Dunsinane as a Window into War and Warfare
Tanks roll down a highway in Iraq, turrets slewing left and right looking for threats. A four-man stack of soldiers kick down the door of an Iraqi house looking for a bomb maker. A platoon trudges through palm groves on the way to an objective, everything a hazy green from night vision goggles. Throughout, high-energy music plays in the background — Drowning Pool,Pantera, Trapt, even Cross Canadian Ragweed — songs that struck a chord during a long combat deployment.
This is just one example of the ubiquitous videos coming out of U.S. troops’ annual deployments to Iraq from 2003–2011; videos that depicted pictures and video clips of a tour put to popular music. They were cathartic, allowing soldiers to bond, remember the “good times”…and hopefully overcome the traumas incurred.
Greig’s depiction of soldiers being soldiers, the friction caused in the occupation of a hostile population, and the confusion of leaders trying to reconcile a self-imposed, value-laden mission with the reality of power politics resonate.
The percussion-drum-guitar trio that opens David Greig’s Dunsinane immediately brought to mind the scenes from my platoon’s own video described above. The use of these tools not only adds a modern touch to a play filled with actors in armor and wielding swords, but emotionally connects this 11th Century historically-based conflict with my own 21st Century war.
The music is not the only affect that connects Dusinane to America’s most recent wars — as to be expected, given the playwright has said one of the images that led tothe creation of the play was the toppling of Saddam’s statue in April 2003 and the subsequent conflict that followed. Greig’s depiction of soldiers being soldiers, the friction caused by a hostile population in an occupation land, and the confusion of leaders trying to reconcile a self-imposed, value-laden mission with the reality of power politics resonate, as well.
The most impactful aspects of this play were not the masterful ties to our most recent experiences. Throughout the play, Greig also wove in the conflation of personal and national interests, the impact of war on land, people, and language, and the metamorphosis of soldiers in war — which is not always a wholly negative journey.
War is politics and politics are the manifestation of interests, and while most believe that there is such a thing as “national interests,” an argument could be made that national interests are simply the tying of personal interests to a nation or state by the ruler or political elite. The latter case is certainly seen in Dunsinane.
Lord Siward, the English commander that invades Scotland to depose MacBeth and set Malcolm on the throne, is depicted as a good man trying to bring peace and stability to the fractious north — the most righteous cassus belli for any interventionist military leader. As Siward moves from victorious commander to a political lightweight in the aftermath of his regime change, he holds strong to his personal interest, conflating it with what is truly in the best interest of his nation. Stability and righteousness do not necessarily have to coexist.
On the Scottish side of the same coin, Gruach (Lady MacBeth, widow of the king slain by Siward’s troops), Malcolm (the king imposed on Scotland), and Macduff (the ubiquitous indigenous advisor to Siward) all portray their own interests as those of Scotland at large. Each bases their views in history — a familiar story for those that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. History is written by personal interests and a compelling narrative, not facts. In the end, the national interest of Scotland becomes the disunity created by personal interests of these Scottish power brokers.
We don’t have to look much farther than today’s headlines to see the impact of personal interests on an entire nation.
The Transformational Effects of War
One of the most powerful scenes in Dunsinane is the dialogue between Macduff and Siward in which the former is discussing the changes war has wrought on Scotland. In this dialogue, Macduff bemoans that fact that war not only changes people and land, but language itself — war transforms:
There wasn’t always war here Siward.
Once there were harvests and markets and courts and monasteries. When I was young you could look down a glen and know that the names of everything in it. The names came from colours or the trees that stood there or who’s house it was that lived there.
Red hill, birch grove, Alistair’s house.
But when war comes it doesn’t just destroy things like harvests and monasteries — it destroys the names of things as well. It shadows the landscape like a hawk and whatever name it sees it swoops down and claws it away.
Red hill is made the hill of the slaughter. Birch grove is made the grove of sorrow and Alistair’s house is made the place where Ali’s house once was.
We don’t know where we are anymore.
We are not mysterious people, Siward, we’re just lost.
How do people overcome such primordial violence and disorder? Though we have completely forgotten history as a society, the past is pretty clear that only time can heal the wounds of war; that or a conclusive ending. The latter is rarely enacted due to the frictions of war and politics. The former requires exhaustion and slow, methodical work toward trust and stability between warring parties. Either way, the world, the land, the people, and their language is forever altered.
“War is Hell”
The above quote by Civil War General William T. Sherman is certainly true. That said, war can also facilitate a fundamental change in the core of those that engage in its conduct. Dunsinane begins with a monologue by a young soldier — a letter home — discussing the journey from his home to the epic battle that overthrew the Usurper King MacBeth and placed Malcolm on the throne.
Throughout the play, this “Boy Soldier” plays the narrator and the continuous thread as events unfold. By the end, in another monologue, he describes the changes even he recognizes in himself. They are not all bad, as the tone of the rest of the play would have a viewer believe; confidence, maturity, even wisdom.
There is something important in this that should resonate with us today. In a contemporary world where war is pure evil, society at large hardly understands the military, and every solder is depicted in print and multimedia as a ticking PTSD time bomb, we have lost other aspects of the social and political endeavor that we call war.
Teddy Roosevelt understood it. So did 3o fellow presidents. And while each joined the military for different reasons, those that have written about their experiences discussed the transformative aspects — both character-building events and those that had to be overcome and thereby strengthened them as individuals — that made them who they were.
For every exciting image in the platoon video I described at the beginning of this post, there were at least a half dozen events that we each have done our best to forget, despite their branding into our very psyches.
Is there trauma in war? Undoubtedly. For every exciting image in the platoon video I described at the beginning of this post, there were at least a half dozen events that we each have done our best to forget, despite their branding into our very psyches. Both the exciting moments and the struggle to overcome the traumatic memories we experienced in war transformed us into more confident, accepting, and yes, wise individuals.
The Value of Art Struggling with War
Over the past few years I have been amazed at the slow evolution of the art created by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Long before either war was (or is) completed, memoirs and political works were published — I despaired for the accurate depiction of what actually occurred. However, as time and distance have provided perspective, truly great works have been developed describing the impacts, travails, and triumphs of soldiers at war. Dunsinane is certainly a piece of art that does just this.
Even more importantly in my view, organizations have been founded to help develop the art that will shine light on the last decade of war — and the nature of war that is unchanged across time. I recommend to you all the organizations below; they deserve your attention, your support, and your participation:
Words After War
An organization dedicated to building a community of thoughtful, engaged and skilled veteran writers. Through high-quality literary programming, we provide veterans, their families, and civilian supporters with the tools they need to tell their stories.
Military Writers Guild
An organization that exists to gather writers committed to the development of the profession of arms through the exchange of ideas in the written medium. Through its members, The Guild encourages an open dialogue from diverse perspectives, thereby supporting the study of military affairs, spread knowledge of the military profession, and increase the assistance available to those writing in the national security space. The Guild helps foster a strong peer ecosystem focused on writing about military affairs through our ability to, “Advocate, Collaborate, and Promote.”
War, Literature & The Arts
A forum for publishing anything that has to do with the subject of war; essays, photographs, art, poetry.
Military Experience & the Arts
A nonprofit whose primary mission is to work with veterans and their families to publish creative prose, poetry, and artwork.
The Art of Future War
An initiative by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center on International Security to cultivate a community of interest in works and ideas arising from the intersection of creativity and expectations about how emerging antagonists, disruptive technologies, and novel warfighting concepts may animate tomorrow’s conflicts. The project curates artistic renderings of future warfare through crowd-sourced “war-art challenges,” and publish collections of these works. The project also cultivates an audience within the traditional defense community for this creative approach to understanding the future of warfare and social conflict.
The Veterans Writing Project
Founded by Ron Capps, the Veterans Writing Project provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, service members, and their adult family members. VWP is also building an archive of writing by members of the military community and publishes a quarterly literary review and an ongoing scroll of veteran’s writing on their sister site,O-Dark-Thirty.
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