“all I can see is a group of people getting a hard-on about the idea of war, and no one giving a damn for the reality. Ten times more excitement about going in than there is about how the hell we get out. . . . How will we be received? By the Iraqis themselves? . . . And once we go, how long will we stay? . . . And most of all, has anyone stopped for a moment—have they stopped for one moment to consider the implications? If you go into Iraq, you’re going to be the proud owner of twenty-five million people. Their lives. All their hopes and aspirations. All their problems. Has anyone begun to think about that?”
Powell’s speech sets the stage for the conflict which consumes the rest of the play. The U.S. strategy to end-run the UN; promises made and broken; and the American rush to go in leaving allies such as Britain, Australia and Spain twisting in the wind. The play traces the way Tony Blair—and ultimately Powell—are marginalized by an administration hell-bent on war. A review by James Taylor in the Los Angeles Times firmly anchors the play to the military: “Stuff Happens . . . will also remind you of why this 2,500-year-old art form remains the best way for human beings to collectively experience and contemplate the effects of war.”
As Jim Mattis no doubt knows, there are many ways of learning. The stagnation threat he cites is a problem for all institutions, not just the military. The lecture podium has its place, along with slide decks, but learning happens in many ways.
The plays discussed are not unique. There is a growing body of theater that deals with warfighting and peacemaking, sometimes tilting toward military, sometimes toward diplomacy, and often reflecting the increasingly blurred line between the two.
It must be said that plays are fictional entertainment, and their first duty is to earn their keep for those who make their livelihoods from the stage. They can never be perfect historical accounts, although there is ample evidence that many playwrights work hard to be accurate.
Plays deal with some of the great questions of our time: nuclear disarmament, Middle East peace, partition and borders and the decision to go to war. Theater makes it easy to recreate the circus-like atmosphere of any international conference, and it is ideal for exploring the role of personalities and interpersonal relationships, which weigh heavily on many conflicts.
On the downside—for the world that lies outside London and Manhattan—plays are hard to catch and expensive to attend. But they can be read. They can also be staged and read aloud around a table—a technique used by the Theater of War project, which uses real actors. They can be read aloud by students, too.
At a time when few civilians have any experience of the military, it is especially important for the military to be aware of theatrical efforts to grapple with some of the key intellectual and moral issues officers face. Thoughtful playwrights are looking to practitioners for insight. Military practitioners ought to be in the front rows—and behind the scenes—engaging with playwrights and actors to bridge the gap between those with real-world experience and those who are merely fascinated by it.
Mary Thompson-Jones is the author of To The Secretary and holds the chair in Women in National Security Studies and Diplomacy at the U.S. Naval War College.