Theater of War, Battle of Words

Theater of WarSo this is interesting. A classics scholar named Sarah Ruden published on a website called Books and Culture: A Christian Review a scathing review of a book called The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. On another website, Vice, Iraq veteran Colby Buzzell published a glowing review of the same book and included a flattering interview with its author Bryan Doerries. Vice is decidedly not a “Christian Review,” but, war, not religion, is the issue here.

The Theater of War is an off-shoot of a theatrical project of nearly the same name. Formed by Doerries to address battle-related trauma, Theater of War the dramatic project stages readings of classic Greek plays such as Ajax and Philoctetes whose plots feature military heroes in exile and anguish in the years after war. Theater of War productions feature veterans and, sometimes, famous actors, in the lead parts. After the readings are over, Doerries moderates a question-and-answer session that allows cast and audience members to discuss the plays’ relevance to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their difficulty reintegrating into civilian society. The idea is that the plays concern themselves with the psychological damage of war in ways that can be helpful to veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as bringing military and civilian audience members together in dialogue. Theater of War has proven popular, and performances have been staged on several military bases, as well as on many college campuses. Upcoming performances on October 27 and 28 are set for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Ruden, however, is not impressed by The Theater of War. In her review, titled “Art for All of Us: Greek Tragedy and War Veterans,” she offers a few token compliments that praise Doerries’ translating and directing ability, and then switches her critical selector switch from “safe” to “full automatic” and begins engaging targets left-and-right. Ancient Greek tragedy, properly understood, according to Ruden, has little to do with war-related trauma. The Greeks themselves didn’t understand the concept, nor did they ever single out veterans as objects of special social concern who needed public coddling. Jonathan Shay, the psychiatrist who popularized the idea that Greek classics could teach us how to heal veterans with psychological and moral injury, had it all wrong. So does Doerries. The whole belief that “storytelling” can be therapeutic is preposterous. The misuse of art for utilitarian, didactic purposes is a disgrace. Doerries would be better off staging Greek plays for general audiences, to include veterans, and drop the canard that the plays speak meaningfully specifically on behalf of veterans or help bridge the civil-military divide:

“But not only does [Doerries’] set-up keep really glorious adaptations away from the mainstream; it seems apt to deprive the tragedies of the most plausible benefit they could have for the traumatized, which is the benefit of universally shared beauty and meaning. We already ghettoize veterans, not to mention the dehumanizing of and profiteering from prisoners and the terminally ill. ‘Here’s a piece of art designed just for you in your pitiable state’ seems at best a pretty condescending prescription….”

In his review titled “How Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Help Veterans Deal With PTSD,” Buzzell describes approaching the assignment to examine The Theater of War with a skepticism much like Ruden’s, which he expresses equally forcefully, though in the infantryman’s idiom for which he is known:

“To be honest, when I first received this book, I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? As someone who’s witnessed the theater of war up close and personal as an infantryman in the United States Army (Iraq 2003–4) and has lived to tell about it, I found the whole concept to be a bit absurd. I know there’s all sorts of crazy shit out there beyond the conventional VA-prescribed prescription medication and/or therapy sessions to help those returning home after war “adjust”: yoga, nature hiking, scuba diving, filmmaking, horseback riding, tai chi, herbal and dietary supplements, group drum circles, art projects, meditation, ballet dancing, getaway vacations, bright-light therapy, music therapy, companion dogs, medical marijuana, acupuncture, and other such things. But now there’s this bright idea of exposing soldiers to Greek tragedies that were written 2,500 years ago as a way to help those struggling with readjustment issues and PTSD? Get the fuck outta here.”

But Buzzell is also open-minded and curious, in addition to being penetrating and eloquent, and he tells us that after completing The Theater of War he saw a lot in it to like. Buzzell relates especially to Doerries’ descriptions of Ajax, who as Buzzell puts it, “returns home from war and feels as if he’s been betrayed, gets depressed, snaps, goes on a blind killing spree, then kills himself with his own sword.” Yikes! Presumably Buzzell appreciates something Doerries explains about how Ajax might have been saved from himself and restored to health and happiness, but beyond recommending that Theater of War be read by a “larger audience,” Buzzell doesn’t go into much detail about exactly what excites him. The interview with Doerries, however, generously allows the author-director to explain for himself his goals, and more importantly, what he has observed after staging dozens or hundreds of performances of Theater of War. Buzzell’s questions are more interesting, in fact, than Doerries’ answers, but Doerries acquits himself well—modest about making great claims for Theater of War’s scholarly or medical legitimacy, he defends his project on the empirical grounds that audiences have been moved by it and many veterans in addition to Buzzell claim to have been helped by it.

A curiosity of this critical duel, such as it is, is that it seems neither Ruden nor Buzzell have seen an actual performance of Theater of War. I have, and came away from the experience in ways that make me sympathetic to both reviewers (I have not yet read Doerries’ book). On this blog, I have been skeptical of contemporary war lit’s propensity to identify too readily with classic Greek literature, but I certainly welcome chances to view modern adaptations of ancient myths and plays as they come along. Aloof and analytical as I am, though, I was determined to resist notions that the town-hall-cum-Dr.-Phil atmosphere of the performance Q&A meaningfully connected Greek warriors and modern soldiers, or being seduced by the idea that I was participating in an event that channeled the spirit of Athenian dramatic festivals. But the large audience with whom I sat had few such qualms. They responded to the reading with vigorous applause and energetic participation in the post-reading discussion. Even more telling, the specific group with whom I watched Theater of War—a group of military academy cadets who included several deployment veterans—were also enthralled. On the drive home from the theater, we stopped at a McDonalds in the middle-of-nowhere and after eating our meals (a bus-driver’s discount for me for bringing in the group!), we talked late into the night about the performance and how it related to modern war, soldiering, and military leadership. It was as spontaneous and free-flowing a conversation with officers-to-be as I’ve ever been part of, and much of the credit goes to Doerries, Theater of War, and the power of Greek tragedy.

Anybody else think it would be a great idea to invite both Ruden and Buzzell to the upcoming productions of Theater of War at the Guggenheim?

This week I made my first visit to a VA hospital, this one located in East Orange, NJ. All initial impressions are positive, I'm glad to say.
I made my first visit to a VA hospital this week. All initial impressions are positive, I’m happy to report.

Bryan Doerries, The Theater of War:  What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.  Knopf, 2015.

Those Lazy, Hazy Days of War Writing Summer…

The Long Walk…aren’t so lazy and hazy if you live in the New York City area, where the artistic and intellectual processing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affords almost too many events to absorb. The highlight of the summer is the staging in Saratoga Springs (180 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan) of an opera based on Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk. Castner probably didn’t see it coming, but in retrospect it’s not hard to recognize his memoir’s operatic potential. Castner’s record of his tours in Iraq as the head of an Air Force Explosives Ordnance Disposal detachment and his troubles readjusting to civilian life afterwards is fine in its particulars—in a perfect world it would be more popular than American Sniper. It’s got more harrowing combat scenes, for instance, as well as better descriptions of specialized military training and more honest, reflective, and generous portraits of how difficult redeployment can be. But what really elevates The Long Walk is Castner’s imagining of his life in terms of darker, larger, may I say mythic forces that imbue existence with cosmic significance. In particular, Castner describes what it means to be overcome by “The Crazy”—those oh-fuck moments after war when you realize just how screwed over combat and danger have made you, no matter how normal you appear or try to be. Castner’s richly-situated exploration of the larger-than-life forces that envelop him are I’m sure what inspired the opera producers Jeremy Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann.

The Long Walk Opera

More prosaic, but still exciting, war-lit readings are taking place within the city itself. Words After War impresarios Brandon Willitts and Matt Gallagher are sponsoring not one, but two series of readings. Monthly events at The Folly, a Greenwich Village bar partly owned by Gallagher, have featured local veteran and military-themed writers, such as Mariette Kalinowski, Kristin Rouse, and Jake Siegel, as well as civilian authors, reading unpublished and recently published work in an intimate setting. Words After War also co-sponsors a second set of readings, called Danger Close, in conjunction with New York University English professor Patrick Deer. Deer is part an academic consortium named the Cultures of War and Postwar Research Group and the author of Culture in Camouflage, a study of literature written in Britain during World War II, so it’s great that he has now turned his attention to contemporary American war writing while helping showcase its authors in intriguing pairings with compelling moderators. One Danger Close event featured Phil Zabriskie and Jesse Goolsby in conversation with Lea Carpenter, and a second had Myra Jacob hosting authorial collaborators Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson along with August Cole and P.W. Singer. And as if that weren’t enough, the energetic and innovative Willitts and Gallagher have announced a third event, a one-off called Writing War, to take place July 30 at the Brooklyn Historical Society and featuring Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, Sara Novic, and Maurice Decaul.

Words After War is by far not the only game in New York town, either. War author and Restrepo filmmaker Sebastian Junger, for example, has been hosting readings featuring veteran authors and war journalists at HIS bar-restaurant the Half-King and elsewhere in the city. Earlier in the summer, Arts in the Armed Forces, a vet-friendly organization founded by actor and ex-Marine Adam Driver, helped promote an off-Broadway play by Daniel Talbott titled Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait. Alex Mallory, who has staged at least two plays about war in Iraq with her troupe Poetic Theater, is back July 27 with a staged reading of her work There Are No Camels in Beirut, about conflict in that strife-torn city in 2006. Invitations to events and announcement of new programs by writing collectives such as Voices From War and the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop arrive weekly if not daily. And in the most out-of-the-blue way possible, I’ve been consulted by the event-designers of Gigantic Mechanic, a Brooklyn arts initiative currently developing an interactive theater experience called Hearts and Minds, which will allow audience members to role-play members of an infantry squad on patrol in Iraq. That’s not quite as cool as having an opera made of your life, but I’m flattered to have been asked for input.

So that’s New York for you, creatively and endlessly engaged and productive. I hope things are as busy and interesting as you want them to be wherever you are this summer.

How We Were: Maurice Decaul’s Stage Vision of Iraq, 2003

Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates photo by Bjorn Bolinder.
Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates photo by Bjorn Bolinder.

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.

Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates writer Maurice Decaul and director Alex Mallory on opening night.
Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates writer Maurice Decaul and director Alex Mallory on opening night.

TalkinBroadway review of Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates here.

A YouTube trailer for Dijla Wal Furat here:

On Stage: Theater of War, Beyond the Wall, Goliath

“Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies…
…and the nimble gunner
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,
[Alarum, and chambers go off]
And down goes all before them.  Still be kind,
And eke out our performance with your mind.”
–Shakespeare, Henry V

In the past few months I’ve attended three stage performances that portray contemporary war subjects and themes.  Theater of War, staged by a troupe called Outside the Wire, combines veterans and theatrical actors to read scenes from Sophocles’ plays Ajax and Philoctetes.  Both plays concern an anguished veteran’s return from the Homeric wars in ways that are relevant to contemporary redeployment issues.  Beyond the Wall, a work-in-progress product of a student vet at Vassar College named Jack Eubanks, is an ensemble dramatic reading that explores the pre- and post-deployment life of its lead character, while also making connections between the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and the Vietnam War.  Goliath, a production of a New York City experimental company called Poetic Theater, dramatizes the heinous acts of a soldier responsible for war crimes in Iraq.  Like Beyond the Wall, it shows us its hero before the war and then again afterwards.  A common thread of all three is their focus on traumatizing events while deployed and troubled relationships at home.  The plays are not especially subtle.  They go for characterization that borders on stereotype, on plot lines that, as I’ve reported, seem to be similar, emotions that tend toward the histrionic, and politics that indict and condemn.  They assume that war mangles its participants’ psyches, while implying that even more interesting than whatever takes place overseas are the altered-for-the-worse relations of vets with friends, family, lovers, and spouses upon redeployment.

Which just might be the stuff that makes good theater.  All three plays were galvanizing to watch and contemplate, and the shared excitement and common cause of the actors and audience palpable.  Each performance blended vets and non-vets both on stage and behind the curtain, with the audiences of each similarly mixed.  Everyone involved seemed like they were very glad to be in the company of so many like-minded performers and audience members, all committed to thinking just as hard and as well as they could about the impact of the wars.  Something about the plays—and dramatic performance at large–must be central to how the wars are being processed culturally.  Theater of War, Beyond the Wall, and Goliath each featured opportunities for audience members to engage in post-play Q&As with actors and directors.  Contemplating the melodrama of the plays and the earnestness of the post-play discussions, I mused about how the blurring of boundaries separating lighted stage and darkened seats united veterans and non-veterans, actors and audience in a warm balm of curiosity and sharing. The spirit of discovery and reflection may be as good as anything else we’ve got going today in terms of bridging the much talked about civil-military divide.

I encourage all to see productions of these plays if you get the chance, or even mount productions of your own as scripts become available.  And please join me in anticipation of new plays about the wars, which I am sure are forthcoming.

Outside the Wire/Theater of War

Beyond the Wall

Poetic Theater/Goliath

GoliathFB
I saw this production of Goliath at the Wild Project theater in New York City.

The Classical Roots of Contemporary War Literature: Been There, Done That, 2500 Years Ago

Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great
Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great

Many contemporary war authors, artists, and thinkers have turned to classical Greece for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  A quick catalog might begin with Sparta, the recent novel by Roxana Robinson.  The protagonist of Robinson’s novel is a Marine, and I’ve heard Robinson speak about how pervasively awareness of Spartan culture and ethos runs in the Marines.  “The History of the Peloponnesian Wars is practically required reading at Quantico,” she reports.  Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch recasts Sophocles’ Antigone by placing it in war-torn Kandahar.  It begins with an Afghan woman’s entreaty to American soldiers on a combat outpost to release the body of her brother–an interesting storyline very much like Antigone‘s own.  A fine collection of poems, Stateside by Jehanne Dubrow, draws on Homer’s Odyssey to explore the plight of the poetic speaker, a modern-day Penelope awaiting the return of her Odysseus.  It’s hard not to imagine almost any of Siobhan Fallon’s tales of fraught return-from-deployment marriages in much the same light.  But Sophocles’ Ajax might be the best Greek work in regard to the homecoming.  Where The Odyssey portrays Penelope’s long nine-year wait for her man to return from war, Ajax portrays the even more tortured period AFTER the heroic Ajax returns from war to his war-trophy wife Tecmessa.  Where Penelope barely gets to say a word in The Odyssey, Tecmessa’s anguished voice resounds throughout Ajax, as she wonders what the hell has happened to her husband.  After Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep in a delusional rampage, Tecmessa screams:

During the night our wonderful Ajax
Was hit with madness and went beserk
You will see the proof of it in the tent:
Holocausts dripping with gore by his hand

Ajax serves as the dramatic centerpiece for Theater of War, an acclaimed troupe who stage readings of the play to elicit discussion and activism on behalf of struggling veterans.  If you have a chance to see a Theater of War performance, by all means do so.  They also perform readings of another Sophocles play, Philoctetes, which like Ajax portrays the aftermath of war on a soldier wounded physically and emotionally by his experiences.  Philosopher Nancy Sherman uses Philoctetes as the literary lens through which she explores issues of moral injury and repair in her recent work The Untold War.

I’m fine with all this Greek love, but it does make me appreciate all the more Brian Turner’s persistent effort to seed his poetry with references to Iraqi, Arabic, and Mesopotamian classic literature, folklore, and history. For my part, I turned first to ancient Rome when crafting the following short tale called “Cy and Ali.” It’s based on Ceyx and Alceone,” a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection that itself draws on Greek antecedents for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  Read on if you care to.

     Cy busied himself with the by–now routine activities of a combat patrol: gathering his personal gear and stowing it in the truck, drawing the big .50 caliber machine gun and mounting it in the gun turret, setting the frequencies and security codes on the radio, helping out the other crew members and being helped by them in turn. As he waited for the mission commander to give the patrol brief, he thought about his wife for a few moments. Ali had not wanted him to go on this deployment; he had had options that would have kept him in the States, at least for a while longer, and she could not understand why he had been so eager to return to Afghanistan.

     “I think you are crazy,” she had told him. Left unstated was the suspicion that he liked the idea of going to war more than he liked the idea of being with her. She loved him dearly, and though he professed his love for her, too, she couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t value their relationship as much as she did. Cy also wasn’t sure what to think, either then or now while he waited for the patrol brief to begin. Returning to Afghanistan had been very important to him, but beyond his claims about needing to be with his unit and doing his duty, he sensed that there was a cold hard nugget of selfishness about his willingness to jeopardize his marriage—not to mention his life—for the sake of the deployment.

     Rather than give Ali an excuse or an explanation, he had offered a compensation. “When I get back, I promise I’ll make it up to you,” he had said, “I’ll go back to school, or find some job where I won’t have to deploy again anytime soon.”

     The offer seemed lame, even to Cy, like he had thought about it for two seconds, but Ali acceded to it anyway. She loved Cy in part because he was a soldier, but some things about being a military wife were really bad. Now she busied herself with her own classes, her part-time job, and her friends and family. But she worried a lot, and had a premonition that things might not end well.

     The day’s mission was nothing special: accompany an Afghan army unit while they resupplied three of their outlying outposts. The mission commander explained that the Americans’ role was to inspect the readiness of the Afghan outposts, and to provide artillery and medical support in case anything happened along the way. Cy’s job was gunner on the mission commander’s truck, which was to be third in the order of march behind two Afghan trucks. From the truck’s exposed turret he was to man the .50 cal while keeping an eye out for suicide bombers, IEDs, and ambushes. But nothing was expected to happen; “There has been no enemy activity on the planned route in the last 48 hours,” the mission commander informed them. They had traveled the day’s route many times before with nothing more serious occurring than a vehicle breakdown. Sure they planned well and rehearsed diligently, but that was all the more reason the actual mission was probably going to be not much.

     Which is why what happened, at least at first, had an unreal feel. Three miles out, on Route Missouri, Cy saw the two lead Afghan trucks come to abrupt halts and their occupants pile out. The Afghan soldiers took up firing positions on the right side of the road and pointed their weapons back to the left side. Because he had headphones on and was chattering with the other truck occupants, Cy was unable to immediately distinguish the sound of gunshots, and it took him a moment to comprehend that the Afghans had stumbled into an ambush. Other Americans also soon gleaned what was going on and suddenly the intercom crackled with questions, reports, and commands.

     “Action front…. Scan your sectors….. Anyone have positive ID?…. There they are…. 11:00 200 meters. Engage, engage!”

     Cy identified three turbaned gunmen firing at the Afghan army trucks from behind a low wall. He charged his machine gun and began to shoot. He had fired the .50 cal dozens of times in training and thus was surprised by how far off target were his first two bursts. But very quickly he found the range, and was rewarded by seeing the big .50 caliber rounds chew up the wall behind which the insurgents were hiding. Dust and debris filled the air; Cy couldn’t tell if he had hit anyone, but surely the fire was effectively suppressing the enemy. By now, the other American trucks had identified the gunmen and were firing, too. Still, it was so hard to figure out exactly what was happening. That the three insurgents behind the wall were capable of resisting the torrent of fire unleashed on them by the American and Afghan soldiers seemed impossible, but no one could tell if there were other enemy shooting at them from somewhere else.

     Soon, however, the sound of explosions began to fill the air. Again, it was not immediately clear that the Afghan army soldiers and the insurgents were now firing Rocket Propelled Grenades at each other. “What’s going on up there?” Cy heard the mission commander ask him through the intercom. Loud booms resounded everywhere from the impact of the rocket-fired grenades.  Cy next heard “RPG! RPG!” echo through the intercom as the Americans understood that they too were now under attack. A round exploded against the truck to his left and Cy felt the blast wave wash over him. How could the enemy engage them so accurately?

    As the battle unfolded, Cy realized the situation was serious, no joke. The rest of the crew was protected inside the armored truck, but he was partially exposed in the machine gun turret. He continued to fire the .50 cal, doing his best to punish the insurgents who were trying to kill them. The noise was deafening, but in the midst of the roar of his own weapon and the other American guns, as well as the cacophony of human voices on the intercom, he discerned that enemy fire was pinging around him and sizzling overhead. Though he was not scared, he thought about his wife.

     Ali had felt uneasy throughout the day. She had not been able to communicate with Cy, which in itself was not so unusual. She understood that sometimes missions made it impossible for him to call or write. Still, she sent him emails and texts and the lack of a response for some reason felt ominous. That night, she had had a terrible dream. Cy appeared, looming over her, silent and reproachful, and Ali had awoken with a start. Nothing like this had ever happened before, not even close. She didn’t know what to do, so she watched TV for a while and then began surfing the Internet. She thought about calling her husband’s unit rear-detachment commander, but decided not to. There was no one she could talk to who wouldn’t think she was overreacting, so she didn’t do anything except continue to worry. 

     The next morning two officers appeared at Ali’s door. “The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that your husband has died as a result of enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan,” one of them intoned. It was all too true, but for Ali the reality of the situation dissolved in a swirl of chaotic thoughts and physical sickness. 

     Ali waited on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base with Cy’s parents. An honor guard was also present, as well as a contingent from her husband’s unit, and a general whom she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t catch. Everyone was very nice to her, but Ali was confused. She didn’t know if she was supposed to be strong and dignified or to collapse in a pool of tears. She also didn’t know if she was angry with her husband, angry toward the Army, or just some strange combination of sad and proud. As her husband’s casket emerged from the plane, Ali felt herself drawn toward it. First she was taking small tentative steps, as if she were nervous about breaking some kind of rule or protocol. Then she was running, moving quickly toward the casket while the others in attendance waited behind. She was barely aware of what she was doing, but her feet seemed to no longer be touching the ground. It was as if she were floating or flying, and her arms were beating like wings of a giant bird. “O, Cy, is this the homecoming you promised me?” she thought, or maybe said aloud. Then she remembered throwing her arms around the casket, but at the same time she also felt herself rising into the air, in unison with her husband, who now was alive again and also seemed a magnificent, noble bird. Together, Cy and Ali soared upward, and the plane and the honor guard and the onlookers whirled beneath them as they circled in the sky.

On Stage-Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone

From San Francisco comes news that the Word for Word Performing Arts Company will stage an adaptation of Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone that features two of the collection’s short stories, “The Last Stand” and “Gold Star.”  “The Last Stand” is about a badly wounded Fort Hood soldier who, among other things, clambers upon a mechanical bull in a last ditch effort to save his pride, his marriage, and everything else worth living for.  He stays atop the bull for only a few moments and alas the marriage doesn’t last much longer.  It’s my favorite story in YKWTMAG; by the end of it your heart goes out to both the soldier and the woman who doesn’t love him enough anymore to stay married to him.  “Gold Star” is about a young war widow named Josie Schaeffer who still resides at Fort Hood in the weeks after the death of her husband overseas.  Kit Murphy, the wounded soldier whose wife ditches him in “The Last Stand,” reappears in “Gold Star.”  A soldier in Sergeant Schaeffer’s squad, he wants to pay his respects to his former sergeant’s wife–by far, it appears, the most heartfelt thing anyone in the Army has done for her after her husband’s death.  Both stories are about loss, big loss, with the slight sliver of connection between Kit and Josie at the end of “Gold Star” hardly recompense for the pain.

No doubt the shows will render well Fallon’s knack for emotional nuance and ear for dialogue.  I’m curious how they will recreate her superb eye for the physical details of military base life and sensitivity to the ambiance of Army culture.

The shows will run from 31 January to 24 February at the Z Space theater in San Francisco.

Word for Word specializes in stage adaptations of  classical and contemporary fiction.

SF-Picture

Update 23 February 2013:

Two reviews of the Word for Word/Z Space production in San Francisco of Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone are available online.  Both lavish praise on the performance.

From the San Francisco Chronicle.

From an online review called Edge.

Combat Shakespeare: Macbeth

SUNY NP Macbeth

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.

“In Theater”: How to Tell a True Afghanistan and Iraq War Story

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From Home of the Soldier

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:

Sex at War

Washington Post Home of the Soldier review

New York Times The Great Game review

New York Times Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo review

New York Times Blood and Gifts review

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