Healing Modern Warriors Through the Past, by Jen W.

 

“Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood “- John Green

A recent item in the news helped solidify for me the fact that warrior cultures throughout the course of history have held many of the same values and had many of the same problems. A group including actors and directors known as “The Philoctetes Project” is performing Greek tragedies for current and former members of the military, but not just any tragedies. These tragedies deal specifically with some of the problems faced by ancient warrior cultures.

To quote from their website:

“Ajax tells the story of a fierce warrior who slips into a depression near the end of The Trojan War, attempts to murder his commanding officers, fails, and takes his own life. It is also the story of how Ajax’s wife and troops attempt to intervene before it’s too late.

Philoctetes is a psychologically complex tragedy about a famous Greek warrior who is marooned on a deserted island by his army after contracting a horrifying and debilitating illness. It is also the story of a young officer who attempts to betray the wounded warrior by stealing his weapon, but then faces a moral dilemma about leaving the suffering soldier behind.”

As a society, we sometimes seem to believe that war is something invented by modern societies, that modern wars are particularly brutal or that modern man is more psychologically fragile than warriors of the past. Programs like this emphasize to warriors that what they are experiencing is not new, and that they are not pampered nor spoiled by modern society in a way that makes them more fragile. They emphasize to the modern warrior that they are not alone, and that what they are experiencing is something that is part of the common experience of man.

But, it is important to do more than connect with modern warriors. Only one percent of Americans will ever serve in the military. A year ago the New York Times published an opinion piece on the disconnect between the modern American military and the majority of the American people.

Americans and Their Military Drifting Apart

I thought about this article when my husband recently deployed to Afghanistan and the most common response I received from civilians was, “Oh, I didn’t know we were still sending people there.” Unless they live in a military-heavy town like Fayetteville, NC or Clarksville, TN, most Americans are unlikely to have regular interaction with members of the military or their spouses and children. This is in stark contrast to World War II when Victory Gardens, scrap metal and rubber drives, rationing, war bonds and other methods to support the war were something that Americans participated in on a daily basis. The American people were part of the war effort. There have been no such initiatives for the Global War of Terror; we have simply added the blank check to the already crushing and mind-boggling national debt.

Veterans often talk about the fact that people rarely ask about their experiences. It is something most people avoid because questions might seem nosy or intrusive or might bring up painful experiences. But to veterans, it often feels like a disconnect or that people believe it is something of which to be ashamed.

We need a project like this that reaches out not just to veterans, but to the American people. We need a project to help the American people start to understand what soldiers and their families go through. I believe that reading about the “thousand yard stare” or the anger of warriors when mistreated by the institutions they trusted in an ancient context will help people start to realize that these are common experiences that should be shared, not shouldered by a small percentage of the people and ignored by the rest.

 

 

Jen W.– Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen jen_wstarted on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.

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Beowulf, by Jen W.

 

I’ve had several people ask me why we still study Beowulf. What is the point? How does it relate to anything we experience today? Of course, Beowulf has value simply because it is one of the earliest stories written in Old English to have been found. We have a lot of good evidence and reason to believe that it was an oral tale long before it was written down by scribes. Beyond that, it is a very early tale of good versus evil: a hero versus monsters, a good ruler in opposition to an evil, bloodthirsty ruler. But where Beowulf most speaks to me is as a military wife.

Beowulf arrives in Denmark, determined to help a king who once helped his own father, and to kill the monster threatening the community. He is able to defeat both the monster and its mother despite the jealousy and treachery which are being fomented in the king’s court. His strength and leadership prove his worthiness. He returns home, sharing his treasure and rewards with his king. It is no surprise that Beowulf eventually ascends the throne upon his king’s death. Beowulf has a long and prosperous reign, and most stories would end there, but this one does not.

A new threat appears on the horizon, a dragon, whose lair has been disturbed by treasure hunters. Beowulf immediately wants to go fight it. The reasons are a little murky. Maybe Beowulf feels a sense of personal responsibility as king and protector of his people. Maybe he wants to maintain his reputation as a fierce monster-killer. Maybe he wants one last great hurrah before ascending to the great mead-hall in the sky. His motivations are unclear. Is it a selfish act or a selfless act? Can it be both?

Beowulf does defeat the dragon, but meets with his own death through the battle. His advisors and his people all worry that they will no longer be able to stand against their enemies, now that Beowulf is no longer there to protect them.

I know, relating this tale to modern warrior culture seems far-fetched. But, the truth is that warrior cultures have retained many of the same values, needs and qualities through the centuries. A Roman soldier carried between 60 and 90 pounds of equipment, the same as a modern US soldier. Strength, keeping a cool head while in danger, being able to lead, these are qualities praised both in ancient times and in modern militaries.

A trickier similarity is that soldiers feel both a sense of personal duty and responsibility as well as a desire for glory. These seem like competing rather than complementary feelings when viewed through the lens of Western values. It can be difficult for the average person to imagine feeling those things simultaneously. Beowulf can help people connect with more modern stories of soldiers.

As one example of a modern war story, these conflicting feelings are reflected in ending of the movie The Hurt Locker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqn-tSa1wYY

He tells his wife that they need more bomb techs, which shows a concern for others and a sense of duty. But, he also speaks about his love of the adrenaline.

There are soldiers who volunteer for deployments when it isn’t their turn, when they could avoid deployment if they wanted. They volunteer both out of a sense of duty and from a desire for the glory of war. How would you feel if you were a fellow soldier who didn’t want to deploy for some reason? How would you feel if you were the pregnant wife of a soldier who volunteered for deployment? Different people will interpret such an action in a different manner because of their own distinct relationships and perspective. We cannot easily dismiss any of these perspectives; each seems equally valid.

The fact that some semblance of warrior culture still exists today makes Beowulf very relevant to modern history. I think it can help people gain a small bit insight into the mindset of the modern warrior as well as the ancient warrior.

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Photo taken by Asif Akbar

 

Jen W.jen_w Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.