How We Were: Maurice Decaul’s Stage Vision of Iraq, 2003
Sitting in the audience before Poetic Theater’s production of playwright Maurice Decaul’s Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, I mused that the last year or so has not brought many stage representations of contemporary war and war-related issues. The last one that came to mind was another Poetic Theater production, Goliath, that I attended one winter ago. I once proposed that theater might be the artistic medium that best portrays war subjects in ways that compellingly binds together veterans and non-veterans in shared contemplation, but this seems not to have happened. So I guess I was wrong, if in no other way than that I overestimated that a large audience might be found for any stage performance not on Broadway.
Be that as it may, as the lights dimmed and Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates opened, I leaned forward in anticipation of the shared-in-darkness vitality of theater. Decaul, a USMC vet who participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, takes us back there to portray Marines in action in those early days of war. 2003 seems so long ago—the first moments of a decade-plus of war whose full horrible dimensions no one saw coming. The remoteness of Decaul’s story was exemplified by the chemical protective suits his characters wore and the gas masks they carried. Boy does that gear ever date them…. Remember when Weapons of Mass Destruction were what we though the war was about? Of course no WMDs were ever found by anyone, but Decaul’s retrospective portrait brings to the fore salient aspects that eventually would characterize war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The infliction of unintended casualties on innocent civilians. The difficulty of determining friend from foe. The presence of the press in the combat zone as omniscient judges. The spasms of guilt that would afflict individual soldiers and Marines as they killed and saw buddies killed. In the years after 2003 these issues would metastasize and become defining, overwhelming aspects of our war experience.
I enjoyed everything about Dijla Wal Furat, but within the context of the greater story, two individual scenes dazzled as examples of theatrical possibility. The opening scene, in which a Marine mortar squad “hangs” (or, launches) rounds—one of which goes off-course and kills innocent Iraqis—marvelously blended the real-world choreography of a crack mortar crew with the artistry of stage dance, music, light, and sound. Another scene, in which an Iraqi man is followed about on stage by the ghost of his dead friend, poignantly drove home the lingering presence of the past as it affects those still alive in the present. The mortar and ghost scenes showed Decaul the master of two trains of stagecraft—representational fidelity to real life heightened aesthetically and the magical permutation of real life in the pursuit of greater artistic truth. Decaul, I’ve learned, has been accepted into a prestigious Brown University program for talented young playwrights and Dijla Wal Furat provided plenty of evidence why. Kudos also to director Alex Mallory, who also brought Goliath to the Poetic Theater stage last year, and all the actors.
Since watching Dijla Wal Furat I’ve been exploring other books and artworks to make better sense of 2003. My general impression is that the entire nation was driven mad by the 9/11 attacks to the point it couldn’t think well about anything. Watching the HBO series Generation Kill again and reading Love My Rifle More Than You, Kayla Williams’ excellent memoir about service in Iraq in 2003, reminded me of how simultaneously naïve and arrogant we were as a military, how many mistakes we made, and how consequential it would all become. Increasing my despair has been Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2013), in which Scahill describes the growth of Joint Special Operations Command and special operations in general in the years after 9/11. Decaul and Williams vividly portray the difficulty and inefficiency that typified ground force operations in the early Iraq days; Dirty Wars describes an administration that at the highest levels expected as much and didn’t really care. In Scahill’s telling, Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice-President Cheney, and President Bush were too transfixed with turning the CIA and military special forces into worldwide kill/capture teams in search of high value terrorist targets to focus on the mess that was fast becoming Iraq from 2004-2008. Contemptuous of conventional ground forces—too stodgy, not aggressive or responsive enough, led by dullards and manned by drop-out post-adolescents, as Scahill describes their attitude—our national leaders abdicated responsibility for establishing anything like the appropriate conditions by which men and women like Decaul and Williams might succeed on the ground and feel especially proud of their service afterwards.
Whether any of that is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I don’t know, but it’s all got me thinking.
TalkinBroadway review of Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates here.
A YouTube trailer for Dijla Wal Furat here:
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