A day at the theater with the Pentagon

Editor’s note: The author is the chief executive of the British Council, a co-sponsor of The Great Game play series. For reviews of and commentary on the play, please see The New York Times,  the Washington Post and National Public Radio. Last Thursday I had the opportunity to sit next to Masood Khalili — a ...

John Haynes
John Haynes
John Haynes

Editor's note: The author is the chief executive of the British Council, a co-sponsor of The Great Game play series. For reviews of and commentary on the play, please see The New York Times,  the Washington Post and National Public Radio.

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to sit next to Masood Khalili -- a ringside player in Afghan politics over the last twenty years -- as he relived his past on stage, including the terrifying moment when he witnessed the assassination of the anti-Soviet commander and Afghan political leader Ahmad Shah Massoud by Al Qaeda operatives, just two days before the 9/11 attacks.

Editor’s note: The author is the chief executive of the British Council, a co-sponsor of The Great Game play series. For reviews of and commentary on the play, please see The New York Times,  the Washington Post and National Public Radio.

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to sit next to Masood Khalili — a ringside player in Afghan politics over the last twenty years — as he relived his past on stage, including the terrifying moment when he witnessed the assassination of the anti-Soviet commander and Afghan political leader Ahmad Shah Massoud by Al Qaeda operatives, just two days before the 9/11 attacks.

The occasion was the Tricycle Theater’s The Great Game, a series of plays on Afghanistan’s history, which the Pentagon invited back to Washington for two day-long private performances.

The Pentagon performances were organized after a conversation between Army Maj. Gen. John Nicholson, deputy chief of staff of operations for the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and Mary Carstensen, a consultant with Good Stewards, a service-disabled-veteran-owned small business that focuses on supporting State Department and Defense Department contractors.

Officers in the Joint Staff’s Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell first attended The Great Game‘s public performances in Washington last September and thought the plays could serve as a unique learning tool for military personnel wanting to better understand Afghanistan’s culture, as well as the history of Western military involvement in the beleaguered country.

Speaking with Khalili, other Afghans, and serving military in the audience confirmed why artistic representations of war can provide a deeper understanding than history books or lectures. Theatre can cut through highly sensitive political issues and offer a unique way of interacting across cultural boundaries.

Khalili, currently serving as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Spain, told me that sitting in the theatre surrounded by those with the power to shape Afghanistan’s future, "filled my heart with hope for the future."

Other Afghans in the audience emphasized the need for more Americans to understand their country’s history, remarking, "Afghans know about their history, but Americans don’t. I think members of Congress and the Senate should see this play too!"

An American soldier in the audience who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2004-2005 told me, "I’ve read about Afghanistan factually in books but to bring it to life gives it new meaning. Seeing the determination of Afghan people on stage, seeing it brought to life…it was a very vivid expression."

Another soldier who will be deployed to Afghanistan next week decided to attend the play to obtain a deeper understanding of the country’s history. He said that "theatre, like a good movie, can tell a story from a different perspective. It has made the history more alive and I am able to relate to it."

I also had the chance to sit next to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson, who shared the questions he had received leading up to the performances.

"Isn’t this series of plays going to be anti-war? Isn’t this going to provide us with reasons not to be in Afghanistan? The questions were really posed to me as if the arts and the men and women who serve in uniform come from different planets," Wilson said. "And that is absolutely not the case, and this is the proof."

Surrounded by serving soldiers and veterans who had experience of Afghanistan — in addition to policy and decision makers – I could sense the emotional connection between the audience and actors. It was palpable in the laughter, sighs and stark silences, and in the heads nodding in recognition of what was unfolding on stage. 

The day-long marathon of plays – seven and half hours long – ended with a tribute to the complex emotions facing soldiers returning home. In Simon Stephens’ Canopy of Stars, a returning soldier argues with his girlfriend, who urges him to spend more time with his son and leave the army. The play ends with an unresolved tension between Jay, who is haunted with memories from the field and wants to make a real difference on the ground, and his girlfriend, who is disillusioned with the war and just wants to create a normal home for their son.

I was worried that many of the references in Canopy of Stars would be lost on Americans – the play includes many British phrases and was distinctly English in its drive to resist conflict resolution. But instead, what I heard was a tribute to the universal difficulties and hardship wars impose not only on soldiers and civilians in theater, but on servicemen and women upon their return home; as I exited the theatre, I overheard two American veterans say "all you need to do is change the accent – it’s exactly right."

The Great Game demonstrates the power of the arts to explore complex private and public issues in a serious way. These plays allow the audience to understand Afghanistan in a different way than any lecture, history book or policy analysis. While giving an objective account of the long and sometimes tragic story of Afghanistan, they explore the subjective and emotional human experience of all those involved.  And we in the audience respond with our hearts as well as with our minds – and really understand.

Martin Davidson is Chief Executive of the British Council, the United Kingdom’s international cultural relations organization. On February 10 and 11, the Bob Woodruff Foundation, British Council, and Shakespeare Theatre Company presented The Great Game for an encore US performance by the invitation of the Pentagon. The plays toured the United Sstates last fall with support from the British Council.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.