The war in Iraq, and military life in general, are so far from the experiences of most Americans that it takes a determined effort to understand them from the inside out. But if you seek to understand them, you should definitely see Black Watch, a brilliant play at Saint Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn about soldiers in the famed Scottish regiment deployed to Iraq.
Grounded in interviews with Black Watch veterans, the play takes the form of encounters between a writer and soldiers in a Scottish poolroom that flash back and forth between the deep past, the present, and the war in Iraq. The play has already won many awards in Britain, and has returned to Brooklyn after an enthusiastic reception at Saint Anne's in 2007. Better than anything I have seen, it captures the complex mix of pride, courage, cynicism, anger, obscenity and solidarity that sustain soldiers in combat.
If you're looking for a critique of the history of the Black Watch in the British Empire, or an examination of British soldiers' relations with Iraqis, you'll have to keep looking. Neither gets much time in the play.
Where Black Watch excels, however, is in its exploration of the ideas, actions and emotions of soldiers. With monologues and dialogues, exquisitely choreographed scenes of combat and barracks brawls, pipe band music and Scottish folk songs, Black Watch takes viewers to a world that few of them will know first-hand. The final scene of the play, which blends an assault and close order drill, conveys the suffering and solidarity of the soldier's life in ways that are extremely moving.
Gregory Burke, author of the play, suggests in a program note that the sense of unity in the Black Watch can be traced to "the male psyche's yearning for a strong identity." He adds that "The army does not recruit well in London or any other big city; fighting units tend to be more at home with homogeneity than with metropolitanism or multiculturalism."
He's on to something, but his play does better than his writer's note at explaining the complex mix of motives and feelings that sustain soldiers. What carries the men in the Black Watch, despite all the pain and contradictions that surround them, is the knowledge that every one of them would risk his life for the other. As a university professor who can find it hard to get people to attend a meeting at 10 am, I know how that sense of solidarity is a rarity in the modern working world. And working class lads aren't the only people looking for a strong identity: the Princeton alumni who gather annually to sing the praises of Old Nassau are perhaps more besotted with their alma mater than these soldiers are with their regiment.
In the end, the veterans of the Black Watch are buoyed by stories: the stories of their predecessors on far-off battlefields and their own stories of Iraq. They guard them closely, but we are fortunate to have them shared with us in this play. If you have any curiosity about these lives and their world, don't miss Black Watch.