Mixing mud and moon dust

By Robert Frank

“How long before we’re just a number?”

It was February 2006. We were in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and a Canadian soldier had just died. In those days, every casualty was personal. Each was front page news, above the fold. Canadians back home got a good idea of what was lost.

As the conflict wore on, and months turned into years, the soldier-oracle who posed the question proved prescient. Casualties were buried on the back pages, with a terse, war-weary mention of their ranking in the total fatalities, like a baseball box score.

A new Montreal play, Trench Patterns, written by Alyson Grant and directed by Guy Sprung, tries to grapple with a conflict that Canadians are still trying to understand.

Playing in the former Bain Saint-Michel on Sainte Dominique (www.infinitheatre.com), its creators and players strove mightily for authenticity. They engaged retired Pierrefonds resident Major Victor Knowlton as military advisor, and met many Canadian soldiers of all ranks who had served in Afghanistan.

It’s a thought-provoking night out, if you’re looking for Remembrance Week themed entertainment.

Lead actress Patricia Summersett pulls off the difficult task of portraying a female infantry officer. The play is original, imaginatively staged and refreshingly non-judgmental. In an era profuse with partisan theatre, the audience is mercifully, for once, left to draw its own conclusions.

The problem is not the play. Rather, the audience has no frame of reference.

Summersett’s character, Jacqueline, drifts in and out of reality, interacting with characters from World War I trenches as well as flashing back to her experience of tragedy in South Asia.

Indirect casualties

The audience was clearly charmed, but was unequivocally on the same page as Jacqueline’s well-meaning but uncomprehending mother, played by Diana Fajrajsi. They chortled at all of Fajrajsi’s quips parrying Jacqueline’s seemingly odd and often hostile behaviour.

Odd here in Montreal, perhaps. To anyone who has braved bombs, bullets and rockets, though, Jacqueline’s behaviour actually makes sense.

Grant couldn’t have known that she was writing Trench Patterns for me. My grandfather was there. He suffered poison gas attacks and returned from World War I with what we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder. It affected him so badly that his wife and eight children were relieved when he later abandoned them to abject poverty, drifted away and was never seen again.

My mom’s first husband fought his way up from North Africa through Italy, liberated concentration camps and spent months in hospital after his jeep drove over a mine, which blew up and shattered his leg, leaving him with a permanent limp. He came back from World War II such a changed man that the wife and two daughters he briefly returned to were among history’s uncounted indirect casualties of war.

I’ve been to Afghanistan twice. I vividly remember Lieutenant (now captain) Trevor Greene striding about Kandahar with his mile-wide grin, ever brimming with optimism. He was a reservist who temporarily put aside his brilliant work as a Vancouver journalist to try to rebuild to a troubled land.

He was doing the Canadian thing: We’re nice. We’re here to help. He sat down at the shura and—as he had so many times before—he removed his helmet and put it on the ground in front of him, to show that he was as vulnerable as his Afghan hosts. Then he lay down his rifle, to show that he meant no harm.

As he sat, sipped sweet tea and began to converse, a man standing behind him reached into his garb, pulled out a hatchet and plunged it into Capt. Greene’s skull.

The grisly ambush marked an end to innocence. A single act of perfidy put paid to the popular Canadian nostrum that peaceable intent will always be reciprocated.

Half a world away

The actors might be speaking their lines, but I’m not in the theatre any longer. I’m a on the other side of the planet again. On the flight line, a couple of thousand soldiers are crushed together shoulder-to-shoulder, for lack of space.

We’re lined up to say farewell. They’re loading another coffin into the aircraft, draped in the Canadian flag. They play O Canada. They always do. A veteran is someone who has tears in his or her eyes when they stand to sing O Canada. They remember. For a moment, they’re back there again.

It’s formal, it’s regimented, and it’s solace. Military traditions and ceremonies that might seem stuffy or amusing to the uninitiated are in fact a rock of comfort for those who have been embroiled the carnage of war.

“We are so trained to deny the soldier’s experience that the normal response is to make all the power-holder’s excuses,” Jonathan Shay wrote in his book Achilles in Vietnam. “This is a fantasy; it was all for the best; it never happened; you brought it on yourself; and, anyway, it’s twenty years ago, so forget it and don’t create any more problems now.”

Grant and Sprung have taken the first step that Shay suggests, when talking to veterans: “Listen! Just listen.”

Few writers and directors have shown this degree of character in refraining from judgment. Whether you’re an old man in a navy blazer or a young 21st century veteran, you quickly learn that you can only relate your account to someone who is strong enough not to deny the reality—or blame you for it.

They’re not militaristic. They’re not agonizing over whether it’s a just war. If you want to understand veterans, you need to grasp their emotions. You need to be able to share the fear, grief and anger that the fictional character Jacqueline expresses.

When you can fully treasure the fragile impermanence of a life that malice can all too abruptly vaporize without warning, you can share the veteran’s feelings of vulnerability, of risk. Then you and the veteran can walk together and leave your fleeting imprints in the same faraway moon dust.

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