A production of Macbeth I saw last weekend featured modern war trappings such as Hesco barriers and plywood staircases set among crumbled stand-alone stone columns. Anyone who has soldiered in an ancient Iraq or Afghanistan fortress, now blown apart by war and reconstituted using American military building materials, would recognize the look. The actors patrolled the stage with M4s hanging from three-point slings, red dot aiming lasers shining center mass on dog tags jangling on their adversaries’ chests.
“Out, damned spot!” indeed, as Lady Macbeth’s signature line has it. “Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier and afeard?”
So what do you get when you pay Macbeth four hundred years forward and place it in a heavily militarized Eurasian setting? The play’s nods toward clan warfare might seem to foretell the tribal rivalries of Iraq and Afghanistan, but Macbeth’s murderous ambition is so deeply rooted in psychology that the play’s social-historical dimensions barely register. Nor does the homicidal jockeying for power in Shakespeare’s Scotland suggest imperial wrangling for control of semi-sovereign foreign states. Perhaps it could be read allegorically as a commentary on Washington D.C. leadership dynamics, but, again, the play seems way more personal than political.
What Macbeth seems to be about most is what many of Shakespeare’s plays are about: the life after war of a man of combat. When one thinks about it, it’s surprising how often and with such intensity Shakespeare returns to this subject. Macbeth, Richard III, Othello, and Coriolanus, for starters. Shakespeare’s warrior kings rage through civil society like wounded lions let loose at a county fair. Their recklessness, restlessness, easily-pricked pride, propensity for violence, and vulnerability to flattery and blandishment spell bad news to peace and happiness. It’s evil because it looks like evil and does evil, but the prophecies of the witches that infect Macbeth’s psyche suggest not that he makes poor choices or is ethically corrupt, but the inevitability of his destructive behavior.
Macbeth, directed by Paul Kassel, recently closed at the State University of New York-New Paltz’s McKenna Theater.
Many veterans want to be writers or filmmakers, while others aspire to be photographers or painters. But few, I’m guessing, dream of becoming ballet dancers or directors of contemporary dance troupes.
Veteran artists use their art to explore and comment on their war experiences. But how do you tell a war story using dance?
Roman Baca, the director and manager of the Exit12 Dance Company, is a USMC veteran of Iraq. Prior to joining the Marines, he was a ballet dancer and instructor. Below is his account of how he started Exit12 :
Five years ago, 2007, I was still enlisted in the Marines, and fulfilling my end of contract in the IRR, Inactive Ready Reserve. I had purchased a condo in Connecticut as an investment, and had a secure job as a CAD technician for a firm that manufactured stormwater chambers. Five years ago in February was the day that my girlfriend Lisa, who is now my wife, sat me down in my condo and told me that things were not ok. She told I was different from serving in Fallujah and that she couldn’t handle my mood-swings, lack of purpose, anxiety, and depression. She challenged me to make a change in my life, and asked me what I would do if I could do anything in the world. I told her I would start a dance company, that it was something I always wanted to do, thinking that she would call me an idiot and move on. Instead she said, “Then why don’t we do it?” So we, along with a ballerina she knew from before, started working on my choreography at a dance studio in NYC. That studio wasn’t far from exit 12 off of FDR drive, so to be true to our small beginnings, we called ourselves Exit12.
Baca’s statement speaks to the desire to serve, related to the desire to see combat, those strong compulsions that grip so many young men and women of all backgrounds, including dancers. It also speaks to the love and wisdom of his wife, who recognized how different and unhappy Baca was upon his return from Iraq, confronted him about it, and stood by him while helping him reach a better place. Third, Baca’s statement raises the notion that art is both therapeutic and a reason-for-being.
Exit12 uses dance to explore martial themes and contemporary events marked by hostility and violence. A dance titled “Conflicted” addresses US military attitudes toward women in the Muslim countries in which they have been fighting. Another, “Re-E-volution,” dramatizes the Arab Spring revolts. Ambitious subjects, certainly, and as one watches the mind contemplates the link between theme and action. Dance, it seems to me, is both highly literal and highly suggestive. Deprived of words, the dancers convey meaning through gesture and pantomine. Deprived of words, the swirl of movement and sound creates space for speculation and imagination.
Significant stagings of plays about Iraq and Afghanistan are accumulating. The Great Game, a compendium of 12 short plays exploring Afghanistan history from antiquity to the current period, opened in London in 2009, went on tour in America in 2010, and has continued to be performed in various venues since. Robin Williams starred in 2011’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a play set in the post-invasion Iraq of 2003. Blood and Gifts, about Cold War battles for influence in Afghanistan in the 1980s, ran at the Lincoln Center in New York City over the 2011-2012 winter season.
Last summer, I had a chance to see a less known but still interesting production called Home of the Soldier. Written by Ben Cunis and staged by the Synetic Theater, an experimental troupe based in Arlington, VA, Home of the Soldier portrays US soldiers in training and on deployment to an unspecified foreign country. Iraq and Afghanistan are never mentioned, but the hyper-edgy staging make it pretty clear that the play has our contemporary wars in mind. On deployment, the soldiers’ camaraderie and ethics are challenged by the complexities of modern war. The play was wonderful to watch. Light, sound, and set were terrific. The young, lithe actors were charismatic as hell. A scene that portrays an IED explosion actually rung true in a way that I wasn’t prepared for at all. In most ways, then, Home of the Soldier was up to the challenge of portraying war, even in a highly stylized way featuring electronic music, athletic dance, and multi-media visual effects.
The plot, however, was a little loopy. Besides depicting the loss of innocence of its protagonists—a war story cliché–it involved a weird and implausible amalgam of father-son Oedipal dynamics and a Hurt Locker-style individual venture outside the wire to help innocent noncombatants. I take its interest in showing US soldiers in more personal contact with local nationals than military missions typically allow to be a theme that writers and artists are attracted to. Perhaps they feel it is THE story that needs to be told, or perhaps the story with the most dramatic potential.
I don’t think these things are true, though, in part because the shape of deployment makes them unfathomable. Soldiers experience war most intensely in human terms on FOBs in their relations with other soldiers; outside the wire they operate as teams and units and their interactions with local civilians are highly impersonal, business-like, and fleeting. Home of the Soldier’s effort to personalize an engagement with individual foreign citizens might represent a critique of how we actually have waged our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t jibe with how most of the 100s of thousands of soldiers who have deployed have actually experienced them.
So, if no story yet that I know of has portrayed or even could portray a realistic relationship with an Iraq or Afghanistan citizen over the course of a soldier’s deployment, what are some other possibilities? Well, no writer yet has told the story of a unit embarked on a mission to accomplish something interesting or important. No one yet has explored the nuances of squad dynamics or brought an intense leader-led relationship into the highest relief. No one yet has told the story of a unit over the period of its deployment, with all the individual and group tales that would mark its deployed life. Even the memoir and historical record of these things is scant.
The general problem is that of creating a plausible and compelling storyline to animate a fictional representation of deployment “in theater” (meaning not in the playhouse, but the Iraq/Afghanistan area of operations). Literature, drama, and film so far have centered on exploration of psychology and emotional affect and political implication. These stories and artworks do well with scene, vignette, incident, mood, and idea, but their narrative drive has been feeble. They struggle at the level of time and duration and suspense–the representation of emotional lives and interpersonal relationships under pressure to change.
One way to illustrate this is to examine, quickly, how writers have sought to portray soldiers’ romantic relationships. There’s got to be a girl or guy, right, but what’s the story to tell? The romantic life of real deployed soldiers is mediated through electronic technology such as Skype, email, social media, and chat. It might also take the shape of crushes on or even illicit affairs with fellow soldiers. Each of these options is a stunted, malnourished approximation of a real relationship, hard to be traced with the richness of experience and impression that characterizes and energizes narrative. A quick synopsis of the romantic subplots of some war fiction reveals the extent to which authors must contort their stories to capture the narrative power of romance:
Siobhan Fallon has written one story, “Camp Liberty,” about a soldier who develops feelings for a female interpreter. It’s a great story and actually not an impossible scenario at all. In “Inside the Break,” a wife back home puts the kabosh on her soldier-husband’s fling with another soldier on his FOB. But other than those two stories, Fallon trains her eye on the relationship of soldiers and spouses after deployment.
Ben Fountain, in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, has his hero, back in the States, fall for a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader who, amazingly enough, reciprocates his attention. Totally crazy, but also totally awesome how well Fountain pulls it off.
Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds portrays an unconsummated relationship of a male soldier with a female soldier. Also very plausible, but in The Yellow Birds the relationship is so faint as to be more a fantasy than an actuality.
I haven’t read David Abrams’ Fobbit, but if it’s as good and funny as everyone says it is, it will hold up the romantic and erotic circuitry of FOB-life for satirical description and evaluation. I’m looking forward to finding out. In the meantime, this Washington Post opinion piece by a woman vet about sex in a war zone hints at some possibilities:
Benjamin Busch is a Vassar graduate and two-time veteran of USMC tours in Iraq. Now out of the service, he has proven a dynamo of artistic production, most if it directly and I suspect all of it implicitly related to his war experience. He’s acted in TV series such as Generation Kill and The Wire, directed several short films, and written a memoir titled Dust to Dust. He’s the son of novelist Frederick Busch, whose influence weighs heavy on his mind in Dust to Dust. Father-son relationships get played out in lots of war literature, which I plan to document in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll just say that perhaps Busch gets his amazing productivity from his father, who published at least 16 novels. Or maybe it’s a Marine thing.
I haven’t read any of Frederick Busch’s novels, but Benjamin Busch might get his whimsical yet cerebral style from his father, too. That quality certainly characterizes the photographs in The Art in War, a book of snaps taken during his Iraq tours. In the book, Busch writes short explanations for each photograph. In public performance, as he projects his pictures Busch reads the written commentary in a way that I find mesmerizing. An example of Busch’s one-two image-word punch:
I went into a building near the entrance of an abandoned amusement park to take a picture of Mickey Mouse that was painted on a window from the inside. As I focused the lens on the series of American cartoon characters, a Marine appeared in the missing window that I had come through. There is an innocent wonder in his expression and despite his weapons and combat equipment he seems to be what he is, young and misplaced. An American child grown into armed maturity who still looks into the room, empty aside from me, for something that he expects to recognize. To see an Iraqi interpretation of an American icon next to the reality of American occupation made this photograph important to me. In the window beside Mickey is a cartoon image of an Indian, our Native American. This makes the triptych even more powerful as our own nation, America, began as an occupation of theirs.
Another, not so whimsical, but also reflective of Busch’s sensitivity to the material artifacts that structure and define our lives:
I caught this image in an evidence examination room in the Al Anbar Criminal Investigations Building. It had been abandoned for over a year and these plaster casts of feet from crime scenes had been moved onto a couch as former Iraqi police had sifted the room for valuable items. It is one of the most important photographs that I have ever taken in that, in the absence of a single person, it is completely human. I seek imagery that proves human presence without relying on the presence of people. The recent hand print in the dust on the back of the couch made this image speak to past, present and evidence of what is uniquely human.
The notion of imagery that “proves human presence without relying on the presence of people” returns me to an idea I introduced earlier: that Busch’s art, even when it doesn’t explicitly reflect martial images and themes, is about war. I like toying with this idea in relation to lots of artistic production of the 2000s. For here, I’ll suggest that Busch’s wonderful short film Bright (2011) is one such work that can be interpreted in the context of our nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though it doesn’t mention them. In Bright, actor Eric Nenninger plays a young white man so traumatized by an unspecified event that he is not just afraid of the dark but darn near paralyzed in life, too. He lives in a brightly lit house with an older black blind man—played by Robert Wisdom—who seems to do better coping with his disability than his housemate. Their post-trauma issues play out in a plot that evokes a national storyline set in motion by 9/11, and perhaps Busch’s personal journey, too.
Tim Hetherington was the British photojournalist who collaborated with Sebastian Junger on the making of Restrepo, the documentary of life on a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Later, in 2011, Hetherington was killed in Libya during the civil wars there. His pictures that interest me most are those taken “inside the wire”—soldiers lounging about, roughhousing, or sleeping in their forlorn combat outposts. The times in-between the patrols and other missions that take them “outside the wire” into the much more dangerous open spaces.
The two pictures below generate impressions and bring back memories. The first presents a study in shades and textures of brown:
Considered as a slice of deployed life, the photo strikes a nerve that those who haven’t served might not understand completely. In the Army, “uniform discipline” is a big deal. The idea is that it is important for soldiers to adhere to uniform standards—everyone at all times in the prescribed uniform. To uniformity zealots, that soldiers are allowed to idle about shirtless in the daytime is probably the reason things aren’t going so well in Afghanistan on the grand scale. The breakdown of uniform standards, the thinking goes, is a clear indication of a sloppy, badly-led unit. More than half believing this sentiment myself, I never let my soldiers in Afghanistan be “out of uniform” in my presence or when they were outside the wire, conducting missions, and otherwise representing the unit. Be that as it may, the photo speaks more directly to another aspect of the war experience. The happy soldiers suggest that, death and petty uniform policies aside, life on a combat outpost was a man’s man’s idyll of guns, muscles, and tattoos. Smoking and joking, they wait for the next battle to begin.
This second picture reflects a more homely moment in outpost life:
Everything about it is characteristic: the low light, the wood bunk, the “poncho liner” blanket, the gear and water bottles stewn about, the blue bedding and green white-flecked tiles—apparently standard issue across Afghanistan. The bare feet adding poignancy to it all. In the first picture, the soldiers laugh by day, stripped nearly naked. In the second, the soldier, contorted and not looking very comfortable at all, sleeps at night with his uniform on.
This picture by Bill Putnam shows a US Army patrol taking a brief halt on top of an Afghanistan hill.
I like it for its muted color palette–grey, green, brown, some black–and the array of emotions reflected in the faces and bodies of the soldiers. Some are relaxed, others display tension. Their equipment hangs upon them not obtrusively, but organically, even the weird mounts for night vision goggles that protrude from their helmets like antennas and the M4 in the foreground that seemingly sits far too high on its bearer’s torso. The way their gazes go off in different directions and the bulb like prominence of the helmets reminds me of Larry Burrows’ great picture of a hilltop scene taken during the Vietnam War:
Burrows’ picture is far more dramatic, of course, and rightfully famous. But who’s to say the soldiers in Bill Putnam’s picture aren’t themselves minutes away from a similar scene of devastation and carnage?
I’ll begin populating this blog by featuring some of my favorite Iraq and Afghanistan war photographers. First up, Bill Putnam. Bill and I served together on a deployment to Kosovo when he was an active-duty soldier. Now out of the Army, he has embedded with the 101st Airborne Division on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here, though, I’ll highlight Bill’s work at greater range, in part because he gave me permission to use these pictures (a while back, and for a different project, true) and in part because they were taken in eastern Afghanistan, where I served. Most of all, I like the tilt of the rockscrabble terrain, the blue skies and billowing clouds, and the soldiers that stitch the earth and sky together.
In the spring of 2013 I will teach a class titled “The Arts of War.” The course will focus on war literature from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the course theme will be the homecoming and aftermath. Selections from Homer’s Odyssey will get the class started, as will Sophocles’ Philoctetes. We’ll also look at Hemingway’s In Our Time, particularly “Soldier’s Home,” as well as some other poems, stories, and memoirs from the great tradition of war literature. Turning to contemporary texts, we will read the following:
“Time now,” in military radio-speak, refers to the present moment. Most commonly the phrase is used in reports such as, “We’re returning to base, time now,” or, “Request artillery support, time now.” I like its urgency, the way it doesn’t just name but intensifies the temporal dimension of the event to which it refers. Kind of like the way art intensifies the life it represents, so as to make it both more understandable and more deeply felt.
This blog features art, film, and literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I write this post, in June 2012, imaginative representations of the wars have begun to accrue complexity and depth. Still, no site I know of devotes itself to cataloging and discussing these artworks–a great lack in my opinion, since in the final analysis our artists will explain best how the wars were experienced and how they are remembered.
Until January 2015 I was an active duty Army officer. I served in infantry units at Fort Drum, New York; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and in Korea. In 2008-2009, I was an advisor to Afghan National Army forces in Khowst and Paktya provinces in Afghanistan. You can read about my experiences there in my blog 15-Month Adventure.