Thomas Palaima and Stephen Sonnenberg: Our wounds, our duty





[Thomas Palaima, a MacArthur fellow, is Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas, where he teaches seminars on the human experience of war and violence. tpalaima@mail.utexas.edu. Stephen Sonnenberg is clinical professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences medical school in Bethesda, Md., head of the Education Department at the American Psychoanalytic Association and founding director of the Austin Center for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. ssonnenberg@austin.rr.com. Both are faculty fellows of the Humanities Institute at the University of Texas.]

'Unfortunately, over the past eight years, our Army has been no stranger to tragedy, but we are an army that draws strength from adversity."

We should take to heart what Gen. George W. Casey Jr., chief of staff of the Army, said to us immediately after the terrible violence at Fort Hood.

But we should also listen to what soldiers have been trying to tell us since the Athenians fought the Persians at Marathon 2,500 years ago. There are consequences for all members of societies that go to war.

Much about what led to the Fort Hood attack remains uncertain. The prime suspect has not been tried, and possible motivations — religious, psychological or otherwise — are far from clear. But discussion prompted by the incident is fruitful nonetheless.

Casey is right. Our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been strangers to tragedy. But most of us citizens back home have been. In our view, we will face the risk that war's horror will echo at home if we continue to isolate our soldiers and the small cadre of mental health professionals who care for them.

We also believe that we, as citizens, have an obligation to understand better what effects war is having on all members of our society and to be actively involved in making sure the wounds that war inflicts on soldiers and civilians alike are healed. We further believe that we have a successful model for what we need to do to help prevent such future tragedies: the citizens of ancient Athens, who invented democracy and gave us the template for our own democracy.

The ancient Athenians lived in just as confusing and terrifying a world as we live in. Athenian politics was just as divisive. Their democracy, during its first 100 years, went through assassinations, foreign military interventions, economic crises, right-wing coups and radical populist extremism. The Athenians were at war almost every year in the century after the battle for freedom fought by their own greatest generation, the Marathon-fighters, in 490 BC. Marathon was their Normandy.

Near the end of that century, the Athenians, at their height of power, fought a 27-year, all-out war with Sparta. Athenian losses were staggering, the equivalent of the lost generation Great Britain and Germany suffered during World War I. Yet we have no reports of rogue actions by Athenian soldiers in the field. The few accounts we have of soldiers suffering from war trauma give no evidence that they committed acts of public violence. The Athenians must have been doing something right that we are not.

Athenian citizens understood war and its costs. They understood the need to look at war honestly, collectively and openly. They had no other choice. Every Athenian man, woman and child knew the hardships and felt the sorrows of war.

We have been sequestered from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a way unimaginable in fifth century Athens. Our all-out war on terror fostered fear of a mysterious enemy that could strike us anywhere, at any time. It gave us an out. We could know little about such an enemy, so we willingly left the conduct of the war in the hands of specialists.

We also went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq quickly with the army we had, and with limited public debate. Our exposure to the casualties of combat was also limited. Even images of flag-draped coffins were for a long time taboo.

In contrast, the Athenians displayed 11 coffins at their annual public funeral for fallen soldiers. Ten coffins contained the remains of citizen-soldiers from each of Athens' 10 tribes. An eleventh was for soldiers whose bodies could not be recovered.

The absence of a universal draft and the small size and demographics of our army further shelter us from the real tragedies of war. Our military is largely composed of men and women from the reserves or enlistees. These soldiers are brave and patriotic. But our situation stands in contrast with Athens, where all adult citizens, rich and poor, were soldiers. And the wealthier classes, armed infantry soldiers known as hoplites and soldiers in the cavalry, bore the brunt of their ground fighting.

The volunteer soldiers who do our fighting are redeployed too soon and too often. They experience stress beyond bearable limits. When they return from tours of duty, we know little about the hell they have been through and seem to care even less. We expect our dedicated military mental health professionals to care for our soldiers. Because many don't re-enlist, their numbers are shrinking dramatically. They are overstretched and overstressed.

Many soldiers returning from combat duty and their family members require intensive psychiatric therapy to heal the psychological wounds of war. Caregivers cannot be passive listeners. They must be there as fellow human beings. They hear stories of extreme pain, often in the absence of diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder. They take in the pain of their patients. They share it, reshape it and help integrate it into a healthy post-war adaptation. But they cannot and should not do these things alone. Nor should our soldiers and their families.

We have placed our soldiers and therapy-givers in a psychological pressure cooker. Combat troops, their families, and military psychiatrists and psychotherapists live in lonely and painful isolation.

We propose that all Americans need to become citizens as the ancient Athenians understood the term. We need to take an active interest in what our soldiers and those who care for them are going through overseas and back home. They need to know that we know the trauma they have suffered in the wars we have sent them to fight.

In ancient Athens, the government sponsored annual public performances of tragedies and comedies. Through the tragedies, written by military veterans like Aeschylus and active soldiers like Sophocles, Athenian soldiers and veterans, their families and their fellow citizens worked through the painful experiences of war together. In the comedies by Aristophanes, aggressive public criticism, in which many soldiers participated, was directed at leaders whose decisions and policies cost Athenian lives or perpetuated a war that was going to cost many more.

A stunning example of communal participation occurred in 415 B.C., midway through their war with Sparta. The citizens of Athens by formal vote had directed Athenian soldiers to destroy the neutral island of Melos, put all its male inhabitants to death, and sell its women and children into slavery. Months later, those very soldiers sat together with other Athenians in the Theater of Dionysus, 14,000 strong, about one-third of the whole adult male citizen population of Athens. They watched a state-approved play, "The Trojan Women," in which Greek soldiers do the same horrifying things to the men, women and children of Troy. On subsequent days, other soldiers and citizens watched other plays together.

These plays were not impersonal productions. The performers were deeply connected to the roles they played, authentically feeling and portraying their parts, and connecting to their audience in very personal ways. As is well known, the tragedies were designed to cause deep feelings of sympathy and fear in members of the audience. And the audience members during each yearly festival included the citizen-soldiers of Athens.

We now think of "The Trojan Women" as an anti-war play. At the time, we propose, it was also simply a war play. The whole citizen body embraced and absorbed the experience of violence, metabolized it and detoxified it. They embraced their soldiers sympathetically and therapeutically.

No one comes out of war without post-traumatic psychological scars. Combat soldiers and their families suffer most. Overworked mental health care professionals suffer, too, especially if they assume responsibilities we all should share. Even civilian employees who work in places like Fort Hood share with soldiers and their families the pain of war trauma. And all suffer even more because we isolate and marginalize them from the mainstream the rest of us comfortably occupy.

The ancient Athenians knew that the traumas of war are best healed when we all take part. Recent performances of Sophocles off Broadway and of a play based on psychiatrist Jonathan Shay's "Achilles in Vietnam" specifically for veterans here in Austin (see Palaima's op-ed column in the Oct. 26 American-Statesman, http://bit.ly/54ZLTY) have proved again the power of authentically performed drama to promote healthy discussion of problems that, if repressed, can have horrible consequences.

We need to find a way for us all as a nation to share in a broad range of such experiences, citizens and soldiers alike. War must be fought by our entire culture, and its traumatic consequences healed by our collective efforts to share the burdens of our aggressive behavior and the aggression directed against us by our enemies.

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