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Iraq and Afghanistan on Stage

Posted on Sep 2, 2011

“Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays”
A book edited by Karen Malpede, Michael Messina and Bob Shuman

“War is neither glorious nor noble,” Chris Hedges states in his trenchant foreword to “Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays,” a powerful new collection of American and British plays. War marks those who battle, those who stay home and those caught in the crossfire in ways we can barely articulate. Given the cultural, political and religious taboos against discussing the actual human cost of warfare, Karen Malpede, Michael Messina and Bob Shuman, in editing this anthology, have made a vigorous contribution to the political and ethical debate.

These plays step into the moral vacuum left by politicians, corporations and religious leaders, and reveal war as something other than an unequivocal victory. They explore how theater can intervene in the discourse of war, rather than let it be hijacked by politicians, warmongers, war profiteers and others. They raise the necessary question: What are the responsibilities of civilians during wartime? Hedges opines that war is always about betrayal: “of the young by the old, of idealists by cynics, and of solders and Marines by politicians.” In these plays, we hear the voices of the betrayers and the betrayed. We are even startled to discover those voices dueling within one individual’s own private hell.

To read Truthdig excerpts from two of the plays featured in “Acts of War,” click here.

Malpede, in her introduction, highlights the connections among Athenian democracy, tragedy and conscription. Aeschylus and Sophocles were generals, Euripides fought, and their plays delved into the effects of armed conflict on the conquerors and conquered. The playwrights in this volume, though not combat veterans, have each blazed a trail, bringing to the public an experience of war that only the initiated glean. Malpede calls for a “theater of war and witness,” in which we can examine what the choice of war as an instrument of government means for the men and women who conduct it, the citizens whose tax dollars fund it, and the innocent foreign civilians who lose their homelands, families or lives.

With our volunteer army, and the raw wound of 9/11 fading with time, it is easy for us to ignore these wars and their destruction. But with so many soldiers returning with grave injuries, some diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, others unable to find employment or housing, and increasing numbers resorting to violence, we must pay heed. How many innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians have lost their lives in these wars? Malpede asks. With the ever-expanding debt ceiling and looming budget cuts, will we elect to gut domestic programs to ensure further massive military spending? To what end?


book cover


Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays


By Karen Malpede (Editor); Michael Messina (Editor); Bob Shuman (Editor); Chris Hedges (Foreword by)


Northwestern University Press, 400 pages


Buy the book

From Shakespeare to Brecht to Kushner and beyond, the theater has a long history of scrutinizing humans buffeted by social and political change. Theater shows us how the individual may choose to act when faced with moral quandaries, undeniable horror and perhaps no good answer. Theater allows us to experience intense emotions, such as terror and rage, without compelling us to act on them instantly, thereby encouraging communal meditation on the problems of governance, the nature of evil and the potential for reparative justice. Each of these plays tackles a different aspect of war and articulates it in a radically distinct, exciting theatrical style.

The collection opens with “Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,” a harrowing docudrama montaged from detainees’ letters, news conferences and transcripts of interviews conducted by the authors, former Guardian editor Victoria Brittain and South African novelist Gillian Slovo. The title refers to the Joint Task Force Guantanamo’s motto, coined under the command of Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who then left Guantanamo to implement the interrogation system at Abu Ghraib. The brilliant coup de theater of “Guantanamo” is in putting the faceless detainees, their terrified relatives and legal advocates front and center. The practice of designating people as enemy combatants rather than prisoners of war, and thus sidestepping the Geneva Conventions, slowly unspools as we listen to the testimony of detainees, family members, solicitors, a lord justice, American politicians and others affected by the war on terror. Linguistic nuances in the spoken evidence restore the “other” to rich humanity and bring the suspects so vividly to life that we actually feel their terror at being transported in the trunk of a car, chained, hooded and interrogated, and held indefinitely for no specified crime. Is suspending due process, humane treatment and fairness really defending freedom?

Naomi Wallace, an American playwright living in London, masterfully pursues a different tack in “No Such Cold Thing,” set in a desert near Kabul, Afghanistan, in the fall of 2001. The title is taken from a George Herbert poem, “The Flower,” in which flowers blooming after snows melt suggest that grief is a temporary thing.

Two teenage Afghan sisters, torn apart by war, are suddenly reunited, but the prickly differences in their natures, one rebellious, one more traditional, speak to the danger and contradictions of life under the Taliban. It is only as more magical elements accrue, such as the young sister Alya sprouting spiny quills like a hedgehog, that we realize both girls are dead. This is a ghost dance of uneasy souls cut off too rashly to realize that they have been slaughtered. A third spirit, Sergio, the U.S. Army soldier who fired on them, wakes up under the impression that he is back home at his mama’s house after a night of serious drinking.

Drenched in gorgeous lyricism, and a longing for sensuality and experience expressed by souls in transit between death and the afterlife, “No Such Cold Thing” forces us to witness the betrayal of the young by the old—we are killing our children, and even in death, they long for life.

Lydia Stryk, an American playwright based in Berlin, ventures into the heart of the U.S. military family in “American Tet.” Much as Arthur Miller did with the Lomans and the mythos of the salesman, Stryk explores how the core dreams, denials and unspoken traumas of the Krombachers, an Army family, bleed into every aspect of their lives to exact a payment when they least expect it.

Command Sgt. Maj. James Krombacher served in Vietnam, where he buckled under inhumane torture at the hands of the enemy and talked, but he lives with this secret shame and his untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, retired to his garden. His wife, Elaine, has lived 31 years as an Army spouse and defines herself by the patriotic support she provides as a leader of the Family Readiness Group. Her son, Danny, is serving in Iraq, and her daughter, Amy, is at loggerheads with Elaine, challenging her mother to question the purpose of this or any war. Elaine befriends Nhu, a Vietnamese woman who works in a Chinese restaurant. Nhu introduces Elaine to the teachings of Buddha: “life is suffering.”

Stryk introduces a final pivotal character, the neighbor’s soldier daughter who has lost her face in a blast in Iraq and is returning home psychically and physically maimed. Stryk then delicately and violently rings the changes on these opposing approaches to life, one denying doubt and empathy, one embracing suffering and change. “American Tet” builds to a horrifying climax, but the presence of Buddha; the apparition of a dead girl, Dao; and Amy’s breaking out of the fold hold some hope for reparative healing and justice. 

Two of the plays in this collection, David Hare’s “The Vertical Hour” and Malpede’s “Prophecy,” call particular attention to the act of listening as an act of empathetic healing. If “American Tet” explores how we use language to keep reality at bay, then the high points in these plays are achieved through a keen recognition of another’s alienation and pain.

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By gerard, September 6, 2011 at 2:33 pm Link to this comment

Killing a string can be achieved early on by inserting a comment that has no conceivable relationship to the article posted.

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By yrscrewed, September 2, 2011 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment

There would be no “Debt” if there were no “Phony” wars. If Ron Paul does not get elected we will never be the same again. Say goodbye to the Republic.  Long Live Hitler, Stalin, and all the rest of those tyrants their style of government is coming real soon to a neighborhood near you.

Great! Obama got Gay rights and killed the country with Debt.  He is without a doubt the largest liar in my lifetime.  And I thought George Bush was bad.  So now both the Democrats and Republicans are both real scumbags the whole lot.
Except the Pauls’ the rest are WAR MONGERS and maybe two Dems Dennis J. Kucinich and some other guy.

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By gerard, September 2, 2011 at 10:58 am Link to this comment

Thanks for this thorough review of significant works of art.  If all of us read these plays we would each recognize—perhaps be shocked—to find ourselves somewhere among the charaacters, participating in the violence.

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