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Daydreams: Run, don't walk, to see "Ajax in Iraq"

By Rick Chrisman
On April 21, 2012

  • Country Corner's fried oatmeal provides a textural twist to the traditional oatmeal breakfast. Sarah Weitzman/ The Skidmore News

Everyone should see this play, which deftly distills the essence of war and makes its audience strive to fulfill its moral obligations.

This is a cheer for the Skidmore Theater Department. Leaving the JKB Theater after the performance, which has a superior cast, great production value and an excellent script by Ellen McLaughlin, I wished every Skidmore student could see it. What follows is not a "theater review," but a personal view.

In a blistering 90 minutes, "Ajax in Iraq" conveys the American experience of these seemingly endless wartime years. It tells a timeless story of war, its tragic ambiguities and its costs, without making political gestures or inducing guilt trips. Ten years of op-ed pieces, media punditry, statistical reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and dinner table conversations are concentrated into the single javelin thrust of poetry by this play.

This piece prods us to reflect on what we think we are doing as a country. It provides a moment to take in the difference between the personal challenges of mortal combat and our self-interested projects at home. You could say Ellen McLaughlin holds the mirror up to our contradictions and evasions.

In so doing, the play elucidates the preciousness of life. Once you see this, you cannot but marvel at the miracle of every morning. Here we are, born where we are born, enduring our sufferings, tasting the edge of God's blade, each given the gift of living one specific life. We could hear the universe cry out at the waste that is war.

Of course, every war story is inherently an anti-war story. In this particular instance, the playwright interlaces the story of A.J., a female soldier under great duress in Iraq, with the story of Ajax, the Greek hero of the Trojan war who commits suicide after a mad fit in which he slaughters a herd of sheep believing them to be his Greek betrayers. These two cases, extreme as they are in outcome, are nevertheless emotionally representative of all combatants. War is abnormal, and calling the soldiers "heroes" is our way of normalizing it for our comfort. This play doesn't let us get away with that.

A play like "Ajax in Iraq" provides a kind of ritual moment to pay our respects to our soldiers -and all combatants. But it also prompts us to find a responsible life in wartime. I believe you will leave this play wanting to seek your own way to contribute to national life, when war is being waged abroad and domestic needs abound. Just taking a political position for or against our wars will not be enough for you anymore. Don't we want to count, to make a difference? Of course, so what domestic service might we perform?

Even apart from wartime, the same question must be asked: aren't our rights and privileges as citizens counter-balanced by certain obligations? The U.S. grew itself out of a wilderness, but we could lapse back into a moral wilderness (according to some, we already have) if we do not act upon our common interests in addition to our individual "pursuit of happiness." After you see "Ajax in Iraq," you will want a better reason for living.

I encourage you to not take any half-steps in this direction but to dedicate your college career to finding a service commitment that fulfills you, one which you might even make permanently and professionally. Maybe you will find a way to make a lot of money and dedicate it to a service project. Maybe you will, as Gandhi did, make service your religion. Whatever you do, go see "Ajax in Iraq."


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