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‘Great Game’ Seeks to Put Afghanistan Experience in Context

By Margaret Mullins
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2011 – “The Great Game” was the euphemism the British used when referring to their strategic rivalry with the Russian empire that played out in Afghanistan in the 19th century.

But it was not a game. It was a dirty, bloody, costly engagement for all sides.

“The Great Game” – a nine-hour play presented at The Shakespeare Theatre Company – makes it clear that the deadly “game” continues.

First touring in the United States in the fall of 2010, “The Great Game” has returned in a unique manner. The special performance arose from 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.

Nicholson believed “The Great Game” was something that anyone connected with Afghanistan should see, and he went to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson to make it happen.

Through the support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, the British Council, the Tricycle Theater, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and the Defense Department, the play has been brought to an audience of policy makers, veterans, active duty military personnel and others connected to today’s war in Afghanistan.

Commissioned by British director Nicholas Kent in 2008 and first staged by London’s Tricycle Theater in 2009, the play is composed of 19 separately authored acts in three parts. It provides a comprehensive education that could not have been gained from a policy paper or a briefing slide.

“It gives us the opportunity to explore the history of Afghanistan at an intellectual [level],” said Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council,, “but also, I think, in an emotional way.”

Some, though, see a request from the Pentagon to bring the performance to this audience as contradictory to military culture, and Wilson offered that he had been asked many times about why the Pentagon would be interested.

“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.”

Rather than providing thinly veiled judgments or policy recommendations, as may be expected given the subject matter, “The Great Game” illustrates the overarching narrative and historical complexity that contributes to the present-day psyche of Afghanistan and the nations tied to its past, present and future.

The content of the play provokes thought and discussion, but this production is unique, given the distinctive audience.

Davidson said the series of plays bring a dialogue into the “very heart of individuals” who have experienced so much of what the play has to show.

“It is a real privilege, I think, to be able to watch this play surrounded by people who have experienced much of what the play is exploring,” he said.

The value of “The Great Game” lies in its presentation of a multitude of points of view. Some conversations are fictional, some even imagined, but others are dramatizations of edited testimonies and statements of real people. These verbatim acts -- several from within the last year from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and NATO senior civilian representative Mark Sedwill -- grounded the performance in a numbing reality.

Inevitably, allusions linking the British in Afghanistan in the 1800s and the Soviets in the 1980s to the current coalition efforts will be drawn. “The Great Game,” however, is not political. Rather, it is focused on the individuals and their motivations, fears and aspirations.

The focus on the individual-level repercussions of conflict resonates in particular with the sponsoring organizations.

“We are trying to engage the public and empower them,” said Rene Bardorf, executive director of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated serving injured service members and their families. “We need the smart folks in Washington, D.C., to really talk about strategy and operations and tactics, not just about how to win the war or how to pull out of the conflicts in the Middle East or in Afghanistan.”

The brilliance of “The Great Game” lies in its unbiased portrayals of persons and events, fictional and factual. It is an academic and emotional experience, provoking questions rather than dispensing answers, rendering it all the more profound because of this humble and ambitious approach.

As Wilson pointed out, “The arts and theater in particular provide a means of communication to discuss, to explore, and in this case to learn about the context, the history, the culture of a very complex country.”

(Margaret Mullins is a Defense Department intern who will enter the Army in June.)

 

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