Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

War on War

I am not currently related to anyone serving in the U.S. armed forces, although that will change in a year when my niece marries her fella.

During World War II, 8.6% of the US population served in the military. Now it’s 0.5%. In other words, it’s about 17 times less likely that you know someone who’s actively serving.

My experience of  wars – Afghanistan and Iraq; the state of violence that is Libya; the state of threatening non-violence that is North Korea; and of the difficulty and deaths that occur in training that the public doesn’t hear about generally – all this, for me, is entirely mediated. Television, radio, internet. That’s it. I understand these experiences and individual lives intellectually and even then from a long, long remove. That includes the Army’s “Army of One” and the Marines’ “The Few The Proud” media campaigns, by the way, along with every platitude-filled politician who ever uttered the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice.” Most politicians, like most Americans, understand these experiences the way that I do – through someone else’s words.

Two weeks ago I saw The National Scottish Theatre’s production of Black Watch, and last week convinced two other people to go and see it. The script is based on interviews with soldiers who were members of the Scottish regiment, The Black Watch, and served in Iraq. It premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006 or 07. With very minimal use of physical theatrical devises (a tricked-out pool table, some scaffolding, a one-time use of flying harnesses) and extensive use of physical staging and sound, the company focuses on the world of soldiers – these soldiers – and not on the immediacy of this war. This war was only the last battle that the Black Watch fought in, as they make clear from their history of the company and the present of the company.

The soldiers spend a lot of time being bored. They resent that most people already have their minds made up about the kind of people who go into the army. One particularly short-fused soldier shouldn’t have gone back for a second tour, one man explains to their interviewer after their third tour; he resigned, but they lost his paperwork. That’s what they do, he says, they lose your paperwork. They’re all a little broken from their experiences.

It is not a performance about the horrors of killing. It’s much more about the difficulties of surviving – not just the enemy, but the people who are your fellow citizens to some degree. The final minutes of the show manage to be horrifying and beautiful at the same time, a relentless Gallipoli of marching. And at the end, all I could think was that this was the closest I come to war. This and Doonesbury, when I character I know and casually care about loses a limb.

I wonder how well this production speaks to soldiers. I wonder how many of us in the audience has even second-hand experience with the wars, a family member or a friend. It’s not that I’m not grateful to be spared the experience – I am – but I suspect that if more of us knew what it was to serve in the military, then we’d think harder and plan longer before puffing our chests out.

Does that mean we wouldn’t have gone into Afghanistan, Iraq, the Koreas, Libya, or Grenada? No, I’m not suggesting that. We might still come to the same conclusion. I’m suggesting that, as a country, we’re disconnected from the people we ask to fight our battles.

All 11 parts of the Black Watch are available on YouTube. Here’s the link to part 1. Heavy accents and no subtitles, so strap yourselves in.

Update: I’ve got proper numbers now for how many people did and do serve in the military, so the 2nd paragraph is changed. These stats come from the May 2011 issue of Harper’s, in the index (p.15). For the 8.6%, they cite the U.S Army Center of Military History; and for the 0.5%, the U.S. Department of Defense (p.82). I don’t have hyperlinks for either, or for the index itself.

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