Derek Blumke stumbled upon an odd souvenir in an Afghan bazaar when he was serving in the country with the Air Force during the first years of the U.S. war there.
“It’s a British 1842 bayonet, and I’m buying it from a local in Afghanistan,” he recalled. “Why wouldn’t you buy that?”
On novelty alone, the find was priceless. Blumke had no sense at the time, though, of its context — what the thing was even doing there. He went into Afghanistan, like most soldiers in America’s nine-year conflict, with little sense of the local culture and language, let alone its centuries-old history of invasion and occupation by every army from Genghis Kahn’s to the Brits and Soviets.
Now that history seems more relevant by the day. In acknowledging that, the Department of Defense tried an unusual educational tactic this week. It sent soldiers, veterans and senior officials to the theater.
Last year, Britain’s Tricycle Theater toured the states with a highly acclaimed 7.5-hour cycle of 12 one-act plays — designed, for maximum effect, to be viewed in a single day — depicting the history of Afghanistan from 1842 through the present. The Pentagon, alongside a couple of nonprofits, brought the play, The Great Game, back to Washington this week for a two-day private rerun in hopes that the experience could help contextualize the war for soldiers fighting it, while better informing policymakers and the civilians who welcome soldiers home.
“Theater has, over the centuries, always had the ability to deal simultaneously with the personal, the private, and also the public and the social,” said Simon Gammell, West Coast director of the British Council, the U.K. embassy’s cultural soft-power arm, which helped sponsor the event. “A lot of Shakespeare’s plays were talking, more or less directly, about public policy at the time.”
That element of the theater may be long-running, but the Pentagon’s interest in the medium certainly is not. This week’s venture seems as notable for its creative premise — that the arts can inform war-fighters — as the DoD’s embrace of it. Gammell suspects defense leadership in the past might not have been open to such an experiment. Still, he doesn’t expect a regular theater-of-war series.
“It was a kind of grassroots thing, which wasn’t planned as ‘We’re going to make this piece in order to help policymakers think more deeply about Afghanistan,’” Gammell said of the playwrights and actors involved.
“It was more policymakers responding to something that was happening for artistic reasons. With art, if policymakers got into the thing saying ‘What we need is to start commissioning works of art to tell us about this stuff,’ I think they would have a very small chance of being successful. But what I do find encouraging, in [the U.S. and U.K.], is that policymakers and leaders around the military and defense are open to different ways of thinking and different ways of looking at problems. And that may not have been the case a few years back.”
The Bob Woodruff Foundation, created by broadcast journalist Bob Woodruff and his family after he was seriously injured covering the Iraq war, sponsored the performance as well. The organization focuses on reintegrating service members with the “hidden injuries” particular to America’s current wars — traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. It viewed the play as an opportunity to educate not only soldiers headed to Afghanistan, but the also civilians who often don’t know how to receive them once they come home.
“It’s been very difficult for our service members to communicate to their peers in the U.S. some of what they’ve seen and done,” said René Bardorf, the foundation’s executive director. “And I think this makes it a little bit easier for them to be able to now open up and have that dialogue with other people who’ve now been exposed to the history of Afghanistan.”
Blumke, who cofounded the Student Veterans of America organization that works with the Woodruff Foundation, attended Thursday’s showing. He had, by then, already come to appreciate the history of his British bayonet. But The Great Game portrayed a fuller picture of the myriad British, Soviet, American and Pakistani struggles for a landlocked region that has seemed so strategically important it’s warranted numerous wars and the wholesale invention of national boundaries.
The DoD might not have wanted to teach soldiers all of this history at the outset of the latest war — especially the part about Afghanistan as the burial ground for many ambitious armies.
“But I don’t think it would have mattered in 2001,” Blumke said. “If they had told us what happened to the other militaries, I don’t think we would have blinked.”
History, though, helps inform why the U.S. military is still there nine years later (and why a U.S. soldier in the new millennium might find an 1842 British bayonet there). As one character puts it in the play to a gradually comprehending audience, “Afghanistan has an unusual relationship to time.”