“Black Watch,” the ‘Five Star’ Scottish military play that was touted in expensive ads all over the San Francisco Bay Area as “The #1 Theatrical Event of the Year” – New York Times, delivered a powerful anti-war message, that seemed to stun even liberal/left San Francisco audiences. At $100-each tickets and rave reviews from all major U.S. and British newspapers, it seemed that the mostly older, well-heeled suburbanites in attendance during the play’s recent five-week run expected flaring kilts and lots of bag pipes.
Instead they were hit between the eyes by raw power: bomb-simulating explosions, unbridled swearing (every other word seemed to be ‘fuck’!), explicit porn posters, acting that can only be described as muscular, the most creative sexual insults imaginable – and a very forceful condemnation of the Bush-initiated invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The documentary theater lasted for two hours with no intermission.
The play, which ran in San Francisco from May 9th to June 16th, had an all-male ensemble of 10 actors who portrayed the stories and sentiments of many of the soldiers in the much-lauded, 300-year-old Scots Highland Regiment known as “The Black Watch.” The script, by writer Gregory Burke, was faithfully based on his months of interviews – in, yes, pubs – with former Black Watch troops who had completed two tours of duty in Iraq (2003 & 2004) and one in Afghanistan (2009) as part of the U.S.- UK “coalition of the willing.” The regiment lost five men in all, but the public’s and soldiers’ rage grew as the falsehoods of the “war on terror” became increasingly known.
Granted, there was quite a bit of bawdy humor to balance the intensity, and even a song or two – if one could understand the accents and the unique vocabulary. Judging from comments, it seems that most in the audience understood about 50 to 60 percent of the dialogue. But, such imaginative insults as, “You anorexic dildo!” being yelled into the face of a grunt by his officer were hard to miss. The “puff” (gay) derisions were also ample, but the City’s otherwise militant Gay community seemed to let it slide – deferring, perhaps, to the infamous and apparently-justified sheer Machismo of Scottish society in general (guys who toss telephone poles around for fun are not to be messed with, one supposes).
The very setting of the play, in San Francisco’s 100-year-old former California National Guard Armory in the Mission District added to its impact. Not that a former military venue was deliberately chosen, as early-on the National Theatre of Scotland decided to present their unique piece in a more intimate ‘drill court’-type venue similar to the world-famous ‘Edinburgh Tattoo.’ However, the opening scene of “Black Watch” is a poignant spoof of the glorification of war that is the Tattoo. With a large open rectangular space, flanked by banks of bleachers looking down on both sides, the presentation is certainly more intimate and powerful than having an audience seated together looking up at a distant stage, removed to a ‘safe’ space. Since 2010 the play has toured Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even South Korea, and has been seen in widely diverse physical spaces: a disused hydroelectric lab in Scotland, a converted train factory in Sydney, a Brooklyn warehouse, an ice rink in Toronto, among others.
At the Armory, there was not a bad seat in the house, including the few (cheapest) $35 seats; and one felt, sometimes uncomfortably so, very much ‘in the action.’ The action included multi-media devices, projected still photos, actual video footage from the recent wars, brilliant physical theatre, and the ingenious conversion of a pool table (used in several pub scenes depicting the actual interviews with the men, now in civilian clothes) into an APC (armored personnel carrier) taking them into the sweltering battle fields of the Middle East.
All of this Scots militarism resonates directly in a very person way with this writer’s family (Lindsays and Connollys from Glasgow). British colonialism had a direct impact on pushing our families out of their homelands into the great European-American Diaspora – but more on that later in this article.
Nothing in the billing, or even the printed program of “Black Watch,” would lead one to suspect that this theatrical event would be so deeply political and anti-war. In fact, had it not been for the recommendation of two good friends, a married couple who saw the play when it opened in May (she a militant Irishwoman and he a retired radical union man) I would not have gone. They got an extra copy of the program for me to read ahead of time, but even that did not convince me. The, frankly, watered-down program (4 pages of Black Watch history including the recent Middle East war tours; 1-page of Writer’s Notes; and 2-pages of Director’s Notes) made only one reference to the many deceptions leading up to the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq. “In mid-February 2003,” the program reads, “even as Chair of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Unit, Hans Blix, announced that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, the Desert Rats received orders to begin deployment to Kuwait.” (The Desert Rats, being the one British brigade selected as the nation’s Standby High Readiness Brigade, were deployed first, followed quickly by the Black Watch.)
Much is made in the program, and also in the play, about the pride, honor and global respect incurred by the Watch since it’s inception in 1725 “of native Scottish Highlanders to police the unruly Highland clans.” The truth is that they were used first to suppressed their own people, at the bidding of the conquering English, then later as Shock Troops and Cannon Fodder to up hold the British Empire: in America (against our War of Independence), Ireland, South Africa, India, Kenya, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Russia, France, Spain, Egypt, Burma, to name just a very few. We are talking, after all, of an Empire that dominated one quarter of the world’s land mass and one quarter of its population. But the diluted program does not go there. Instead, the program tells us of the Black Watch’s much-lauded courage which saw them in World War I lose fully 93% of their ranks to casualties – out of 30,000 men, 8,000 died and 20,000 were wounded.
Perhaps this is why my Socialist Scots-American father, Douglas Connolly, took me at age 17 in 1961 on my first trip to Europe, and made sure we walked through The Gorbals – the infamous slum of Glasgow, Scotland that lost more young men per capita in both World Wars than any other comparably-sized area in Europe or the world – even Russia! Fifty-two years ago, the Gorbals was unmitigated squalor, with rotting brick “housing” towers surrounded by wall-to-wall garbage and broken glass. Standing there those many years ago, we watched two police men on either side of a young boy, no older than 14, being led away to who knows where. Another indelible memory on my young mind from the streets of Scotland of 1961 was seeing a man with yellow skin and black veins (from coal dust), and another man whose legs were so bowed from Rickets he could barely walk (Rickets is a childhood softening of the bones caused by severe Vitamin D deficiency). Malnutrition, prostitution, crime, incarceration, violence and unemployment were poverty’s constant companions. Today the Gorbels consists of bleak, soulless public housing blocks, with many occupants on The Dole.
My father’s family was quite low on the socio-economic totem pole (though not from the Gorbals), thus forcing my Glasgow grandfather, William James Connolly, to join the British Army in 1895 at age 19, occupation “labourer,” to be deployed to South Africa then to India to secure the Empire. He actually fought (over the gold & diamonds) against my Dutch-Afrikaner grandfather Cornelis Ogterop in the 1899 to 1900 four-month siege of Ladysmith in Natal, South Africa during the Boer War. The Dutch grandfather, my mother’s father, was later captured and nearly died in a British POW camp in Ceylon – but those are other stories for another time.
The Black Watch regiment served more recently in Kosovo and even South Korea as part of the U.N. “peace-keeping missions,” but was kept out of the Falklands and the first Gulf War – thus their collective initial eagerness to jump into the Iraq/Afghanistan fray. But as the “Downing Street Memo” of then- Prime Minister Tony Blair (calling, a full year before the 2003 invasion, to “fix the intelligence and facts” to fit pre-determined U.S. war policy) came to light, and neither WMDs nor an Iraq connection to Al-Qa’edah were to be found, anger and resentment grew.
Other factors served to demoralize the Watch’s men. In 2004 they were suddenly transferred from relatively peaceful Basra in the south to replace American Marines in the area dubbed the “Triangle of Death” further north. Many British suspected, the program reads, that the sudden change of plans was political and not strategic: the swell of American fatalities was sure to disadvantage George W. Bush in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The Scottish soldiers’ task in late 2004 was to support the U.S. assault on Fallujah in which many hundreds of Iraqi civilians were killed. Morale fell even further when soon after a suicide bombing killed three of them, the Defense Secretary made the ill-timed announcement that Scotland’s six infantry regiments would be merged into a single Royal Scottish Regiment. Many people saw the amalgamation as a symbol of the government’s disregard for both the historical regiments’ distinct cultures and the morale of the already imperiled Black Watch soldiers. Cannon fodder all over again.
In fact, just during the third week of June of this year, British military families have mounted a lawsuit against the government and army on the basis of inadequate or non-existent crucial weaponry, protective gear, and vital equipment for their men in the field. (Our American families have also had to buy and mail protective Kevlar [bullet proof] vests to their children in service.) Such a lawsuit would be not only unthinkable in America, but illegal. In our country, we seem to internalize everything, blame the self – and now have a suicide rate among active duty personnel higher than the battle death rate. Factor in the plight of our veterans and their suicides and trauma, and the picture is indescribably grim. It is clearly healthier to react with anger like the Scots!
The late, legendary American historian, Howard Zinn, who fought in WW II, stated the obvious, “In war there’s always a difference between the motives of the soldiers and the motives of the political leaders who send them into battle.” While defending their right to protect themselves while being mortared and shot at, a soldier in “Black Watch” says in essence if his country were being invaded and occupied, he’d be a sniper and bomb maker too. “It’s their country; of course they’re fighting us!” The play is not cast in black and white, but deeply nuanced and even conflicting – as is reality. “I know what you’re thinking,” a strutting young soldier says to the audience in the opening scene. “You think I became a soldier because I had no other options in life, no other abilities or prospects.” He goes on to debunk this often-held attitude of the past and to defend his initial decision to join. An older officer with an upper-class English accent defends the wars.
Much is also given to the military culture, the long history of the Black watch, called “The Golden Thread,” and the core honor felt by these men of the oldest Highland regiment. They frequently say they fought not “for porn and petrol” but for their mates. However, the military’s exploitation of “Mateism” is yet another element the play explores. In the end, these young men felt betrayed. In a final scene, the English-accented officer anguishes that, “It takes three hundred years to build an army that’s admired and respected around the world, but it only takes two years pissing about in the desert in the biggest Western foreign policy disaster ever to fuck it up completely. But you didn’t hear that from me!”
Virtually the entire production can be seen at: www.YouTube.com/watch
Nadya Williams writes for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, where a different version of this article originally appeared.