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James Denselow

James Denselow

Posted: July 27, 2009 03:59 AM

Crossing into the Red Zone


Living for a few days as an Afghan villager or international soldier would show Western civilians the realities of war.

The paradox of Afghanistan, columnist Bruce Anderson wrote last week, is that "the modern British public has never admired its armed forces more, or understood them less".

This paradox is the product of the modern wars that British soldiers find themselves fighting in. They are long-term wars of counter-insurgency and state building in deeply divided and culturally alien societies. Casualty rates pale in comparison to the better-understood conflicts of the past. The Falklands war of territorial liberation saw 255 British soldiers die in just 74 days, during the first world war, Britain lost 19,240 soldiers on the first day of the Battle of the Somme - a hundred times more than during almost eight years of fighting in Afghanistan.

Yet while the Afghan invasion was initially accepted, the subsequent fiasco in Iraq made British citizens largely disillusioned about the wars being fought by the military. In 2007 Sir Richard Dannatt warned that "soldiers are genuinely concerned when they come back from Iraq to hear the population that sent them being occasionally dismissive". Yet unlike the Vietnam war the public's feeling towards the wars is detached from their more positive views towards the soldiers themselves. To witness the crowds attending the Wotton Bassett homecomings of the British fallen is a testament to an appreciation at least, of the sacrifice of our volunteer army.

So how best to address this paradox and improve understanding? One of the legacies of Iraq was the powerful symbolism of the green/red zone division. Despite Bob Ainsworth stating recently that "we will win based on our ability to separate the insurgents from the people", blast walls, the up-armouring of British military vehicles and even the increased use of helicopters to travel around, all widen the physical split between soldiers and the people whose hearts and minds they are trying to win.

For those back in Britain the green/red zone analogy operates at a global scale, splitting the world into safe and dangerous areas, best typified by the Foreign Office's travel advice. Indeed, often the only bridging between red/green zones is done through government statements of threat to "us" from "them". In Afghanistan's case the argument put out by Brown is that without a British presence there we would have more terrorism here, which contrasts to a large body of opinion to the contrary including that of a serving soldier in Afghanistan who told the Army Rumour Service website that "the Afghans aren't a danger to Europe. They don't even know where it is".

This growing space between socially constructed red/green zones has alienated people from realities of many real issues that impact on people's lives. So what is the best way for the people of the green zone to understand the issues of their fellow humans in the red zone? Increasingly, lived experience provided by forms of theatre and staged experiences can provide insight into previously closed issues.

The Tricycle's Afghan series was a tour-de-force of traditional theatre that investigated the country's history, the role of NGOs, the drugs trade and issues of daily life, all complemented by an excellent lecture series that often followed performances allowing for audience interaction with the issues. For a better appreciation of immigrant experience try The Container, performed in a freight container outside the Young Vic, where for an uncomfortable hour of darkness and torch-lit drama the horror facing vulnerable refugees is assimilated into an almost shared experience. This builds on the precedent of the simulated migrant theme park in Mexico, where punters can be hunted down by pretend border guards.

The UN realised the power of lived theatre and hosted the Refugee Run in Davos earlier this year in what UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called "a profound experience that reminds us of the plight of millions of forcibly displaced people". To better understand a soldier's experience of Afghanistan, the government should open up a modified civilian version of the training facility near Thetford in Norfolk where a mock Afghan village, complete with its own Taliban, provides pre-departure training for the British army.

My idea would be a more anthropologically-sound construct that places Western civilians into the role of Afghan villagers or embedded with the training soldiers. In doing so people would learn the basics of Afghan culture, the routines of life, of food and of religion, while also experiencing the flip side of being a foreign soldier in a strange land. The additional element of the Taliban's presence affects both sides and goes to the root of challenging our understanding of whether or not we should be there. Beyond government statements and the media snapshots of events, such a lived experience could provide a dynamic bridging experience that could help bring down the red/green zone divide.


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