Theater of War, a two-hour program held at Colby Nov. 15, blended classical Greek tragedy with a contemporary town-hall style discussion of armed service members’ and veterans’ visible and invisible wounds of war. It also played to some of Colby’s strengths, showcasing the relevance of the humanities in contemporary society, demonstrating the power of literature and performance to convey complex emotional human experience, and highlighting the value of civic engagement to bridge a wide gulf in understanding of the sacrifices and the impact of combat service.
The audience in Page Commons included veterans, students, faculty, and community members who heard dramatic readings from Sophocles’s play Ajax by professional actors. That was followed by a panel discussion featuring first-person accounts of the psychological legacy of combat from the perspectives of veterans, a family member, and an Army psychiatrist. A discussion elicited emotional accounts from audience members and panelists who had served in the armed forces and from family members dealing with the effects of war. Students contributed insightful analysis of the play and its relevance as well as compelling questions.
Panelists included Colby President Emeritus Bro Adams, a veteran of combat in Vietnam, Colby’s president from 2000 to 2013, and now chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “We can’t have a vibrant democratic political culture in this country without citizens who have at least three things,” he said, responding to a question about funding for education. “One, an understanding of history; second, an understanding of the principles of liberal democracy; and third, an acquaintance with the cultural complexity of the world, which we’ve been in part talking about. And we’re losing these things in our educational settings because we’re losing the will to educate whole people.”
Responding to a question about adequate funding for education, Adams said, “We need self-aware, thoughtful citizens who, among other things, understand some of these dimensions to our history [referring to the experience of war] and have a feeling for what, in the most recent phase of our history, these young men and women have gone through. Because that’s a part of who we are as a country.”
Adam Cote ’95, a major in the Maine National Guard, talked about the highs and lows of his service in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He deflected credit to military spouses and families, who pay the price of long separations, huge uncertainties, and potential losses, but who never get the thank-you-for-your-service expressions that he hears as a veteran.
Amanda Cooley, assistant director of the Goldfarb Center at Colby, talked about her experience growing up with a father who served in Vietnam and for many years worked to conceal the effects of post-traumatic stress. It surfaced in subtle ways, she said, like when he told the family after a meal at a restaurant, “It’s time to get back to the barracks.”
Melanie Morin ’02, M.D., a major in the Army Reserve and staff psychiatrist at the VA Maine health center at Togus, talked about the challenges that combat veterans face returning to a society where 98 to 99 percent of the population has no direct connection to America’s war operations. Asked about the pros and cons of pharmaceuticals in treating the psychological effects of war, Morin said there are some very helpful medications that treat the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. “What I always tell my veterans,” she said, “is that the medications are going to help. They’re the Band-Aids; they treat the symptoms. The therapy is the cure. I think the medications help them tolerate therapy, because therapy will often make them get worse before they get better.”
The event, a production of Outside the Wire, a “social impact company that uses theater and other media to help communities address public health and social issues,” was a collaborative effort by sponsored by Colby’s Center for the Arts and Humanities, the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, Garrison-Foster Health Center, and MaineGeneral Medical Center.