Rewarding Sacrifice: What today’s world leaders can learn from Alexander the Great

corinthian-helmet-with-poppy

Every year around this time, I try to write a post dedicated to the theme of Remembrance Day, something of a hat-tip to the service men and women who are scattered over the Earth trying to protect the world from itself.

After all, everyone one of my books deals with warriors, the struggle of war, and the changes war wreaks upon the fighters, their families, and the world around them. Eagles and Dragons Publishing’s #1 best selling book in 2016, A Dragon among the Eagles, is dedicated to men and women in service (and I mean that with utmost sincerity), and every year I attend my local Remembrance Day ceremony and think of all those who have laid down, or are currently risking their lives for the rest of us.

D-Day at Omaha Beach, Normandy

D-Day at Omaha Beach, Normandy

I think of my two grandfathers who fought in the World Wars as part of the British Army and Greek Merchant Navy respectively, and of my cousin who lost her husband outside of Kandahar more recently.

poppy-field-remember-banner

But is this enough of a tribute?

I don’t think so.

Frankly, I feel like anything I do or say or write, no matter how sincere and heartfelt it is, is not enough to be of sufficient thanks.

And I’m not talking about honouring war or the politicians who send men and women to war for their own selfish ends. I’m not going to sully this post with talk of political motives.

The troops are not responsible for the wars that happened in the past, or that are happening as we speak.

British Troops in Afghanistan

British Troops in Afghanistan

Sadly, we’ve seen a whole new generation of veterans emerge, people younger than you or I. When I was young, the word veteran was relegated to grandparents wearing poppies, or stories from history.

Not so anymore.

And we’ve a seen a resurgence of anti-war, pro-soldier art in the form of books, music, illustration, poetry, film and more. So much that seeks to honour the sacrifices being made.

Is it important to create these works of art?

Absolutely.

But again, is it enough?

I still don’t think so…

A new generation of troops

A new generation of troops

Let me say this now. I don’t have any answers. You won’t leave this post thinking, wow, he’s hit it on the head!

That is not my intent. But my hope is that we can all be a bit more aware and leave this post with some questions in our minds.

My original intent with this post was to rant about the lack of support for troops returning from various tours in the current hell-holes of the earth.

But ranting isn’t productive either.

WWII veterans visiting a cemetery in Normandy

WWII veterans visiting a cemetery in Normandy

In truth, when I started research for this post, I did some digging on-line for programs intended to support veterans and their families here in Canada, as well as in the USA and United Kingdom.

To my surprise, there are a lot of support systems in place.

That’s good, because veterans of any age are dealing with a tonne of shite that you and I can only imagine. Here are just a few:

  • extreme uncertainty

  • re-integration into civilian society

  • proper health care for injuries sustained in line of duty

  • PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)

  • relationship difficulties

  • unemployment

  • homelessness

  • financial uncertainty and debt

That is a pretty heavy list, and there are a lot more that could be added to it.

pained-serviceman

The support that is out there is largely charity and foundation-driven. Many groups seem to be doing some outstanding work, and they do get some government support, but perhaps not enough.

Shouldn’t the people sending troops into danger do their utmost to help those same troops when they return home and are in crisis as a result of combat?

Alexander riding into battle at the head of his troops

Alexander riding into battle at the head of his troops

This leads me to the title of this post: Rewarding Sacrifice: What today’s world leaders can learn from Alexander the Great

Whenever I think of the prime example of a true leader, I think of Alexander the Great.

Yes, I know many think of him as blood-thirsty tyrant, a maniacal conqueror, maybe even a selfish psychopath.

Whatever you think of Alexander the Great, however, you can’t deny that he shared in his soldiers’ hardships, and led by example. He inspired his troops to do what many thought was impossible, and after it all, including looming mutinies, they still loved him.

Alexander led from the front in every engagement, and when the battles were over, he knew how to reward his soldiers.

He knew that they had given everything to him, that they had been away from their families for years. They had fought and died, and Alexander, though disappointed with their grumblings at times, knew how to reward their sacrifices.

So what can world leaders learn from Alexander the Great?

be-a-marine-wwii

What prompted this question was a passage I came across while doing some research for the (still ongoing) Alexander novels.

When Alexander’s army had crossed the Gedrosian Desert at the end of their long march to India, and they arrived at Opis, the troops, jealous of ranks given to Persians, threatened mutiny again.

Alexander delivered his famous ‘speech at Opis’ then, speaking to his disgruntled troops, not as the son of Zeus, or the new ‘Great King’, but as one of them. He could do this, and his words did move them, for he had shared their toils. If you would like to read the full speech in Arrian’s Anabasis, CLICK HERE.

But what we are concerned with here is not the mutiny, or the speech itself. It is how Alexander rewarded the veterans, those unfit for service due to old age and injury, or those unwilling to go further.

According to A.P. Dascalakis in his book Alexander the Great and Hellenism, Alexander:

“…had paid off all their debts, without asking how they had been contracted: they received high pay, besides what they seized as booty after every siege. Most of them had golden wreaths, as immortal guerdons of their valor and of honor from him. And if any died, their death was glorious, their burial splendid; bronze statues of most of them were set up in their towns, their parents were honoured and were exempt of all tax or levy.”

Think about some of that for a moment…and then think of the list of things troops returning home have to deal with after serving.

Canadian troops in Afghanistan

Canadian troops in Afghanistan

From what I can tell, there are support programs to help veterans with PTSD, injuries, and general health care, but we still hear a lot about veterans living on the streets, unable to afford a home, however small, or even get a job.

Some might say ‘Hey, a lot of other people are out there facing those same things!’, and that is true, but not everyone steps forward to defend their fellow citizens on the battlefield.

Alexander the Great honoured his soldiers with wreaths and statues and his love, but more practically, he paid off their debts, gave them good pensions, and rewarded their families by exempting them from taxation. He also ordered that soldiers’ children be given a proper education.

This got me to wondering…

If returning veterans did not have to worry about debt, taxation, homelessness, little to no pension, or further education for themselves or their children, they could focus more on the intense healing needed for them to deal with PTSD, health issues, new disabilities, and re-integration into the society which they had stepped up to defend.

Out of the trenches in WWI

Out of the trenches in WWI

I think Alexander the Great had it right. Give your veterans the rewards they deserve, commensurate with the sacrifices they have made.

I know this is more practical, but sometimes I’m guessing that is what’s needed.

Here are some crazy ideas Alexander the Great would approve, and that world leaders could implement for veterans:

  • Forgive all debts for veterans and their families so that they can have a fresh start

  • Give them boundless health care to overcome their wounds (mental and physical)

  • Ensure all vets get high-level pensions

  • Create legislation that forces all colleges and universities to provide free tuition for veterans and veterans’ children

Some of this may already be done in some countries, but I suspect most not.

Does this mean higher taxes for the rest of us civilians?

Likely, yes. But these are things that I think we can do for those who put themselves on the line for the rest of us.

Greek Resistance fighters in WWII

Greek Resistance fighters in WWII

Call me naïve and idealistic, but with everything else vets are dealing with, money worries should not be among them.

As I said before, I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know about all the programs for veterans and their families that are out there.

Here are a few that I know of and which I came across while researching this post:

In Canada:

Vets Canada

Veterans Transition Network

Wounded Warriors Canada

Veterans Affairs Canada

In the United Kingdom:

Veterans Aid

Veterans’ Foundation

Royal British Legion

Veterans UK

In the United States:

Disabled Veterans National Foundation

Veterans Support Foundation

United States Veterans Initiative

US Department of Veterans Affairs

If any of you know of some particularly helpful charities or programs in the country where you are, please do share the information in the comments below. You never know who will be reading and whether something here might help.

Also, if you haven’t heard about Theatre of War, you may want to check out this post on healing PTSD with ancient Greek tragedy. PTSD was a condition that afflicted ancient warriors as well as modern ones, and this particular theatre group has been making great headway in helping veterans to cope with PTSD. CLICK HERE to check it out.

As for what us civilians can do, it may not be enough, but every little must help.

Pin a poppy on your jacket, donate to a veterans’ charity, go to a ceremony, write a blog post, shake a vet’s hand, say thank you to a veteran.

It’s all better than doing nothing, lest we forget…

Thank you for reading

lone-poppy-lest-we-forget

 

This year, Eagles and Dragons Publishing is happy to make a donation to Wounded Warriors Canada and their COPE program which provides therapy to military families dealing with PTSD.

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A Head for War – Top 10 Ancient and Medieval Battle Helmets

Ancient Warriors - painting by Arturas Slapsys

Ancient Warriors – painting by Arturas Slapsys

Some of the very first things that interested me in history as a young boy were weapons and armour.

Boys will be boys, and so it’s no surprise that this is what drew me into the ancient and medieval worlds in the first place.

I remember getting a used book called The Art of Chivalry, which I flipped through over and over again. I was mesmerized by the images of broad swords and gothic armour, the shields, the lines, and the hack marks from various battles.

If there is one piece that has been common to most ancient cultures, it’s the helmet.

Apart from Celtic warrior heroes, most soldiers and fighters wore a helmet into battle. However, despite the common usage of something to protect the head and face, the styles varied greatly over the ages, making for some magnificent pieces that were utilitarian and beautiful at the same time.

So, here is my Top 10 list of favourite ancient and medieval battle helmets…

 

The Trojan War 

#10 – Mycenaean Boar’s Tusk Helmet

Mycenaean Boar's Tusk helm

My tenth choice on this list is one that you might not have expected to see. It isn’t made of iron or bronze, but rather of boar’s tusks that would have been sewn together over a skull-cap, or lining of some sort.

We’ve all heard about the Trojan War, but the portrayals of Greeks and Trojans wearing Classical Age Corinthian Helmets is not exactly accurate. We’re talking about the (approximately) 12th century B.C. here. This is a helmet of great antiquity that was worn by the heroes who fought beneath the walls of Troy in this most famous of wars.

I’ve put it on this list for sheer interest’s sake.

 

See You in the Lists!

#9 – Jousting Helmet

Medieval Jousting helm

If gladiators were the entertainment of the Roman world, jousting was the equivalent of the Middle Ages.

From the time I was a boy, this is what I was drawn to. Two knights in armour careening toward each other with their lances couched. I could see their horses’ trappings fluttering as they came closer and closer and then the tremendous impact of splintered lances and shattered shields.

Fantastic! But wow, so dangerous. Tourney knights may have donned colourful ribbons and head dresses for the tilt, but they were certainly not wussies. These guys were tough as nails!

And they did this with little to no visibility! The tourney helms were thick and heavy, and were intended to deflect a lance point at speed. It must have been absolutely suffocating inside one of those.

But how imposing they looked, how fantastic with the colourful tourney crests affixed on the top. These guys took the tourney circuit, and the ladies, by storm, all in a chivalrous way, or course. Men such as William Marshall or Ulrich von Lichtenstein (not Heath Ledger, the real one!), made a name for themselves in the European lists and helped to shape the chivalric ideals we see in art and story.

 

Riding with Alexander the Great

#8 – Hellenistic Cavalry Helmet

Companion Cavalry (wearing Boetian Helmet).

When you get to the time of Alexander the Great and the successors, they begin to add a bit more pizazz to their headgear. Alexander would have had special helmets outfitted just for him, perhaps made to look like a lion head which you can see on the coins (remember, the Argead dynasty claimed descent from Herakles!), or the ram horns of Zeus-Ammon.

My eighth pick would be the helmet commonly used by the Alexander’s Companion Cavalry, commonly thought to be the best cavalry in the ancient world. Being one of these guys was glamorous and carried a lot of cache. They wore a Boeotian-type cavalry helmet with embellishments such as laurels and other ornamentations. It was also a sort of armoured sun-hat, perfect for charging across the plains of Asia in summer.

But don’t let the fanciness fool you, the Companions were crack heavy cavalry troops, and fierce enough to help Alexander bring down the mighty Persian Empire.

 

The Battle of Hastings

#7 – Norman Conical Helmet

Norman Cone helmet

1066 is a year that many of you will be familiar with. This is the year that William the Conqueror and his Norman army invaded England and killed the last Saxon King, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings. The Normans changed the face of England, some might say not for the best.

But they were a fighting force to be reckoned with. And their arms and armour reflect a more functional, militaristic culture that is immortalized in the Bayeux Tapestry.

When I think of the Normans, I think of kite shields, chain mail, and of course the conical helmet. This may not be the most dashing or even protective of warlike head gear, but its silhouette is unmistakably Norman. It was basically two bits of steel held together by a spine with a big nose guard. That’s it. There was no neck protection unless chain mail was attached to the lower rim, and the face was exposed apart from the nose. It would have had great visibility and some deflective traits because of its pointed shape. It would not be my pick for personal use, but I’ve included it because there’s just something about it.

 

Gods of the Arena

#6 – Murmillo Gladiator

Murmillo helmet

The Romans didn’t just like violence on the battlefield. They also enjoyed it on a Saturday afternoon, just for fun!

Some of the most enduring images of ancient Rome that we have are of gladiatorial combat in the amphitheatre. Gladiators were slaves, but they were also showman, and some reached unprecedented heights of popularity, almost as high as the charioteers of Rome.

Because it was a show, the gladiators played the roles of mythological beasts or ferocious, long-defeated enemies from past campaigns. But they didn’t wear masks, they wore elaborate helmets. My favourite gladiatorial helmet is the Murmillo, which was meant to represent a sort of sea creature, paired off against a Thracian warrior, or Thraex.

The Murmillo helmet was big and could be very elaborate with mythological or battle scenes embossed on it. This was an ornate, but heavy-duty helmet that was meant to inspire awe and take some heavy hits. During the early Empire, the Murmillo and Thraex were the most common pairing in combat. When they clashed, you can bet the crowd was baying for blood!

 

The Cross the the Crescent

#5 – Medieval Great Helm

Medieval Great Helm

The Crusades figured largely in my study of medieval warfare, and so it’s no surprise that the one helmet from the time that should be included here is the medieval ‘Great Helm’.

This cylindrical helmet would have been worn over a chain mail headpiece, or coif, and was the standard for most knights going on Crusade to the Holy Land. Designs by way of the puncture holes for breathing varied, but they were all big with narrow eye slits and cross-like seems on the face.

I really like the look of this helmet, but I can imagine that in the heat of Palestine, it would have felt like being in an oven. Furthermore, because the ears were covered, and because of the box-like structure of the Great Helm, the echo inside must have been insane in the thick of battle.

When I see this helmet, I also tend to think of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail. ‘None shall pass!’

 

The Waning of the Middle Ages

#4 – Gothic Armour

Gothic Armour

Some of the most complete and beautiful armour ever comes from the late middle ages. Late medieval armour was, in large part, a reaction to new weapons technology, namely firearms.

This was really the last hurrah for full body armour and helmets that matched beauty with defensive intent. We know it as Gothic armour, and there are plenty of well-preserved examples in museums and castles around the world where you can get up close and personal with it.

There are many styles, but they all share one thing in common: they seek to encase the wearer as much as possible to protect against sword, mace, axe, arrow, and of course firearm shots.

Early firearms were notoriously inaccurate, but knights would have been extremely vulnerable when charging into the spray from a bunch of arm cannons. The English longbows at Agincourt and Crécy destroyed the French knights, and this just took things one unfortunate step further.

The Gothic age of helmets and armour in general is a bit of a swan song.

Warfare had changed and the sight of fully armed knights tilting on battlefields such as Bosworth was soon to become a thing of the past, a thing of romance. Perhaps it is fitting that this was some of the most beautiful, functional armour all rolled into one. It was indeed the end of an age, and well-deserving of number four on my list.

 

Ghost Warriors

#3 – Late Roman Cavalry Helmets

Bronze Roman Cavalry mask Newstead

Now we come to it – the top three.

Whereas the men of the Legions had solid functional helmets when they went into battle, the cavalry alae of the Empire went in for something a bit more dashing and terrifying.

There is a lot of differentiation among the auxiliary units attached to the Legions because most of them were not Roman, and brought their own cultural style to the mix.

However, my favourite cavalry helmets are those with masks attached. They’re ornate on top, often with mythological scenes or beasts, and then have a mask of the same metal protecting the wearer but also striking fear into the enemies they were riding down.

There is some debate as to whether or not the actual masks were used only for demonstrations or parade, that they were perhaps removed for actual battle. But it’s not unlikely that they were indeed worn into battle. After all, some medieval helmets, as we shall see, provided much less visibility than a Roman cavalry mask.

These elite cavalry troops would have seemed like shades or furies as they rode into the fray, swinging a spatha and holding a howling draco standard. My solid number 3!

 

Men of the Legions

#2 – Roman Imperial Gallic Helmet

Roman Imperial Gallic

The Romans knew their warfare and their weapons. They also knew how to adapt, and how to adopt when they saw a good thing.

By far, my favourite Roman helmet has to be the Imperial Gallic helmet. If you look closely at the design, it makes perfect sense. They thought of everything – good vision and hearing for the legionary, protection for the back of the neck from downward slashes by those Celts, a visor in the front for the same thing, and massive cheek pieces that protected the side of the face without hindering vision.

This was a warrior’s helmet, and it was worn by tribunes, centurions, optios, and regular troops. A crest could also be attached depending on the rank of the person wearing it. But regular legionaries wore it without decoration and just went at it with the enemy in front of them. This is my pick for most utilitarian! It could easily take number one, but…

 

Grace in the Golden Age of Greece

#1 – The Corinthian Helmet

Corinthian Helmet

…I’m giving in to beauty.

When it comes to ancient Greece, the helmet that most people imagine is the Corinthian helmet. To me, this is a supremely beautiful helmet, my favourite for looks. It was used for several centuries, sometimes with a crest, sometimes without. These were made of bronze and would have been great at deflecting, spear thrusts, sword swings, and whizzing arrows.

I’ve tried on this helmet at re-enactor fairs and I must say that it’s very comfortable. Vision is decent, and it does indeed rest easily on the top of the head when not sweating it out in the shield wall. Hey, if it’s good enough for the goddess Athena, it’s good enough for me!

The one downside of the Corinthian helmet is that it would have been difficult to hear everything that was going on because there were no holes for the ears. Also, in the Mediterranean heat during the summer campaign season, it would have been hot!

But I still love the Corinthian helmet. For me, this is #1!

300 Spartans at Thermopylae - by Peter Connolly

300 Spartans at Thermopylae – by Peter Connolly

This could easily have been a much longer list. It was harder than I expected (but oh, so much fun!) to pick just ten. They are unique, utilitarian, and beautiful in their own ways, and so deserving of a place on the list, in my humble opinion.

I’ve always felt very strongly that the invention of gun powder was a low point in human and military history. It meant that any coward could pick up a gun and, from a distance, take down the most skilled, well-trained warrior without breaking a sweat. It meant that the scale of casualties would increase, and that is something we feel painfully to this day.

A lot of people might disagree with that. They might say that guns are the great leveller.

But somehow, in an age of cold black steel and bullets, I don’t really think we’ll hear about heroes like Hector or Achilles meeting face to face. Alexander won’t be charging King Porus’ elephant on Bucephalas any time soon. The Spartan shield wall is lost to history and the lists of medieval Europe are long silent but for a few scattered bands of Renaissance Festival enthusiasts.

But the art of war does remain, and it serves as a reminder of the past and the reasons for it.

Next time you are at a replica shop, re-enactor fair, or Renaissance festival, be sure to slip an ancient or medieval helmet replica over your head. You’ll be taking one step closer to understanding and feeling the past.

Thank you for reading.

What does your top 10 list look like? Do you have a favourite?

Let us know in the comments below…

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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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