As I was flirting with my college-bound next-door neighbour’s daughter, I found a copy of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. By the way, I was 11 years old. Back then, besides my next-door neighbour’s daughter, I was intrigued by Miller’s play. I read parts of it so that I could inspire a great conversation with my object of desire, but the play remained in my mind longer than the college-bound woman of my youth.
I was reminded of Miller’s play after Iraq. I found the play’s main character, Willy Loman, to be a sad salesman who failed to keep up with the birth of hyper-consumerism. Like Loman, the war veteran cannot keep up with the hyper state of war demanded of him or her in this present Global War on Terror.
The disposable life of Loman can be seen in the lives of many veterans today. The play Death of a Salesman showcases Willy Loman’s struggles, and these struggles are deeply enmeshed within the veteran reality of maintaining a job, finding self-worth in a troubled society and raising a family. The power of the dramatic arts has helped me reflect on my war experience and also reflect about coming home.
Plays help us process human situations
In Iraq, Othello, Hamlet and King Lear were plays I reflected on while on deployment. I’ve found tremendous reflective potential in plays, as have other warriors. These plays helped me process human situations beyond the actual happenings that involved combat missions. War inspired me to ponder plays and the power of drama.
Hamlet faces the dilemma of trying to act in a state of inaction. At times, in war, I was not always the hero in my unit. Also, in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet carries the loss of his father and is deeply affected by this loss, as he must confront his mental and existential demons.
Many troops can relate to this type of haunting loss. Many warriors from Iraq, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan have carried losses from the past that they brought with them into the war zone. The world of drama can offer both troops and civilians an understanding of war and what happens to warriors after war.
Recently, I was invited to view After Burn, a play about the invisible wounds of war featured in the NYC International Fringe Festival in 2018. After Burn was written by the esteemed playwright Barbara Garshman, whom I interviewed. I wanted to learn more about the play because of Barbara’s collaborative work with a former Marine. That marine was Matthew Deese, an Iraq War Veteran/ writer and the founder of Truth Artists Productions, Inc.
I share with you an interview with Barbara and a narratological piece written by Matthew, “Sharing Truth.”
An interview with playwright Barbara Garshman
Mike Kim: Barbara, After Burn is your first written play that’s centred around war. What inspired you to write this play?
Barbara Garshman: As a writer, I’m always looking for a good story to tell. Sometimes a story can be so powerful, it grabs hold of you and won’t let go. That’s what happened to me in 2005, when I interviewed combat soldiers who had returned home after being on deployment in Iraq for 18 months.
I spent hours sitting across the table from some of them, listening to their stories about boot camp, the war and the unexpected challenges they’d been facing since they returned home. I was blown away by how tough it was for them since they came back, and I was pretty certain that most people were ignorant of their daily battles in America, with no support from their government or from us, their countrymen.
MK: The arts are an incredible way to understand life’s challenges. When I see Picasso’s Guernica, I am brought to reflect on the destruction of war. When I read Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, I learned about the marines in the Persian Gulf War that took place after the war in Vietnam. How can theatre help people understand veteran readjustment?
BG: Theatre can provide a space for veterans to have their lives shared with others. When the bus arrived at the Armory in New York City from Fort Dix that first day, the men got off and faded into the background, grabbing cabs or walking down the street and out of view. There was no fanfare, no families welcoming them, no Hollywood ending. It was the beginning of my education about ‘real’ as opposed to ‘romanticized’ war. Theatre can bring out the real lives of veterans. This can be healing to veterans and the society.
MK: Society seems detached from war. We seem to find war in TV commercials or in recruiting ads. What can a civilian learn from your play After Burn, regarding Veterans?
BG: Civilians can learn about my direct encounters and experiences with veterans. As I met veterans, I quickly learned that ‘coming home’ was far from a safe and familiar experience. These men and women had been turned into warriors by the military so they could go out and fight and stay alive. Now, those very characteristics made living in the real world difficult. Learning how to kill changes you forever. There’s no way to turn back. They came home different.
MK: Many vet stories seem to be fabricated by mass culture and offered to society in a cookie-cutter way. How did you use veteran narratives for this play After Burn?
BG: I just listened and tried to be present to the veterans I met. I was not trying to tell or script their stories. I wanted to honor their narratives. This was not a sightseeing experience or a psychological experiment.
The world they (veterans) left had also changed. Their wives were head of household. Their kids didn’t pay attention to them. Nights were filled with nightmares or sleeplessness. Days with PTSD flashbacks and startle responses had them diving to the floor or raising imaginary guns.
They felt angry all the time. Hated people who asked how many people they’d killed, when they may not have killed anyone. They suffered from survivor’s guilt and the loss of jobs. They couldn’t touch their wives and couldn’t explain it.
Most of them were so exhausted from dealing with all these challenges that they didn’t have the strength to fight the government that wasn’t giving them promised services, or explain to people the hows, whys and what kind of help they needed. It was easier to be alone or to redeploy, where they got back the adrenaline rush they no longer felt in America, and understood what the mission was.
MK: Society views veterans in a certain way due to stereotypes in the media. How were you able to separate your assumptions about veterans from your work while creating this play?
BG: It was a life-changing experience for me to get to know these veterans, and I wasn’t able to set it aside. I found their challenges almost too enormous to ever be overcome. Yet, I found their bravery in facing these daunting tasks even greater. I respected them so much as human beings. I knew they weren’t weak. But I did feel they needed help, that they needed recognition. Saying “Thank you for your service,” and then turning away was not enough.
I asked if I could write their stories, as long as I kept their anonymity. I knew of the power that stories and well-developed, beloved characters can have when it comes to moving people and changing their minds. I believed that if I could put these characters onto paper, people would identify with them, and their struggles would become more real to others, more visceral. I felt that they would not be able to leave the theatre and forget about these men and women. I also wanted the play to be a tool for veterans to use with their own families, to speak for them and say the things they hadn’t been able to say themselves.
I used the narratives I had by putting them in stories for each character. The stories take place on the day that two of our veterans arrive back from Iraq, and two days later when they join together with their sergeant to save the life of one of their squad members, who has been badly injured. We see them with each other throughout the day, as they figure out how to help this vet, and we see them in their individual stories with their families, delving into various issues that veterans face: problems with marriage and/or children, racism, job issues, education and more.
MK: Many veterans are pursuing rich lives after the military while also experiencing many challenges. ‘Wellness’ is a word floating around the veteran world lately. What veteran wellness themes can be found in this play?
BG: The veterans were very honest and got deep with me right away. There was no way to lie to myself about what they were going through. What has been harder for me to separate from my work is my expectations of them. I’m having trouble putting the image of ‘warrior’ together with men and women who seem so lost and ineffective.
That’s not to say that they all are, but even the ones that have made the transition back with more success still have relationship issues, PTSD issues, anger issues, trust issues. It did occur to me, however, that all these men and women, who know how to carry guns and kill, could easily have joined forces and taken up arms against the government that has failed them and the people that have ignored them. Instead, they have remained essentially silent in terms of their own cause. Strangely enough, to me, that indicates how serious their problems are. And that’s why I am still here telling their stories.