Living & Dying in a War Theater: “Ajax in Iraq”

Throughout our nation’s history, large numbers of Americans have lived in war zones as active combatants.  Of course, the rest of us wonder what it’s like — what living inside a war does to people, how they deal with it.

But most veterans don’t talk about it much.  Fortunately, some do — and when they do, some folks listen.  In 1994, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam compared what US veterans told him with what Homer said about a war 2,700 years earlier; surprisingly, he found, the Greek poet’s picture of life at war was still painfully accurate, and even helpful in finding ways for soul-scarred survivors to heal.

Ellen McLaughlin’s 2011 play Ajax in Iraq sets the experience of a new generation of American soldiers alongside another ancient war story, Sophocles’ Ajax.  She does it to inquire about Americans living and dying in the Middle Eastern conflict and finds, like Shay, that the Greeks knew war with a horrible intimacy.

Ajax (Aaron Hendry) surrounded by American GIs (photo: Sean Deckert)

Ajax (Aaron Hendry) surrounded by American GIs (photo: Sean Deckert)

This month, LA’s Not Man Apart troupe is re-staging McLaughlin’s drama.  “After 15 years of deployments,” notes director John Farmanesh-Boca — this war is now longer than the American Revolution — “the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse.  Our veterans cannot be ignored.”

McLaughlin interweaves the experiences of a company of GIs (mostly women) with large fragments of Sophocles’ play. This may seem odd at first — the goddess Athena onstage amid grunts wielding automatic weapons — but it turns out to be a powerful way for us to understand what our soldiers experience, and how impossibly much we expect of them.

The most powerful thing we learn is that aside from the weapons, so little has changed.

Today, just as in the ancient world, war is a place where half the people are trying to kill you, and the other half are sending you out into harm’s way.  It’s a place where you quickly feel more attached to the person fighting next to you — if you can trust them — than to anyone else in the world.

It’s also a place where some people abandon ethics and rules, and put everyone else at even greater risk.  Where some officers abuse their power freely, since there’s no recourse from their authority. Where no one who’s not in the thick of it has any idea — not even the officers back at field headquarters, who make the plans and order the attacks.

These things erode the sanity of Ajax, one of the Greek army’s greatest soldiers.  And they eat away at A.J., an American soldier who is the first of her unit to arrive in Iraq.

As the Greeks’ “lightning attack” on Troy turns into a grinding 10-year siege, Ajax watches friends slain day after day, and struggles to hang on to the code of honor. Then a high-ranking officer steals his dead friend’s armor, and Ajax snaps.

A.J. is forced into sex slavery by her psychopathic sergeant, and withdraws into a deep depression.  Her buddies worry about her, and admire — but don’t understand — the way she rushes fiercely into the most dangerous assignments.

When Ajax breaks, he goes on a “berserk raid,” killing everything he can see.  A.J., pushed beyond her limit, does the same.  When this kind of psychotic break happens to a soldier — and it often does — it wins medals … if the rage falls on an enemy position.  If it falls on a local village, it usually gets hushed up.

Both Ajax and A.J. kill symbolically, however; they slaughter animals.  When Ajax realizes he is mad, and has destroyed the Greek army’s only food supply, he kills himself.  When A.J. sees what she’s done, she also commits suicide.

Ajax in Iraq premiered off-Broadway with some criticizing it as more programmatic than dramatic.  But the Not Man Apart company wears the title “Physical Theatre Ensemble” — and they earn it.  Under Farmanesh-Bocca’s intense, energetic direction, the company creates an ongoing melee of movement, noise and stress, punctuated by sudden, disorienting moments of quiet.

This production makes us feel the grinding pressure of a war zone more viscerally than a 3-D movie with blaring speakers can.  And the lead actors — Aaron Hendry and Courtney Munch — carve out blazingly individual characters, so there’s no sense of allegory.

What we’re left with is a grueling and disheartening vision of life in war.  We watch — and feel — the way it distorts and destroys human personalities, tearing individuals from their inner roots, making them strangers in their homes and families.

This is the price of war.  Not just the body bags, not just the visible wounds — but the countless young women and men for whom staying alive in a war zone makes life unliveable.  Watching Ajax in Iraq, we cannot look away from what we have done, and are still doing every day, to our fellow Americans.

The Greeks told these stories not to recruit more soldiers, nor to amuse audiences.  They told them to indict everyone, to make the whole community feel as deeply as possible the human and moral cost of policies they had voted for, or failed to oppose.   Not Man Apart, with its shocking, powerful production of Ajax in Iraq, would makes Sophocles proud.
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Ajax in Iraq, by Ellen McLaughlin, directed and choreographed by John Farmanesh-Bocca.
Presented by Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble, at Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through August 14th.

Tickets:  <www.notmanapart.com>