Combat Search and Rescue: The Story of Ajax
What should happen to the body of a warrior who dies on the battlefield?
In ancient Greek myth, the fate of such a body could become itself a cause of conflict, with a dead soldier’s comrades struggling to retrieve his corpse and preserve it for proper burial, while his enemies fought to mark their victory by keeping it dishonored on the battlefield where it could be preyed on by wild animals. The story of the Trojan War included ferocious battles in which the bodies of the greatest warriors, Trojan Hector and Greek Achilles, play an important role. In revenge for defeating a close companion, Achilles drags Hector's lifeless body around the gates of Troy behind his chariot, and further desecrates the body for another twelve days, refusing to permit the body a proper burial. When Achilles' dies, slain by Paris with a arrow to his heel, stalwart ally Ajax drives off the Trojan fighters singlehandedly and carries Achilles’ corpse to safety. This act of physical courage and devoted service was commemorated in numerous images painted on vases, such as the ones at left and below:
Detail of Ajax rescuing Achilles' body from the battlefield. Exekias ca. 550 BC. Courtesy Penn Museum
A famous image of this episode can be found on a vase in the Penn Museum, by a brilliant painter named Exekias, who focuses on the moment when Ajax bends down to lift the
corpse. Unfortunately, part of the scene is missing, but it is still possible to see how Exekias has emphasized the physical strength necessary for lifting the dead weight of the body, through his depiction of Ajax’ powerful arms and thighs and the limpness of Achilles’ inert body and drooping head with its heavy helmet. Ajax took great pride in his successful effort to save Achilles’ body, which was typical of his military skill and steadfast loyalty.
Additionally, we can look at the urgency of retrieving the dead and wounded from the battlefield in the modern age, reflected in the Battle of Mogadishu (1993), more famously called "Black Hawk Down." In that battle American Rangers, Special Forces, Airmen and Navy SEALs equipped with 19 aircraft, twelve vehicles, and 160 elite troops executed an operation intended to capture a local warlord in the heart of Mogadishu. During the operation, two Blackhawk helicopters were shot down, three others damaged, and the soldiers were attacked by a hostile Somali mob. Eighteen men died and survivors were trapped, unable to escape. The very next morning, a task force was assembled to rescue survivors, the dead and wounded. A convoy some two miles long included tanks, armoured personnel carriers and assault helicopters, 100 vehicles in total. After the battle, the bodies of several US fighters were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by Somali civilians, an attempt to dishonor the soldiers. These casualties were eventually recovered through threats as well as ransom.
"Ajax Carrying Body of Achilles - detail from Francois Vase c 565 BCE
Florence Archaeology Museum. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Returning to our ancient story, It is no surprise that Ajax was deeply shocked and hurt when the army decided that Achilles’ armor should be awarded as a prize to Odysseus, a clever speaker and diplomat, rather than to him. Ajax saw this as an act of supreme betrayal and reacted with an outaged attack on his own leaders, which led ultimately to his public shaming and suicide. Ajax’ suicide was also a popular subject for vase painting, as in the image on the left.
Ajax’ story has resonated with many modern soldiers, who have also felt dishonored by their superiors, especially when their courage and skill as fighters has been devalued, and have experienced similar impulses to turn their capacity for combat against members of their own community and ultimately themselves.
Sheila Murnaghan, PhD
University of Pennsylvania
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The suicide of Ajax the Great. Etrurian red-figured calyx-krater, ca. 400–350 BC. Wikimedia Commons