Biblical Proportions: ROTC, DADT, and women in combat

I had been meaning to write a blog piece on how both the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) and the return of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) to Ivy League schools were both met with scathing resistance and commentary before the changes were implemented, but once the changes actually took place, nothing terrible happened. Now, with the decision to eliminate the “combat exclusion” policy which theoretically was supposed to keep women out of the line of fire and which in practice kept them from the opportunity to try out for many of the combat arms branches (armor, field artillery, infantry etc.), it seems to me that those other two policy changes might suggest how this change might also be received.

In the repeal of DADT, the argument against repeal usually lingered around the idea that having openly serving gay soldiers in the military might undermine unit cohesion or morale, or that it might upset some soldiers’ religious or personal beliefs. There was also another fear of gay soldiers suddenly becoming “flamboyant” once they no longer had to hide who they were, and that this would undermine military professionalism. Both of these fears, of course, were completely unfounded and the repeal of DADT rolled out with barely anyone noticing.

In the case of ROTC returning to the Ivy League, there were a number of Op-Eds written for ROTC’s return and against, as well as town hall meetings that turned nasty as some students and faculty members made their case for keeping ROTC off campus. Interestingly, a major reason cited by those against ROTC was the military’s DADT policy. Beyond that, many believed (and still believe) that a college campus is not an appropriate place for the military to have a presence (militaries do carry out wars, after all) and that by having ROTC around, it could potentially “militarize” the campus (whatever that means). After much handwringing, ROTC was invited back to a host of Ivy League School (Columbia, Harvard, Yale) with little incident. Some argue this is because of the low-key rollout of the programs, but whatever.

The point is, both of these changes were met with heated debate that fizzled quickly once the deed was done. Maybe, as Americans, we’re so apathetic that we just shrug and move on when the we think there’s nothing we can do. Maybe we’re easily enraged by the pundits and media darlings that tell us what to think. Or maybe we just like to argue.

While I think integrating women into combat arms will face some unique hurdles that differentiates it from the repeal of DADT and bringing back ROTC, none of these hurdles are insurmountable – in fact they’re all pretty simple to address with a little common sense. People in the military are pretty good at following orders, and I would imagine that integrating women into the various combat arms positions (if that is indeed what happens) will happen methodically and with care – and probably with little commotion.

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Black Swan, The Hurt Locker, and the strange intersection of ballerinas and soldiers

eod bomb suit and ballerina

A little over a year ago I developed a little obsession with the ballet. I had just seen Black Swan, and left the theater in downtown London wanting to know more about the ballet and the lives of the dancers. I understood that the film was a work of fiction and overly dramatized, but I was drawn to the psychological drama, the monastic dedication to the craft, and the apparent isolation felt by the dancers. I was excited to learn more about the ballet, but couldn’t help but think that Black Swan might be to (some) dancers as The Hurt Locker was to (some) soldiers. That is, an overly dramatic account of a poorly understood segment of the population.

I started to look up reviews of Black Swan, particularly from dancers. Almost universally, dancers disliked the film for similar reasons some soldiers disliked The Hurt Locker: emphasizing popular stereotypes (aggressive, reckless soldier / psychologically distraught, anorexic dancer), errors in the details (wrong uniforms, unlikely TTPs / poor dancing, “ballerina-as-victim” motif). Both movies were critically acclaimed, and the attention that they received because of the Academy Awards raised the conversation concerning each of the films (The Hurt Locker won Best Picture in 2009 and Natalie Portman won Best Actress in 2010). Soldiers and veterans interviewed for whatever reason were often asked their opinion of The Hurt Locker. And some prominent veterans strongly raised their voice in opposition to the film. Dancers interviewed in newspapers and on morning television shows were often ambushed with the question of how they found Black Swan. I can only imagine what it must have been like for a dancer meeting someone at a party. “What did you think of Black Swan” probably is to dancers as “Did you kill anyone” is to veterans – the follow-up question to learning ones’ unique profession.

Interested, I began to dig deeper. I saw the parallels of ballerinas and soldiers – especially infantrymen. A lot of my tougher friends who would be turned off by the ballet by default might not understand the athleticism required to dance. I was certainly oblivious to it. There was a scene in Black Swan, though, that clicked for me. It was a montage scene where Nina (Portman) was preparing for her role, dancing, and at one point laying on an examination table being assisted by a doctor. Then, there was a scene of her taking a break, sipping water at a fountain and refilling her water bottle. It was at that point that ballet stopped being this airy, flirty thing to me and became a tough discipline that requires hard work and constant attention. It reminded me of so many sessions at the gym, early morning runs, or finishing a foot march and going straight to my canteen, trying to replenish myself before stepping off again.

Since I was in London, I signed up for the Royal Ballet’s ‘student standby’ program for students, which provides discount ballet tickets for students. I went to the ballet as often as I could, and began reading about it in newspapers and blogs. I looked for memoirs by dancers, finding Winter Season by Toni Bentley. Reading it, I made notes on the parallels:

“During the performance, things are cancelled, added or rearranged, according to the casualty level of the performance. If a dancer is injured, the ballet must be re-rehearsed for the understudy…” p. 32 (The mission must be accomplished, succession of command – PL, PSG, WSL, etc.)

“I saw Raging Bull yesterday and of course thought of the tragic sadness and frailty of those whose life is based on they physical – fighters and dancers.” p. 49

“But too often, meeting an ‘outside’ person involves the usual cross-examination: Where are you from? How long have you been dancing? What’s it like working with Balanchine? What did you dance tonight? We have a lot of jokes about pre-recording our answers. Of course people are curious (they’d better be!). We are unique, yet on a human-to-human level, this is very dull and finite in possibility. p. 55 (“What it like over there? Do you have to go back? No? Thank god. Did you ever kill anyone?)

“If you rehearse sloppy, you will dance sloppy. You rehearse how you will do it.” p. 60 (Train as you fight)

I exchanged emails with the author about these strange parallels. She, of course, demurred to the idea. Anytime someone on the “outside” compares their profession to that of soldiers or their arena as a battlefield or war zone, they attract the ire of veterans groups and political commentators (see Antre Rolle of the New York Giants, for example). As an “insider,” though, it is more appropriate, or at least more socially acceptable for me to make these kinds of connections.

On a physical level, I’m struck at the importance of feet in both crafts. Dancers and soldiers alike spend a great deal of time finding the perfect shoe/boot and perform superstitious rituals to make their footwear fit as perfectly as possible. Dancers rough up the bottoms of their dance shoes, soldiers soak boots in water to break them in. Underneath, feet are rubbed, blistered, callused, and torn apart.

I’m not the only one who has made these connections. A new friend, Roman Baca, served as a Marine in Fallujah and is the founder of Exit 12 Dance Company. He’s a fellow with The Mission Continues and recently went back to Iraq to convene a dance workshop.

What this all tells me is that there is something here. There are these two communities out there, dancers and soldiers, who represent a tiny portion of the overall population, hold a unique and grossly misunderstood profession that is wildly stereotyped and exploited in the media, and who often struggle in transitioning from a profession that is largely based on physical prowess to something more sustainable afterwards. Nothing, though, ever compares to the thrill of doing that job, be it dancing or fighting.

Where this goes, I’m not sure. But it’s been something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past year and getting it out there might inspire more thought.

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Veteran Theater Review: Go To Your God Like A Soldier

“War stories aren’t really anything more than stories about people anyway.” Michael Herr, Dispatches

Taking a cue from my friend, Jason, this is my first theater review. It’s not a pure theater review, but my experience there plus a review.

Through a friend, I learned of a preview performance of ‘Go To Your God Like a Soldier’ in London before it heads up to Edinburgh Fringe in August. Before going, I knew absolutely nothing about its content, purpose, or background. With nothing else to do on a Sunday evening, my wife and I set off.

The preview was shown at the Old Vic Tunnels, close to Waterloo station. Entry is gained through a dingy fire door along an innocuous wall. I only spotted it because of the huddle of well-dressed theater-seeming people drinking beer out of plastic cups gathered outside. Inside, the tunnels are dark and scarcely lit. A damp, white mist hangs in the place and the air stinks of an unfinished basement.  If I hadn’t paid to get in, I would have thought it was gross.

Making our way past the box office, we reached the bar, situated right outside the theater. We arrived only a few minutes before showtime, so we didn’t have time to get a beer. I got the impression from the faces around me that this was the first time many of them were at this venue, and they didn’t know whether to be charmed or disgusted. People looked like drained zombies, watching each other nervously and critically. It was very quiet.

Standing around, not drinking, my mind wandered. I’m always a little nervous when the military is put on display for the masses, or in this case, the theatre crowd. Most people do not have any connections to the military, so this might be as close as they’ll ever get. An anti-military performance or a caricatured performance might confirm forever a person’s impressions.

Shortly thereafter, the doors opened and the ushers began letting people through. We pushed to the front of the gathering crowd and slid through the doors. The theater was long and narrow. The ‘stage’ was not elevated and neither were the seats. We moved to about the mid-section and sat behind a couple of teenagers with small heads. The seats looked like old vinyl movie theater seats. Some of them had sheets of paper on them that said WET SEAT. Water dripped from the ceilings and ran in quick streams down the brown, rocky walls. The stage was eerily-bathed in low light, and a deep, steady humming sound rolled slowly and loudly from the speakers.

Sitting, I began reading the program. I got nervous when I spotted a reference to the “purported” death of Osama bin Laden in the ‘Note from the Director.’ Purported? That loaded word invoked conspiracy, and my stomach turned at the thought of having to sit through a 55-minute lecture on the lies and atrocities of the Great Imperial War Machine. Aside from that, everything else looked good in the program, and I was happy to see that they used a military advisor (Sapper Rob Grover) to ensure accuracy and realism (the most important thing to a veteran audience, mind you). Still, you never know what you’re going to get. A military advisor disgruntled with his service may see things through a very different lens than others. His short bio said he is still serving, so I wasn’t too worried.

Shortly after taking our seats, the theater went dark (except for the stage) and the performance began. The theater was full.

The deep humming noise crescendoed into a bass-heavy techno track as four actors stormed the stage in British military combat gear and began ‘clearing’ the room. Methodical, realistic, and well-choreographed, it looked like dance. Is this going to be performance art, I wondered? I hoped not – I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. I never realized just how choreographed and dance-like room-clearing can look, all sharp gestures and angles. Once the room was cleared, the music faded and the dialogue began (phew).

Three men and a woman.

The story attempts to tackle a number of important issues through showcasing the “experience of war for the men and women who serve.” The role of women in the military and combat (and the supposed protective instinct of men), mental health and stigma, counter-insurgency, military families, and civilian-military relations all get a fair treatment through the course of the story.

The first thing that struck me was the female cast member. Obviously, I was watching some kind of British combat unit. Do the Brits allow women in the infantry, I thought? I don’t think so. I wrote it off as artistic license, and assumed that since this was being performed by a small troupe, a woman would have to play a man’s role. That, or pure ignorance of the military by the theater group, despite having a military advisor. As the play developed, I learned that ignorance or artistic license wasn’t the cause, and gender plays a powerful and central role in the story. I had automatically assumed the troupe got it wrong. When it comes to accuracy, veterans rarely give the benefit of doubt.

The story is about four British soldiers who barricade themselves in a room in Afghanistan. Something bad has happened shortly before, and we only learn the details as the story develops. The situation in the room grows more tense as the enemy (Taliban? We don’t actually know) gets closer pressuring the team to do something. One of the soldiers presses the leader to quit waffling and ‘make a decision.’ This character, a young soldier, but seemingly combat experienced, is convinced that violent aggression and decisive action are the only solutions to the problem. He is a War is War(rior). His superior also seems tested and combat experienced, as he weighs the available options. The main conflict in the story is not the Brits vs. gunmen, but the aggressive British soldier vs. his more cautious superior.

We learn about the individual characters through ‘flashback’ scenes, accomplished through sudden changes in lighting accompanied by sound and robotic movements by the cast as they get into position. The first couple of flashback scenes are strange. The audience (or at least I) wasn’t ready for it. Plus, the actors are still wearing their uniforms, despite flashing back to scenes where they are in their homes, the supermarket, or a doctor’s office. After a few of these, though, they become more believable.

The troupe did an excellent job in nailing these tough issues without caricaturing the military.

In the best scene, I sat cringing as a military character argued with his ex-wife over her refusal to let him see their child. Although she had valid concerns, she was being rude and unreasonable, and he was getting angrier. As the situation escalated, and pleading turned to yells, it seemed like the military character was going to snap and do something stupid. But he didn’t. His character came off as intelligent, if emotionally distressed, but good. It would have been very easy, and more dramatic, to have him do something else (like hit her). I think the audience (and I) expected him to do something stupid, or at least, expected to see him do something stupid. He is a combat veteran dealing with incredible pressures, and it seemed like he was ready to burst. Good on the company for portraying such a complicated character as he is, and not as we expect to see him.

Speaking with my cousin over the weekend, who works in film, we discussed the failure of war movies at the box office. We agreed that contemporary war movies don’t do well because it is hard for (non-military) people to connect with them. Most people don’t understand the military, so how are they going to understand a war movie (the military in the most extreme situation)?

‘Go To Your God Like A Soldier,’ does a good job at connecting with the audience because half of the performance is not at war at all, but back home, at places and with people familiar to everybody. The group does a good job at taking something that is abstract to most people (men and women in the military at war) and deconstructing it to a form that is recognizable and digestible, without relying on stereotypes. It is an exciting performance that leaves the audience thinking. Highly recommended.

‘Go To Your God Like a Soldier’ plays at Edinburgh Fringe from August 4th to August 28th. You can follow :DELIRIUM Theatre company on Twitter @DelirumTheatre.

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