Realities of war come home to roost at Williams College's '62 Center
WILLIAMSTOWN — A large photo on the wall at Williams College shows a 19-year old combat engineer after a long day. His unit was moving into a Taliban-held corner of Kandahar, facing improvised explosive devices, enemy fire, and angry wasps whose nests in the mud-bricked walls had been disturbed. Photographer Ben Brody caught him at a quiet moment, exhausted in the late afternoon sun and dust. He's a soldier, but also a young man, really not that much different than the ones that might walk by.
"This is a college-age soldier," Brody said. "This is a good point of entry to the work."
The image is one of several on display at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at the College, and is part of a series of events next week to consider what happens when a society goes to war funded by the College's Gaudino Fund, which aims to encourage "uncomfortable learning."
In addition to Brody's photos, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday the Center will host a free presentation of "Theater of War," in which actors stage a table reading of Sophocles' tragedy "Ajax." The story is about the war hero Ajax, read by Emmy Award-winning actor Reg E. Cathey, and Ajax's wife, Tecmessa, read by actress Marjolaine Goldsmith. The scenes tell the story of Ajax's struggles after his return from the Trojan War, as he wrestles with what looks very much like post-traumatic stress disorder, described millennia before it had a name.
Bryan Doerries, artistic director of Theater of War Productions, is a director and translator who conceived the idea 10 years ago. At first the productions were held for active-duty military and veterans, but they've reached out to bring others into the conversation.
"We all have a role to play," Doerries said. "In some way, the civilian's role is to wake up to the fact that it is impossible to live in a democracy that sends troops to war and not have blood on your hands."
The performance begins with the reading, followed by a panel discussion including local veterans and representatives of veterans groups, and ends with a discussion moderated by Doerries. The approach is designed not to be a "quiet, boring, academic experience," but something that resounds with the audience.
"We're often talking about what just happened in the room," Doerries said. "What does it mean when some of these stories reach across time and speak to us as if they were written for this moment?"
Doerries said the presence of just a few people with direct experience of the play's subject is enough to focus attention and pull you into the conversation.
"When you frame why we're coming together as an effort to make a direct connection between the ancient past and the present experience of people living in the world, then in that sense we all have skin in the game."
Doerries said the plays were written as an important ritual in the public life of democratic, militarized Athens. During performances, most city life would pause, and up to a third of the city would spend the day watching them together. The presentation is a more compact version of that experience.
"We come together, we see each other, we watch plays that engage with our experiences, and we talk," he said.
Another level of that engagement are Brody's photos, which will be on display until March 10. Brody served as an army photographer in Iraq. After leaving the military in 2008, and while still working on his degree at the University of Massachusetts on the GI Bill, he began photographing in Afghanistan, working with the GroundTruth Project, a non-profit that chronicles the wind-down of America's long engagement in that country.
His work sets the American experience there in a different context than the day to day reporting of the news on the ground, using his own experience and perspective to explore ideas of "absurdity, unintended consequences, and loneliness," which he said are underrepresented in the media.
Many of his photos have a dry sort of sarcasm and irony. An artillery unit firing shells into an empty hillside because they are too bulky and dangerous to ship back to the States. A soldier hunting for deals at a jewelry store set up on base that looks like it could have been in any American mall. Two soldiers relaxing by playing a first-person shooter video game.
It is a resetting of the dominant narrative, which is often a part of the military's public relations effort.
"I'm responding to my own instincts and what I think is important to photograph," Brody said. "As a former soldier, I'm familiar with the military's attempts to shape the narrative."
He said his background has helped in some ways. "I speak the language," he said. "I know the acronyms. I understand when [soldiers] do something what the context is, why they do what they do, or why they think they do what they do."
He added that he is also "insulated" from the problem some journalists face, of being star-struck by the military, or indulging in a kind of false sense of camaraderie with the troops.
The performance and the photos were organized and funded in part by the Gaudino Fund, a program in memory of Robert Gaudino, a long-time professor of political philosophy at Williams who was dedicated to what he called "uncomfortable learning."
Lois Banta is a professor of biology and the current Gaudino Scholar, who organizes the events. For her three-year term, she has chosen as a theme "At What Cost?", a way to explore the consequences of individual and community choices.
The idea of bringing Theater of War to campus generated with Prof. Meredith Hoppin of the Classics Department. And Banta connected it with Brody's work having known him through mutual acquaintances. Brody is based in Southampton, and had taught a Winter Study class at Williams.
She said the program is an opportunity to "stimulate reflection on the costs born by members of our society who are somewhat invisible here on campus."
"These are not abstract choices," she said.
What: "Theater of War"
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Main Stage, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown
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