A Haunting Play on the Iraq War

To the haunting strain of bagpipes, three dead soldiers are wrapped up and carried away by their mates. Moments earlier these men—members of the British Army's Black Watch regiment from Scotland—had been out on a routine patrol south of Baghdad, joking with each other as they stopped cars at a checkpoint. "I think they've found something [in] this car," jokes one as he cocks his gun. "I hope it's porn," says another. And then, BOOM, their friends are blown up—gone in an instant. Mopping up the blood after the explosion, soldier Campbell is told by his commanding officer that he handled the situation well and will be recommended for a medal. "This isn't a job, is it, sir?" Campbell asks, almost childlike. "This is pish [sitting around], doing camp security, [getting] mortared all day, [getting] ambushed … getting killed by suicide bombers. And for what?"

So ends one of the most exceptional theatrical events to have hit Britain in several years. Since Gregory Burke's play "Black Watch" made its debut at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, it has received critical acclaim across the board. Scotland's Sunday Herald pronounced it a cultural landmark of the 21st century. The play, based on the stories of the Highland regiment when it was sent to Iraq in 2004, is now coming to the United States. It opens in Los Angeles at the International Theater Festival on Sept. 18, runs there through Oct. 14, and then moves on to New York City's St. Ann's Warehouse from Oct. 20 to Nov. 11. It is a staggering and devastating tale examining how members of this historic Scottish regiment—formed under George II in 1723—not only deal with the intense fighting in Iraq but are also forced to accept that their beloved regiment is being combined with another, part of the downsizing scheme currently taking place in the British Army.

The Black Watch regiment is a clan that is as much a part of Scotland's social history as fishing, shipbuilding and mining. So it came as a shock to the whole of the country when it was announced in 2004 that the regiment would be disappearing. "In the British Army the Black Watch for centuries were put at the forefront of any attack because they were so brave and worked well together," says Vicky Featherstone, the director of the National Theatre of Scotland, which produced the play. "So they really are a metaphor for Scottish history." Gregory Burke, the play's author, began interviewing soldiers who had served in the Black Watch in Iraq during 2004—most of the men interviewed had left the army, but two are still serving—and it was decided that a play should be built around the real stories of these men in their own words. During rehearsals the actors were literally put through their paces to give them an appreciation for what soldiers do—and it helped to sink in why this amalgamation was so soul-destroying for the regiment.

The site-specific theater production debuted in a drill hall in Edinburgh at the same time the famous Military Tattoo was being put on at Edinburgh Castle. The contrasts could not have been more startling: the Tattoo's music, marching, pomp and circumstance, which is the positive and patriotic face of the army, and the portrayal in "Black Watch" of the gut-wrenching questioning and emotional devastation that war plays on soldiers. However, "Black Watch" should not be seen as a slander against the military. "It's an easy thing to portray soldiers as thugs or stupid, exploited boys, and that was just not something I wanted to do," says Burke. "It is important to show that these guys have opinions and that this was their choice to be in the army." The play helps drive home the conflicts that serving soldiers must face; they are literally on the front line of foreign policy that they may not personally agree with, and yet they must give everything they have to defend those decisions. Leaving family, friends and lovers behind to live in hot, dusty barracks where any comforts from home have to fit into regulation duffel bags—it's a tough life with little praise. In a letter home to his wife the commanding officer reads, "The West have failed to understand the logic of suicide terrorism.… They are looking for glory, and they seem to be finding it in martyrdom. Glory [is] something my boys are very unlikely to emerge with, [and] there'll be no victory parade for us."

The play takes place in two locations: in a pub in Fife, Scotland, after the soldiers have come back from fighting, and at Camp Dogwood, where Black Watch soldiers were sent in the autumn of 2004 to fill in behind the Americans as they prepared for an assault on Fallujah. In the pub the men, dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, drink and talk about their experiences. They are at times charming—flirtatious even—with the writer who has been sent to interview them. And yet they can change on a dime: when quizzed about why he was sent back to Iraq even though he had been declared unfit for active service, one ex-soldier grabs the interviewer and tries to break his arm. The scenes in Iraq are equally insightful. The old army adage of "hurry up and wait" is brilliantly sketched: soldiers sweltering so much in the heat that while on duty they sit with their trousers down to their ankles, still holding their loaded machine guns and chatting mindlessly about the best porn they have seen and the foods they miss most. There are also some dazzlingly choreographed scenes; in one Campbell gives a history lesson of the regiment, donning Black Watch uniforms through the centuries, all the while being dressed and changed by his fellow soldiers. Expect to walk out of "Black Watch" overcome by their grief, their courage and their humanity.