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Shakespeare Shows How Not Aiding War Veterans Hurts Society

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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King John Overlooking Battlefield after a Battle

A society that sends its young people to war has a moral and social obligation to reassimilate them upon their return. This Veterans Day, we would be wise to look to the rituals of other cultures, past and present, for guidance on how to reintegrate veterans into civilian society.

Biblical Hebrews required warriors to undergo a purification process before they reentered camp after battle. Ancient Greece used ritualized Athenian theater to purify, heal and reintegrate veterans, expecting them not just to watch plays on themes of war but also to create and perform in them. Rome’s vestal virgins bathed returning soldiers to purge them of war’s corruption. East African Maasai warriors underwent purification rites before being fully welcomed home. Native Americans held sweat lodge purification rituals for returning warriors.

We also should look to William Shakespeare for wisdom. He lived in a time of incessant warfare and began at least 10 of his plays with triumphant soldiers “crossing the return threshold,” as the mythologist Joseph Campbell puts it, only to cause enormous damage on the home front.

Shakespeare’s subject was not successful reintegration, but the consequences of its absence. With few exceptions, Shakespeare’s returnees fail disastrously to reassimilate to civilian life. They bring the war with them into post-war life, destroying those closest to them and themselves. In the wake of their failed transitions, the social order is worse than it was before they went to war.

Shakespeare was never a soldier, and he lacked our modern vocabulary for post-traumatic stress disorder. He nonetheless richly dramatizes warriors who suffer from the condition. For example, the lament of Kate, Hotspur’s wife, in “Henry IV Part I” (Act 2, Scene 3), is one of the great evocations in literature of the psychological toll of returning from war. She enumerates in anguished detail the symptoms manifested by her husband, who has returned physically from war but not psychically. She bemoans his social withdrawal, isolation, random rage, sexual dysfunction, depression and insomnia. “Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,” she cries. “And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep, That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream.”

Shakespeare’s plays provide great understanding of the costs of war and trauma; they are also a rich resource for theater artists, mental health professionals and military veterans, who increasingly employ them (and other works of art) for healing purposes.

Organizations such as Feast of Crispian, the Veterans Center for the Performing Arts and DE-CRUIT dramatize Shakespeare’s tragic veterans to aid in the process of de-cruitment. The theory, one that Shakespeare would almost certainly endorse, is that de-cruitment is as important as, and should mirror and reverse, military re-cruitment. By watching the plays, but more importantly by performing in and producing them, young soldiers who had been wired for war can begin to unwire from war.

It should be self-evident that societies that send their young to war have a moral and practical obligation to provide care for returnees. Yet with the major exception of World War II, the U.S. has always gone to war without a viable plan for caring for returning soldiers, and then generally left them with few resources after they have suffered in combat and come back. The obligation to aid those whom we have thus harmed requires that we assess and address the damage that recruits commonly sustain to their psychic beings while in military service. We must find ways to help and reintegrate those who bear the symptoms, scars and contamination of death, debilitating injuries and PTSD.

Shakespeare knew this. It is ironic, or maybe just appropriate, that his plays have increasingly been employed to assist efforts to meet this moral and therapeutic responsibility by enabling veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to experience catharsis by performing in public spaces.

Alan Warren Friedman is a professor emeritus of English at The University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Shakespeare’s Returning Warriors – and Ours.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

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