This series examines Shakespeare from a military veteran's perspective and offers a new angle on Shakespeare's text and characters, while delving deep into the challenges facing American theater and society.
Twyla Tharp writes in her book, The Creative Habit, "Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit." In my opinion, this is what happens to military veterans—specifically the responses of men and women in combat. (I'll discuss non-combat vets in a different article.) What is the habitual response of people who've served multiple tours in combat? Although written in the early 1600s in England and set in ancient Rome, Shakespeare's Coriolanus elucidates the difficulty of reintegration back into society for our veterans who've served multiple tours in heavy combat.
Enter Caius Martius, a Roman general later surnamed Coriolanus. Shakespeare's Coriolanus was a combat veteran who served multiple tours protecting the republic from dictators and foreign invaders alike. The commander of the Roman army, Cominius describes Coriolanus thus:
I shall lack voice, the deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be uttered feebly
At sixteen years,
Beyond the mark of others
In that day's feats,
he proved best man i'the field, and for his meed (reward)
was brow-bound with the oak (2.2)
(In other words, he is given a military award for saving comrades' lives in battle—similar to the Congressional Medal of Honor today.)
He spent his first seventeen years of adulthood in combat.
For this last (battle),
let me say
I cannot speak him home
…from face to foot
He was a thing of blood, whose every motion
Was timed with dying cries
Alone he entered
the mortal gate of the city (Corioles) (2.2)
For hours Coriolanus single-handedly slaughtered Volscian soldiers (the enemy); when he exited the city's gates he found his soldiers resting. He challenged the patriotism and camaraderie of his men and commanded them to follow him (1.7, 76) back to the fight. (By the way, the U.S. Army Infantry's motto today is: "Follow Me!”) Although exhausted, Coriolanus continues to hack people to death, without even stopping to "ease his breast with panting,” until his army conquers both the field and the city.
And then he goes home. Plucked from the battlefield. Severed from the routine, the familiar, the clear mission, the life-and-death circumstances, and from the camaraderie: "...in military writings on unit cohesion, one consistently finds the assertion that the bonds combat soldiers form with one another are stronger than the bonds most men have with their wives." (Richard Gabriel, “Combat Cohesion in Soviet and American Military Units.”)
Dropped right back into his old community. Surrounded by politicians and citizens who never fought for their country. Immersed in a culture that now, perhaps, feels foreign. Alienated in a society that seems indifferent to what he and his comrades went through. A society asking to see his scars from battle (2.3)—what I consider the modern-day equivalent of "did you ever kill anybody?" Coriolanus' attitude towards the very people he fought for, perhaps not surprisingly, is riddled with rage and questions:
What would you have, you curs
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares,
Where foxes, geese…
Hang ye! Trust ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. (1.1)
I am by no means suggesting that men and women who served in heavy combat hate every single person who did not fight. Rather, I am suggesting that Coriolanus offers a warning and even a template for failure to our society when we send our citizens on multiple combat tours and expect them to "just get over it." I assert that we relive Coriolanus when:
Nations customarily measure the “costs of war” in dollars, lost production, or the number of soldiers killed or wounded. Rarely do military establishments attempt to measure the costs of war in terms of individual human suffering. Psychiatric breakdown remains one of the most costly items of war when expressed in human terms. (Richard Gabriel, No More Heroes: Madness & Psychiatry in War.)
In our country we have over twenty-two million highly trained personnel who fought for us and return to be: two to three times more likely to commit suicide, four to six times more likely to be homeless, more likely to commit a violent crime, more likely to receive a harsher prison sentence regardless of the crime, and, as psychologist Jonathan Shay suggests in his book Achilles in Vietnam, veterans with unhealed combat trauma are less likely to participate in the democracy for which they fought.
A Huffington Post article states that, “At present, there are 17,000 active-duty army soldiers, the equivalent of three combat brigades, under arrest in military prisons or under investigation.” According to federal government figures, more than 10 percent of all men in state and federal prison are veterans, at a minimum average annual cost of over 26,163 dollars per person incarcerated, creating an annual cost of nearly six billion dollars for imprisoned military veterans. We have spent an estimated four trillion dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The annual budget for veterans’ care at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center is comparatively a meager seventy-eight billion dollars.
I am suggesting that whether it be Rome, Elizabethan England, or America today, we are responsible for the care of our fellow citizens. I am suggesting that for the citizens we sent to war we share common responsibility and that we ought to give them at least as much time and resources after the war as we gave them before and during the war.
I am suggesting that the next homeless person you pass, in their filthy, tattered, piss-soaked clothes holding a sign that reads "I'm a Vet, please help," remember the moment society banished the combat veteran Coriolanus:
You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you
And here remain with your uncertainty!
…Thus I turn my back.
There is a world elsewhere. (3.3)