Black Watch and the End of Modern Warfare

I’d read the reviews; I knew Black Watch, the hit National Theater of Scotland production now in its second run at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is about serving in Iraq, that it was developed using the actual stories of real soldiers and that it’s a bravura ensemble production. What I didn’t understand until I saw it is that it’s the story of the fabled, almost-three-centuries-old Black Watch Regiment that, in 2006, was “amalgamated” with 5 other Scottish regiments—and that this marked more than the end of a “great tradition”. At the very end of the play, when a disaffected soldier tells his officer why he’s not staying on in the army, I realized that the end of this regiment, which served as a mercenary force all over the world and fought in both world wars, coincides with the end of the whole concept of professional soldiering on which modern warfare has depended.

In Iraq, the boys of the Black Watch—and, except for their officer, sergeant and one of the men (Cammy, Paul Rattray, who spins the narrative thread) they are very young—encounter, not battles with other professional soldiers but ambush by suicide bombers. They’ve been set up for an impossible job: “peacekeeping” in fallujah, in the “triangle of death,” where 800 of them have been sent to replace 4,000 departing Americans—at our request. They can’t go out and attack an enemy army; instead, they’re sitting ducks in the backs of their (doubtless inadequately, like ours) armored  vehicles, waiting for whatever may explode on the highway in front of them. Or they watch (and we all listen to the roar of) the American bombers zooming in to drop their fantastically noisy and destructive payloads on the villages. One of the boys says, “that’s just bullying”.

Post-modern warfare has devolved into ineffectual bullying (we soon learn that the display of firepower we witnessed killed exactly 2 people) by a national army on the one hand and frighteningly effective suicide bombings by fanatical civilians on the other.

One knew, of course, that the insurgency was not military, any more than were the Al Qaeda operatives who flew the planes on 9/11. One also recalls that forms of guerilla warfare were a scourge in Vietnam (women and children were always suspect). But there the people were helping out an army attached to an actual government, albeit one not yet recognized by us. (And there’s a good argument that that was one big reasons why the North won: the people were united against us, the invaders.)

In Iraq, the situation is a lot more complicated, but it took this play to make me understand the significance of the fact that there’s no army for “coalition” soldiers to fight. War is over. Not this war, alas, but war as we’ve known it.

Is this bad? I don’t know. It seems to be one more sign of the general decline of the nation-state in favor of global corporations and guerilla movements. It seems to me that in the short run it can’t be good. And I won’t be around for the long run.

In the meantime, we have this marvelous production, Black Watch, to remind us of how powerful live theater can be. It’s fearless: it uses mime, sign language, Scottish ballads, amazing choreography, video, a bagpipe, and a cast of 11 men to suck us into a story that makes us so strongly identify with them that we weep when they are blown up, even as they make us see why, rather than going on fighting for their mates, the survivors wind up back at their local pub.

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