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The Cowardice of Conscience

Shakespeare Through the Lens of a Military Veteran

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.

Los Angeles. 2005. I am catering a princess tea party. Not the political tea party, but rather a tea party for little girls dressed as princesses. Countless little girls between the ages of three and eight dressed up as their favorite princess attend a grand dinner, and are visited by various "real-life" princess figures from popular animated movies. My job, while the princesses ran past giant tables piled high with sugar posing as cakes, was to clean up after the little darlings who were jamming fistfuls of cake somewhere near their mouths and generally throwing the rest on the floor. On one particular day I kneeled down to pick up a bit of saliva-cake-mush from the floor and I actually saw dirt and gun-oil in the cracks of my hand. My eyes, for a flash of an instant, saw my hands as they looked when I served in the army. I blinked, my hand went back to normal; but, when I saw what my hand was doing now, it was like a sharp powerful kick to the groin. These hands have trained for war. These hands fired weapons, called in artillery, and medi-vacs. These hands returned salutes to highly trained infantrymen who called me "sir." These hands handed a folded flag from the coffin of a fallen comrade to his weeping family. But now, these hands are picking up cake off of the floor. And while I was kneeling, for what could have been three seconds or three minutes, a little girl walked up to me, looked me in the eyes and threw her cake at my feet. I am horrified to share that my body's impulse, not my thought, my physical impulse was to smash her face. I did not hit her. My body lurched, my arm twitched, as though it wasn't mine, and I grabbed my own body, as though I was holding back an angry friend going berserk. Absolutely horrified, I dashed to the back room.

Heaving, I ran to my jeep, drove to my apartment in Venice beach, locked the door, pulled out my loaded single-shot-sawed-off shotgun, pulled back the hammer and jammed the barrel under my chin. From this exact state of torment visits, perhaps the most famous speech of all time:

To be or not to be that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? to die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is air to—'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished: to die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. [...]
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all

[Hamlet, 3.1]

Eventually, I pulled the barrel from under my chin and tried to drink myself to death, instead. But why? I didn't serve a moiety of the combat that our veterans of Vietnam or the veterans of today have experienced. The majority OIF/OEF vets (Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom) have served multiple tours. I didn't serve a full year in a combat zone, so what the hell was wrong with me? 

While combat vets, and multi-tour combat vets, have a special kind of hell in their bodies and I've covered some of this in my previous articles, I believe that all vets have been rewired. In the modern military, weeks and weeks are spent tearing the "civilian" out of civilians-turned-recruits. Ripping out the thoughtful, compassionate, human response and replacing it with what I call the "labrador reflex."

Imagine a highly trained and conditioned labrador retriever at play or "on a mission" such as hunting. They are always on alert, waiting, longing for an order or an event. Even in the seemingly passive state of sitting, the lab's almost trembling with anticipation. Almost begging for something to happen. It's central nervous system pulsing, it's stomach tight, churning with anxiety. Highly trained labradors, like military service members, are expected to respond instantly and without hesitation. Trained to react automatically, without a thought process. This is the goal of military basic training, to create the labrador-reflex in every soldier, sailor, marine and airman/woman.

Every detail must be rewired for combat. Physical and mental rewiring. No detail is too small: from where the thumb is placed while standing in the "position of attention,” to what should be going through the mind before turning a corner while on a patrol. The new rewiring is pounded into the mind and body until it all becomes automatic. Stimulus followed by an automatic response. 

But back to Los Angeles and me holding a loaded shotgun in one hand and a beer in the other. Why? Why did I want to kill myself? I believe it's because we are wired for combat but not rewired for life after combat. I believe it's because, as Richard, Duke of Gloucester puts it:

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front

And now what?  What do I do if...

I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time?

(Richard III, 1.1)

Nearly a decade later "what the hell is wrong with me?" has morphed into "what happened to me?" And the answer is I, and over twenty-two million living veterans, have been "Labrador-ed." As I've covered in previous articles, the failure to rewire our veterans has lead to dire consequences that affect every aspect of our nation.

Instead of facing the issues together and seeking solutions as a nation, we have been placing blame on other people or groups: "Oh, it's the VA's fault," or "Why doesn't the military do something," or "Well they signed up for the military, they knew what they were in for," and so on. Placing blame may free us, individually, from taking action. But my question for you is: "who do you want catering at your kid's next party?"


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Thoughts from the curator

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 theatre and society.

Shakespeare Through the Lens of a Military Veteran


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Attending "Cry Havoc" at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC on November 4. Looking forward to it on many levels. I am with Americans for the Arts and work as a Military and Veterans Arts Initiative Specialist with AmeriCorps VISTA. We are advancing the use of Arts for health and well-being in the military (active service, veterans, families, and caregivers) through the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military. Your work, Mr. Wolfert, speaks to our efforts. www.artsacrossthemilitary.org Hope to speak with you after the performance!

I have so been enjoying these posts. I've been re-looking at Hamlet in light of the acts of civilian violence by men we've seen of late, and it's been interesting to both read your posts and consider that Hamlet was not a trained soldier, but takes on the responsibilities of an assassin with little understanding of the ramifications of that act. There is an enormous wealth of tension-filled ideas (in a good way) in that play in regards to masculinity, violence, heroism (and anti-heroism) that I never realized when I read it in high school.

I've just read through all five of these posts and am so glad to know I'm only halfway through the series.

It never ceases to amaze me how Shakespeare reflects ourselves back to us, a perhaps jagged piece of a looking glass that projects our myriad likenesses through time, space, and down into the depths of our souls. In school I read Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and at the time found the subtitle to be grandiose and overblown.

Now I see it is mere truth.

Keep telling your story. I promise to be listening.

These articles should be published in a wider venue -- not just theatre folk-- but readers of the NYTimes for example. They are deeply true, and wise.

Thank you for elucidating some of the reasons 22 veterans commit suicide a day. If Shakespeare saved you that's one more reason I love his writing. Your voice is so compelling

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