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Soldiers' war

June 24, 2011

Unbearable conditions and a constant fear of attack are part of everyday life for deployed soldiers. A new German theater production tells their real stories and reminds the country that it is involved in war.

An actor, his back facing the audience
The play is based on true storiesImage: Deutsches Theater Göttingen

A soldier stands in the shadows as he begins to talk quietly about how he experienced 20 to 25 attacks day and night, about how they were counted and every second soldier had to leave the security of the camp to fill up sand bags. He talks about how scud rockets hit an area close to them while they were shoveling sand, so they tossed away their spades, put on their protective suits, and just waited until the shelling was over.

The man is not a real soldier, but an actor in the play "Soldiers," which premieres Friday at the German Theater Göttingen. For a long time, no one had thought Germany would deploy soldiers ever again. But for about 10 years, German soldiers have been doing what was considered a taboo after the dark Third Reich period: They are participating in war. Or, as some German politicians like to phrase it, they experience "war-like conditions."

Behind the scenes

There used to be hefty protests against proposed foreign deployment, but many seem to have grown accustomed to this idea by now. Hardly anyone gets upset anymore when German soldiers are sent to Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa.

Soldiers step into the spotlight every once in a while when media reports show devastating attacks or when reports point out the Bundeswehr's lacking equipment. But what are the stories behind the uniforms? That's what the theater-makers from Göttingen wanted to find out.

"Our basic concept was that we wanted to search for a modern portrait of a soldier," said director Julia Roesler, who conducted extensive research in preparation for the "Soldiers" production. She talked to more than 20 men who had been deployed or were still abroad, in order to paint an accurate picture of the soldiers' world.

Roesler says she wants to take the audience to the same places the soldiers go, so that they have an opportunity to deal with the fact that the German military, the Bundeswehr, is indeed participating in war. She also wants to show how this affects the soldiers on a personal level.

Three actors playing soldiers sit amidst empty bullet casings
The bullet casings make for a powerful stage designImage: Deutsches Theater Göttingen

Audience in the war zone

Five actors deliver monologues or discuss matters with each other as if they were sitting in any military camp somewhere in an area of conflict. They question the purpose of the operation, and talk about their feelings and about how they perceive their decision to join the military now, amidst a war. Most of them were never really counting on going to war. They simply thought of the Bundeswehr as a safe employer.

The actors tell stories from their real life soldier counterparts. It's the unvarnished truth, raw and uncensored, with a tone of voice that can be expected from a battle field. The audience gets a feel for how it must be to fulfill a mission in the Kuwait desert, where it's 40 degrees Celsius in the shade.

Martin Schnippa is one of the actors who vividly portrays the feelings of a soldier in Iraq who has to wear a protective suit and gas mask in case of chemical or biological weapons.

"Once you've walked with these damn protective suits when it's 40 or 50 degrees Celsius, you have to take a shower, and sometimes we come under attack even then. What are you supposed to do? Well, nothing, you continue to take your shower. In moments like these you already said goodbye to life. There were a lot of moments like that," he said.

Coming home

German soldiers carry a coffin
Those who survive the war often come back with serious emotional traumaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Bundeswehr/Steffen Kascheik

Physically tired, emotionally broken, haunted by flashbacks for years - that's how many German soldiers come back to civilian life once their mission is over. Director Julia Roesler says the play is not only relevant because of the current conflict in Libya. It is also intended to show where German soldiers have fought and are still fighting - and why.

The actors speak their lines in an old salt plant, from a stage littered with tens of thousands of empty bullet casings. Any additional props would seem superfluous.

The atmosphere is quiet and pensive. Director Julia Roesler can at least answer one of the many questions that have been posed by the play: Who is responsible for the returning soldiers? She says that since the democratically-elected German government has deployed the soldiers, it's also the responsibility of society to take care of them when they come back sick.

Author: Jürgen Jenauer (sst)

Editor: Kate Bowen