Great Game’ Seeks to Put Afghanistan Experience in Context

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2011 — “The Great Game” was the euphemism the British used when refer­ring to their strate­gic rival­ry with the Russ­ian empire that played out in Afghanistan in the 19th cen­tu­ry.
But it was not a game. It was a dirty, bloody, cost­ly engage­ment for all sides.

“The Great Game” – a nine-hour play pre­sent­ed at The Shake­speare The­atre Com­pa­ny – makes it clear that the dead­ly “game” continues. 

First tour­ing in the Unit­ed States in the fall of 2010, “The Great Game” has returned in a unique man­ner. The spe­cial per­for­mance arose from a con­ver­sa­tion between Army Maj. Gen. John Nichol­son, deputy chief of staff of oper­a­tions for the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and Mary Carstensen, a con­sul­tant with Good Stew­ards, a ser­vice-dis­abled-vet­er­an-owned small busi­ness that focus­es on sup­port­ing State Depart­ment and Defense Depart­ment contractors. 

Nichol­son believed “The Great Game” was some­thing that any­one con­nect­ed with Afghanistan should see, and he went to Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense for Pub­lic Affairs Doug Wil­son to make it happen. 

Through the sup­port of the Bob Woodruff Foun­da­tion, the British Coun­cil, the Tri­cy­cle The­ater, the Shake­speare The­atre Com­pa­ny, and the Defense Depart­ment, the play has been brought to an audi­ence of pol­i­cy mak­ers, vet­er­ans, active duty mil­i­tary per­son­nel and oth­ers con­nect­ed to today’s war in Afghanistan. 

Com­mis­sioned by British direc­tor Nicholas Kent in 2008 and first staged by London’s Tri­cy­cle The­ater in 2009, the play is com­posed of 19 sep­a­rate­ly authored acts in three parts. It pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive edu­ca­tion that could not have been gained from a pol­i­cy paper or a brief­ing slide. 

“It gives us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore the his­to­ry of Afghanistan at an intel­lec­tu­al [lev­el],” said Mar­tin David­son, chief exec­u­tive of the British Coun­cil„ “but also, I think, in an emo­tion­al way.” 

Some, though, see a request from the Pen­ta­gon to bring the per­for­mance to this audi­ence as con­tra­dic­to­ry to mil­i­tary cul­ture, and Wil­son offered that he had been asked many times about why the Pen­ta­gon would be interested. 

“Isn’t this series of plays going to be anti-war? Isn’t this going to pro­vide us with rea­sons not to be in Afghanistan? The ques­tions were real­ly posed to me as if the arts and the men and women who serve in uni­form come from dif­fer­ent plan­ets,” Wil­son said. “And that is absolute­ly not the case, and this is the proof.” 

Rather than pro­vid­ing thin­ly veiled judg­ments or pol­i­cy rec­om­men­da­tions, as may be expect­ed giv­en the sub­ject mat­ter, “The Great Game” illus­trates the over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive and his­tor­i­cal com­plex­i­ty that con­tributes to the present-day psy­che of Afghanistan and the nations tied to its past, present and future. 

The con­tent of the play pro­vokes thought and dis­cus­sion, but this pro­duc­tion is unique, giv­en the dis­tinc­tive audience. 

David­son said the series of plays bring a dia­logue into the “very heart of indi­vid­u­als” who have expe­ri­enced so much of what the play has to show. 

“It is a real priv­i­lege, I think, to be able to watch this play sur­round­ed by peo­ple who have expe­ri­enced much of what the play is explor­ing,” he said. 

The val­ue of “The Great Game” lies in its pre­sen­ta­tion of a mul­ti­tude of points of view. Some con­ver­sa­tions are fic­tion­al, some even imag­ined, but oth­ers are drama­ti­za­tions of edit­ed tes­ti­monies and state­ments of real peo­ple. These ver­ba­tim acts — sev­er­al from with­in the last year from Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Rod­ham Clin­ton and NATO senior civil­ian rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mark Sed­will — ground­ed the per­for­mance in a numb­ing reality. 

Inevitably, allu­sions link­ing the British in Afghanistan in the 1800s and the Sovi­ets in the 1980s to the cur­rent coali­tion efforts will be drawn. “The Great Game,” how­ev­er, is not polit­i­cal. Rather, it is focused on the indi­vid­u­als and their moti­va­tions, fears and aspirations. 

The focus on the indi­vid­ual-lev­el reper­cus­sions of con­flict res­onates in par­tic­u­lar with the spon­sor­ing organizations. 

“We are try­ing to engage the pub­lic and empow­er them,” said Rene Bar­dorf, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Bob Woodruff Foun­da­tion, a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed serv­ing injured ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­i­lies. “We need the smart folks in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to real­ly talk about strat­e­gy and oper­a­tions and tac­tics, not just about how to win the war or how to pull out of the con­flicts in the Mid­dle East or in Afghanistan.” 

The bril­liance of “The Great Game” lies in its unbi­ased por­tray­als of per­sons and events, fic­tion­al and fac­tu­al. It is an aca­d­e­m­ic and emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence, pro­vok­ing ques­tions rather than dis­pens­ing answers, ren­der­ing it all the more pro­found because of this hum­ble and ambi­tious approach. 

As Wil­son point­ed out, “The arts and the­ater in par­tic­u­lar pro­vide a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to dis­cuss, to explore, and in this case to learn about the con­text, the his­to­ry, the cul­ture of a very com­plex country.” 

(Mar­garet Mullins is a Defense Depart­ment intern who will enter the Army in June.) 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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