On the Theatre on Broadway stage, man after man -- nine Marines and one Navy medic -- steps forward to describe the events he witnessed. Though this is scripted material, we believe in its essential veracity: Playwright Sean Huze is a soldier who fought in Iraq, having signed up the day after 9/11.
We're introduced to the man who was too claustrophobic to wear the mask intended as protection against chemical or biological weapons; the soldier for whom a severed foot brought the reality of the slaughter home more forcefully than all the dead bodies he had seen, and who searched for the foot's owner -- the corpse -- because he wanted to do just one small, useless, good thing: "Couldn't I at least make this right?" Then there's a Marine enraged by the death of his comrades, who came across a desperately injured Iraqi begging to be shot and calmly ate his lunch while watching the man writhe and die on the sand. And the soldier who had a few sweet, peaceful days protecting Iraqi civilians with his unit, enjoying their hospitality, developing relationships with some of them and meeting a little girl who kissed the photograph of his son. When the troops were ordered to leave, the same child flashed him a peace sign, and he worries still about what became of her, he tells us. We learn about dismembered children and hundreds of Iraqis killed for every dead Marine. We learn about the deprivation and fear the soldiers suffered, the tormenting heat, the attempts to quench thirst with scarce, 100-degree water.
This Theatre Group production, directed by C.J. Hosier, is refreshingly low-key. Only a couple of the performers are experienced actors; some have never stepped on a stage before. There is something about their quiet naturalness, even the evident nervousness of a couple, that brings the subject home more forcefully than a slicker, more dramatic production might. Behind the actors, slides from the war zone provide a powerful and urgent undercurrent.
When he volunteered, Huze believed in the war and expected U.S. troops to uncover weapons of mass destruction. Once home, but with his friends still in danger overseas, he found himself driven to fury by Bush's 2003 taunt to the insurgents: "Bring it on." At one point, he sent a letter to writer and filmmaker Michael Moore: "Bush is a lying, manipulative motherfucker who cares nothing for the lives of those of us who serve in uniform. Hell, other than playing dress-up on aircraft carriers, what would he know about serving this nation in uniform?" Huze regretted his words, and when Moore asked for permission to publish the letter in a book called Will They Ever Trust Us Again, he sent an edited copy. The first version somehow got into the book, though, and Huze became a target of right-wing rage.
But Huze's response to the war is not unambiguous. His letter to Moore spoke of an enemy that used civilians, including children, as shields. In one of the most affecting moments in Sand Storm, the Navy medic tends to a dying Iraqi whose family has been killed by American artillery. The Iraqi thanks the soldier for ridding his country of Saddam Hussein: "You are a gift from Allah."
Huze's play also reveals how badly some soldiers behave in a war zone. One of the Marines describes how he and another soldier knocked two Iraqis to the ground and kicked them until their pant legs were covered with "a gruesome paste" and the Iraqis were either unconscious or dead. Soldiers have done these things in every war, and it isn't hard to understand why, to empathize with inexperienced young men sent into torturous situations, men who may have seen friends blown to pieces or burned to death and who fear daily for their own lives. Committing atrocities can destroy the mind as surely as suffering them.
Still, such actions are criminal -- and this is something that we, as a society, don't want to talk about. Americans don't want to see our soldiers through the eyes of Iraqi civilians, see the huge, slow-rolling tanks, hear the home-shattering artillery and the occasional burst of wild, random gunfire that takes the lives of mothers, fathers and children.
But only when we recognize that the people on the other side of the guns are human and grant them a small measure of the concern we feel for our own troops will we finally begin to understand what war is. Perhaps then we'll put the blame where it belongs: on the shoulders of the cynical old men who send young people to fight unjust wars. Theatre Group should be commended for opening up the dialogue.