The Pity of War
Within the last few days I have coincidentally seen two plays which show in stark relief the “Pity of War”. At the Theatre Royal Stratford the revival of Joan Littlewood’s “Oh What a Lovely War” has played to packed houses and at Richmond Theatre the no less extraordinary “The Two Worlds of Charlie F” was rapturously received on its opening night.
The two wars depicted in the two plays are separated by nearly a Century but the themes are strikingly similar. I was reminded of General Sherman’s stark remark made (mainly) about the American Civil War
“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell”
Joan Littlewood, back in 1963, was making a pacifist statement in what she and Charles Chilton called a “Musical entertainment”. It was also a political statement and whether you relate to the politics of the Theatre Workshop or not “Oh What a Lovely War” remains a legitimate, if partial, commentary on the “War to end all Wars”. There was no overt political slant to “Charlie F” which was all about the consequences of the political decision to go to war in Afghanistan, not about the rationale for the war in the first place. In “Lovely War” the rationale is touched upon and although I don't recall the phrase being used the premise is that the Great War was a “Bosses War” - and a capitalist one at that. The War profiteers get hammered and the main theme is how the Lions in the Army were let down by the Donkeys among the Generals and, implicitly if not explicitly, by the political class back home. “Charlie F” does not concern itself with the rights and wrongs of the War in Afghanistan but with how going to war means not glory but unimaginable hardship along with the death and destruction. The Tommy in the trenches of the Somme and the Squaddie in the heat of Helmand are kindred spirits - both vulnerable and both potential and actual casualties of conflict.
The Education Secretary Michael Gove said this about the First World War:
“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as “Oh What a Lovely War”… as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths…the First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war”
Its regrettable that Gove decided it was smart to play politics with history in this way. In fact “Lovely War” is more concerned with the impact of war on ordinary people - something it shares with “Charlie F”. This is the heart of the matter and something that Gove chooses not to understand. The scale of the Great War may have been “uniquely horrific” and this is recorded as the casualty figures are scrolled across the stage in neon lights. But it is also at
the micro level that the pity of war is portrayed - the impact on the individual soldier and his family. “Charlie F” does the same brilliantly, without sentiment but in graphic detail. The potential effects of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion are coolly talked through by a doctor using a soldier as his living dummy. And in “Lovely War” the effects of shrapnel or mustard gas are no less graphically described.
Both of these dramas are unconventional in their staging with clever use of music, song and dance. And both have plenty of crudity and gallows humour – the soldiers’ way of coping with horror is often to laugh at it. In “Charlie F” real soldiers play real soldiers – and lack nothing in their acting skills compared with the professionals. Of the cast of 15 eight are ex-Military and all of them have some permanent mental or physical disabilities from the Afghan War. The missing limbs focus the mind but it is important to stress that there is not an ounce of sentimentality or self-pity on show. But the effects on the lives of the maimed are not ducked either – rehabilitation was, and is, no cakewalk and returning to “normal life” no easy thing to do either. We understand shock better today than in 1914-1918 and are rather more sympathetic to it. And when the bomb goes off today's soldier may have a better chance of survival with modern medicine that was the case in the trenches. But if “the whiz-bang” has really got your name on it the effect is the same.
Historians argue about whether a war is “Just” but such arguments, now stirred up by politicians like Gove, are rather remote from the fallen and the injured and their families. In September 2001 Tony Benn wrote this about the first American assault on Afghanistan:
“The Americans have sent troops into Afghanistan, and it's being presented as if it was a huge military triumph. Here's this pitifully poor country being savaged by the richest country in the world, which then speaks as if this was a tremendous military achievement!”
Well twelve years (that's the length of three Great Wars”) and 3,427 coalition deaths (448 British) later the war goes on – you can see why the authors of “The Two Worlds of Charlie F” kept away from the politics. The last thing this brilliant play tries to do is defend the indefensible. More than four years ago Max Hastings said this about the Afghan War:
“Britain is engaged in a bloody war in Afghanistan. We are losing this for a variety of reasons, many of them related to the intractable nature of the place and its problems. But I do not know one of our soldiers, of any rank, who fails to attribute a host of difficulties since 2001, and a significant proportion of casualties, to mismanagement by government and Whitehall.”
We are back in “Lions led by Donkeys” territory here. But in “Charlie F” discussion of this is avoided – apart from a clever “briefing” given at the beginning which shows that every war fought in Afghanistan by a foreign invader has resulted in defeat – including three in the nineteenth century by Britain. The unspoken conclusion is “Why on earth did we fall into the same old trap again back in 2001?” Good question!
Armies don't have the time or the inclination to challenge why they are doing what they are asked to do. And soldiers, as both “Charlie F” and “Lovely War” show do amazing things under fire. As General Patton in his famous speech put it:
“Some of you men are wondering whether or not you'll chicken out under fire. Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you'll all do your duty. War is a bloody business, a killing business.”
But there always has to be closure in the end. In “Oh What a Lovely War” the soldiers sang:
“When this lousy war is over no more soldiering for me,
When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be.
No more church parades on Sunday, no more begging for a pass.
You can tell the sergeant-major to stick his passes up his arse.”
“The two worlds of Charlie F” shows how difficult such closure can be. The loss of a leg or two, the loss of friends, the loss at times of your mind. For the participants in the Drama the play is clearly an act of catharsis – they are brave to do it. For us the non- combatant, riddled as we are by cynicism and disgust and all too aware of the foolish incompetence of the political class’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan, it is cathartic as well. I cannot recall the word “Hero” being used once in either “Oh what a Lovely War” or in “The two worlds of Charlie F”. And at no point in either drama is there descent to patriotism or sentiment. These men who didn't chicken out under fire might be seen as heroes by the rest of us. They might be patronised by badly-suited city dealers in a girly bar (a brilliantly constructed scene). They might be greeted with embarrassment by those for whom the sight of a missing limb is sickening. But for the audience who stood to acclaim them at the end of the show I’m pretty sure that they were simply seen as the “Best of British” – and I suspect that they might settle for that. As did my two Grandfathers and the thousands like them who survived the trenches to build their post-war lives.