A society that sends its young people to war has a moral and social obligation to re-assimilate them upon their return. On this Veterans Day, we would do well 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 returning to camp after battle. Ancient Greece used ritualized Athenian theater to cleanse, heal, and reintegrate veterans, expecting them not only to watch war-themed plays, but also to create and perform them. The Vestal Virgins of Rome bathed returning soldiers to purge them of the corruption of war. Maasai warriors in East Africa underwent purification rites before being fully welcomed home. Native Americans held purification rituals in sweat lodges for returning warriors.
We should also look to William Shakespeare for wisdom. He lived in a time of endless warfare and began at least 10 of his plays with triumphant soldiers “crossing the threshold of return”, as the mythologist Joseph Campbell puts it, only to wreak enormous havoc on the home front.
Shakespeare’s subject was not successful reinstatement, but the consequences of its absence. With few exceptions, Shakespeare’s repatriates fail miserably to re-assimilate into civilian life. They bring war with them into post-war life, destroying themselves and loved ones. As a result 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 nevertheless richly dramatizes the warriors who suffer from the disease. 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 the return from war. She lists in anguished detail the symptoms manifested by her husband, who returned physically from the war but not mentally. She laments his social withdrawal, isolation, random rage, sexual dysfunctions, depression and insomnia. “Your spirit inside you has been so at war,” she cries. “And so stirred you so much in your sleep, that drops of sweat settled on your brow like bubbles in a recently troubled 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 (along with 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 help with the dropout process. The theory, which Shakespeare would almost certainly endorse, is that de-recruitment is as important as military recruitment and should mirror and reverse it. By watching the plays, but especially by performing and producing them, young soldiers who had been hardwired for war can begin to disconnect from war.
It should be obvious that societies that send their young people to war have a moral and practical obligation to support returnees. Yet with the major exception of World War II, the United States has always entered war without a viable plan to care for returning soldiers, then generally left them with few resources after suffering in combat and returning. . The obligation to help those whom we have thus harmed demands that we assess and correct the damage which recruits commonly sustain to their psychic being during their 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 it. It is ironic, or perhaps just appropriate, that his plays have increasingly been used to aid efforts to fulfill this moral and therapeutic responsibility by allowing veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to experience catharsis. performing in public spaces.
Alan Warren Friedman is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Shakespeare’s Returning Warriors – and Ours”.
A version of this editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News.