ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces members, Veterans, First Responders and their families.”

Eagles and Dragons Publishing has donated to the ‘Couples Overcoming PTSD’ program.

VETS Canada is committed to helping homeless and at-risk veterans reintegrate into civilian life.

Eagles and Dragons Publishing has made a general donation to this wonderful, volunteer-led organization helping veterans in need.

 

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Remembrance Day: Healing Wounds with Ancient Greek Tragedy

parchment helmet

Remembrance Day is here, in Britain, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations. This is the time of year when we pin poppies on our jackets and hats to show that we remember the sacrifices of the men and women who have served their countries in war.

This is a solemn time of year; many people have known folks who have served in one conflict or another. For myself, my grandfather served in WWI as a young man, my other grandfather in the merchant navy in WWII. I have friends and relatives who have served in the more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Every year, I try to write a special post around Remembrance Day because I feel it is utterly important not to forget. I often write about war and warriors. It’s something that is always at the front of my mind. I haven’t served in the military myself, but I have the utmost respect for those that have and do.

This year is the 100th anniversary of World War I, the conflict that began the wearing of poppies. Hard to believe it‘s been that long since the Battle of Liège, or since the earth shook with shelling and gunfire at Verdun and the Somme.

The Tower of London Remembers poppies in commemoration of the centenary of WWI

The Tower of London Remembers poppies in commemoration of the centenary of WWI

We remember the dead, and the ultimate sacrifices they have made, we bow our heads to them as the guns salute on November 11th.

But what about the living?

Troops in Afghanistan

Troops in Afghanistan

In war, the casualties are monstrous, but there are those who do manage to come home. What about them?

Those are the troops I want us to think about today.

What prompted this was an article that a colleague of mine gave to me to read, an article that has indeed struck a chord.

This article by Wyatt Mason, in Harper’s magazine, is entitled You are not alone across time – Using Sophocles to treat PTSD.

The trauma of war

The trauma of war

PTSD stands for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is, perhaps always has been, a bane on the lives of warriors for ages. It was not always acknowledged as many former troops were simply told to ‘suck-it-up’. But there is a higher level of awareness now, with a variety of treatments being sought by, or offered to, veterans.

In his article mentioned above, Wyatt Mason writes about a unique theatre group called Outside the Wire, and their program ‘Theatre of War’.

The man behind Theatre of War is Bryan Doerries. He has been studying and translating ancient Greek dramas for years.

What is Theatre of War? Using ancient Greek tragedies, particularly Ajax and Philoctetes by Sophocles, Doerries and a small group of rotating actors travel to military bases and hospitals around the world to perform readings of these plays.

There are no stages, props, or pageantry, just Doerries and about three actors sitting at a table. You might think this would be boring, and so might the troops who were ‘voluntold’ to go. But one cannot underestimate the language of Sophocles, the message, and the powerful delivery of the actors.

After attending these ‘performances’, veteran troops come forward to say that they completely relate to the pain of the warrior-characters in these plays, that they do not feel alone. These performances have been helping troops with PTSD with their healing.

Before we go further, here are a few statistics from the article to put things in perspective.

The number of U.S. soldiers who are committing suicide is at an unprecedented level with nearly one per day among those on active duty, and one per hour among veterans. The number is something like 8,000 a year at the moment.

The horrors of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The horrors of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When I read those numbers, my jaw dropped. It seems like there is no heroic return for many of our troops, no ticker-tape parade. It seems more likely that reintegration with civilian society may be more difficult and lonely than war itself.

In 2008, Doerries’ group received $3.7 million from the Pentagon to tour military installations around the world and they have staged more than 250 shows for 50,000 military personnel.

But what is it about Sophocles’ plays that modern troops relate to so much? What leaves these men and women in tears at the end of each performance?

Sophocles

Sophocles

One thing that the article highlighted for me, and of which I was not aware before, is that Sophocles himself was a warrior and commander, his father an Attic amour-maker. Sophocles had lived through the Greek victories over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, and then served in the bloody years of the Peloponnesian War when the Greeks tore each other apart.

These were deeply traumatic times.

What hadn’t really clicked for me before reading this article was that with military service in Athens being compulsory among men, most of Sophocles’ audience would have been soldiers and veterans of bloody conflicts.

Sophocles spoke to his audience, he addressed the costs of war, the trauma of battle, the grief and rage that lingered long after the laurel wreaths had been handed-out, and the praise of one’s comrades had ceased.

The blood and chaos of warfare

The blood and chaos of warfare

Theatre of War mostly performs two plays for military audiences – Ajax and Philoctetes.

In Greek history/legend, Ajax was one of the greatest of the Greek warriors during the Trojan War. He was a good friend of Achilles, had won numerous battles for the Greeks, and survived one-on-one combat with the greatest of Troy’s heroes, Hector. Ajax inspired his brothers-in-arms.

But even the mighty fall, it seems. In Sophocles’ play, after nine years of fighting on foreign shores, Ajax, who carried Achilles’ body from the battlefield, has a disagreement with Odysseus about who should get Achilles’ god-made armour. Agamemnon and Menelaus decide to award the honour to Odysseus and this insult sends Ajax into a rage. He swears he will kill the sons of Atreus and Odysseus and any others who have insulted him.

Ajax carrying the body of Achilles from the battlefield

Ajax carrying the body of Achilles from the battlefield

However, the gods are not on Ajax’s side. Athena drives him mad and he ends up slaughtering a host of animals in his tent, thinking they are his perceived enemies. Tecmessa, Ajax’s slave woman and consort, relays what happened:

As captives bulls and herdsmen’s dogs and sheep,
Of which a part he strangled, others felled
And cleft in twain; others again he lashed,
Treating those beasts like human prisoners.
Then rushing out, he with some phantom talked,
Launching against the sons of Atreus now,
Now ‘gainst Ulysses, ravings void of sense,
Boasting how he had paid their insults home.
Then once more rushing back into the tent,
By slow degrees to his right mind he came.
But when he saw the tent with carnage heaped,
Crying aloud, he smote his head, and then
Flung himself down amid the gory wreck,
And with clenched fingers grasped and tore his hair.
So a long time he sat and spoke no word.
At last, with imprecations terrible
If I refused, he bade me tell him all,
What had befallen and how it came about.
And I, my friends, o’erwhelmed with terror, told
All that I knew of that which he had done.
Thereat he uttered piercing cries of grief,
Such as had never come from him before,
For in loud lamentations to indulge
He ever held a craven weakling’s part,
And, stifling outcries, moaned not loud but deep,
Like the deep roaring of a wounded bull.
But in this plight, prostrate and desperate,
Refusing food and drink, my hero lies
Amidst the mangled bodies, motionless.
That he is brooding on some fell design,
His wails and exclamations plainly show.
But, O kind friends, ’twas to this end I came,
Enter the tent and aid me if ye can;
The words of friends are desperate sorrow’s cure.

(Sophocles, Ajax)

When the clouds of madness are swept from Ajax’s eyes, he is shamed by what he has done and goes into deep depression. I’m guessing that it must be the same for modern troops who come home and are haunted by the things that they have experienced, seen and done.

Ajax in anguish

Ajax in anguish

We must remember that this is one of the greatest warriors in the army, second only to Achilles. He has Tecmessa, and he has a son, he has had honours heaped upon him, and yet he cannot deal with what he has done. The strain of 9 years of war have had their toll.

What now am I to do, since of the gods
I am abhorred, of the Hellenic host
Hated, to Troy and all this land a foe?
Shall I to their own quarrel leave the Kings,
Unmoor, and homeward cross the Aegean wave?
How can I face my father Telamon?
How can he bear to look upon the son
Who comes to him disgraced, without the prize,
When glory’s wreath has circled his own brow?

(Sophocles, Ajax)

Ajax decides he can no longer be among the living, such is his disgrace. He decides to leave his tent, despite Tecmessa’s protestations. Alone outside, on the earth surrounding Troy, he plants his sword in the ground, point upward, and kills himself…

O death, O death, come and thy office do;
Long, where I go, our fellowship will be.
O thou glad daylight, which I now behold,
O sun, that ridest in the firmament,
I greet you, and shall greet you never more.
O light, O sacred soil of my own land,
O my ancestral home, my Salamis,
Famed Athens and my old Athenian mates,
Rivers and springs and plains of Troy, farewell;
Farewell all things in which I lived my life;
‘Tis the last word of Ajax to you all,
When next I speak ’twill be to those below.

(Sophocles, Ajax)

Ajax's suicide

Ajax’s suicide

In the video trailer for Theatre of War, which I link to below, you will see various troops coming forward at the end of a performance to talk about their own demons, and how they very much identified with Ajax and the torment he was feeling.

The suicide statistics I mentioned earlier are telling and terrifying, and they align with these emotions which Sophocles expressed through the hero Ajax over 2000 years ago.

It is wondrous, the therapeutic role that culture and the arts have to play. Doerries and the Theatre of War seem to have tapped into this on a visceral level to engage an audience that has been neglected in decades past. According to the article, the purpose is to “reach communities where intense feelings have been suppressed, in hopes of bringing people closer to articulating their suffering.”

From the numbers of troops, from all ranks, who come forward after the performances, Doerries and the Theatre of War are helping.

One has to wonder what else Sophocles might have produced, and to what effect? Only seven of Sophocles’ plays have come down to us. It is reckoned that he actually produced over 100. There’s a thought! What other issues might he have tackled which involved the ancient warrior and those around him?

One of the other plays that has survived is Philoctetes.

Philoctetes, in history/legend was one of the greatest archers in the ancient world. He was also the inheritor of the bow of Herakles, which that tragic hero bequeathed to Philoctetes when he was the only one who would help Herakles to light his funeral pyre. Another great hero who committed suicide.

Philoctetes had joined the expedition to Troy, but when they first arrived on the other side of the Aegean he was bitten by a snake on his foot. The wound festered and stank and Philoctetes was always in unimaginable pain.

But his comrades did not help him. Instead, because he was so loud and disruptive to the sacrifices and morale, they abandoned him on a desolate island to be alone with his pain and torment.

Philoctetes abandoned

Philoctetes abandoned

Sophocles’ play is not about a soldier who is driven to suicide, but rather a soldier who is abandoned, whose friends are not there for him when he needs them most.

His former friends do return, however, after 10 years of war. But it is not for him that they return, but for the bow of Herakles, without which it is said the Greeks cannot win against the Trojans. Odysseus comes to Philoctetes with Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to get the bow.

Naturally, Philoctetes is bitter and might have killed his comrades had not Neoptolemus stolen the bow at Odysseus’ insistence. Philoctetes is distraught at losing his one great possession, the thing which has kept him alive.

O pest, O bane, O of all villainy
Vile masterpiece, what hast thou done to me?
How am I duped? Wretch, hast thou no regard
For the unfortunate, the suppliant?
Thou tak’st my life when thou dost take my bow.
Give it me back, good youth, I do entreat.
O by thy gods, rob me not of my life.
Alas! he answers not, but as resolved
Upon denial, turns away his face.
O havens, headlands, lairs of mountain beasts,
That my companions here have been, O cliffs
Steep-faced, since other audience have I none,
In your familiar presence I complain
Of the wrong done me by Achilles’ son.
Home he did swear to take me, not to Troy.
Against his plighted faith the sacred bow
Of Heracles, the son of Zeus, he steals,
And means to show it to the Argive host.
He fancies that he over strength prevails,
Not seeing that I am a corpse, a shade,
A ghost. Were I myself, he had not gained
The day, nor would now save by treachery…

… I return
To thee disarmed, bereft of sustenance.
Deserted, I shall wither in that cell,
No longer slaying bird or sylvan beast
With yonder bow. Myself shall with my flesh
Now feed the creatures upon which I fed,
And be by my own quarry hunted down.
Thus shall I sadly render blood for blood,
And all through one that seemed to know no wrong.
Curse thee I will not till all hope is fled
Of thy repentance; then accursed die.

(Sophocles, Philoctetes)

Philoctetes has experienced not only pain and torment, but extreme isolation for an extended period of time. If he had been able, he likely would have taken out his anger and rage on his former comrades who had come to get him, those who had abandoned him, mainly Odysseus.

Neoptolemus and Odysseus take the bow of Herakles from Philoctetes

Neoptolemus and Odysseus take the bow of Herakles from Philoctetes

But the Gods decide to favour Philoctetes, and in the legend Herakles himself appears and urges his old friend to return to the war with his bow. This Philoctetes does, and he is one of the men who hides in the Trojan Horse. Sophocles’ play does not go into this, but focusses more on the pain of abandonment and isolation.

How many modern troops, or troops through the ages for that matter, would also have experienced such deep pain in isolation, real and figurative?

How many troops come home to family and friends who, despite the very best of intentions, just don’t understand what they have been through? They can’t understand unless they have been there themselves.

Trenches

The Theatre of War and its performances of Ajax and Philoctetes seems to provide just what is needed for troops who are alone, and depressed, and dealing with PTSD and all the horrors that that entails – a forum of common understanding.

As I said before, I have not served in the military, so I can only imagine what our troops must be going through. However, there is a level on which I can understand some of this that is perhaps related.

It has to do with the study of history in general. Over the years, when I have felt isolated, out-of-place, depressed, or felt difficult emotion to some extreme, I’ve always found comfort in history, the people, the events.

Medieval battle

Medieval battle

Somehow, studying and trying to understand history, whatever the period, has always helped me to feel more attuned to the world about me, less lonely. No matter how bad I might have thought things were, how little I might have been understood, history, the past, has always shown me that similar things, more difficult things, have happened to others. I think the knowledge of the challenges people in the past have overcome has always given me strength.

I can’t imagine my life without having studied the past. From those difficult teenage years to the present day, the past has always been my comfort and compass, and helped me to move forward however small my steps.

Perhaps that is what our troops, those veterans of extreme emotion, get from listening to their fellow warriors’ voices out of the past?

Bryan Doerries says it at the end of each of his group’s performances:

“Most importantly, if we had one message to deliver to you, two thousand four hundred years later, it’s simply this: You are not alone across time.”

So, this November 11th, and all through the year, I will ever spare a thought or prayer for warriors past and present. It shouldn’t matter what you think of the kings or politicians who sent them to battle for whatever ends.

If history has taught me anything, it is that warriors through the ages have faced incredible challenges and horrors, and for that they deserve our compassion.

Lest we forget…

Thank you for reading.

 Poppy field

If you would like to learn a bit more about the Theatre of War, be sure to visit the website and spread the word. You can also watch the video trailer which shows some of the work they do and includes troops expressing their feelings post-performance. Powerful stuff!

I would also recommend watching some of their performances. Below are clips of both Ajax and Philoctetes being performed by Theatre of War.

Click HERE to watch a performance of Ajax by Theatre of War.

 

 

Click HERE to watch a performance of Philoctetes by Theatre of War. 

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