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Even if you are a Democrat and Bernie socialist like me, and adding to that mix a maniacal anti-Trumpster, you will be jarred into a fit of patriotism by this US-bashing polemic that cherry-picks anything and everything brutally wrong with Americans.
I came to 'The Time of our Lies' by Bianca Bagatourian hoping for a moving and nostalgic narrative about the life of anti-war activist Howard Zinn. The son of poor Jewish immigrants to the 'goldene medina' – a United States to which millions of the 'wretched refuse of your teeming shore' of the Emma Lazarus poem escaped from vicious European pogroms – he was traumatized for life by his role in the carpet-bombing Royan in France during World War 2, when napalm was used for the first time against civilians and enemy combatants. Surely in Zinn's life there was a kinship there for me : my grandparents came from Eastern Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and my American-born relatives served in two World Wars, later becoming activists on the Left. Zinn led a long and productive life, his best-selling book, A People's History of the United States becoming a popular textbook in American schools. Sadly the play fell short of illuminating his rich life story.
The production, directed by Che Walker with Martina Laird standing in for Daniel Benzali as Howard Zinn, was a tableau of vignettes performed by a mixed ensemble portraying American soldiers, refugees, war survivors and African American prisoners of conscience. Yes, we all know that Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in a staggering number of deaths and that millions of civilians suffered under bombardment in World War2, Vietnam and in more recent American and British military entanglements. And yes, former United States Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wept as he said to Errol Morris in The Fog of War that he would have been convicted as a war criminal for his collaboration in the firestorms masterminded by Gen Curtis LleMay had Japan triumphed.
What jarred in this production was the relentless and somewhat dated sequence of anguished proclamations by the ensemble: a parody of Winston Churchill and American soldiers chanting 'Kill, kill, kill' and 'Water the grass with blood.' I believe any American veterans would have walked out at the depiction of bloodthirsty GIs and WACs chanting 'Kill without mercy' and singing 'This is the army' interspersed with an announcement that Gen Marshall had sent sixteen million letters thanking them for their service – this was portrayed as an act of hypocrisy. In my long life I have never heckled a play but was on the verge of shouting 'What was WRONG with Gen Marshall sending out letters to veterans?'
The many pronouncements made by ensemble members included the suggestion that Americans go into paroxysms of joy at the prospect of dropping bombs. I have a huge family in the United States and I cannot think of any of them remotely wishing for a new bombing campaign. This brought to mind a December Peace in the Middle East conference I attended in London during the Bush years when one of the facilitators said 'Right now Americans are waiting to hear what country they are going to attack next.' I interjected with 'Sorry, mate, right now Americans are sitting at the Christmas dinner table wondering who will be playing in the Super Bowl.'
As far as structure is concerned the play, sixty-five minutes without interval, featured flashing red lights and shrieking noises interspersed with monologues in various languages and statements by anti-Vietnam war soldiers about being rounded up by federal marshals as deserters and being unable to go home as jail would ensue. Inbetween the light and sound episodes were vignettes about the brutality meted out to African-American activists in southern jails and a MAGA MAGA MAGA-chanting parody of Donald Trump.
What I like to point out to those who see the United States as one giant nation of warmongers and murderers is that for the duration of the protracted anti-Vietnam war campaign only four Americans died! The tragic killing of four students at Kent State University in May, 1970 by national guardsmen during a mass rally against the bombing of Cambodia was the only incidence of fatalities despite nationwide protests – nearly an insurgency that resembled the beginnings of revolution – over a period of four years. In other countries the carnage, mass-jailings and disappearances would have been manifold. The play suggests the United States in armed conflict, including its alliance with Great Britain against Nazi tyranny in World War 2, was and is characterised by Zinn in this line: 'War is terrorism magnified 100%.'
This brings me to my opening salvo: yes, Howard Zinn is right to point out that 'national security' ought to mean health care and jobs and that 'Support the Troops' should connote 'Keep them alive' but the production is a conglomeration of stereotypical American bogeyman imagery. Zinn may have lost his job at Spelman College for supporting student protestors but was he tortured to death? No. Jailed for life? No. He found another post at Boston University where he taught until his retirement in 1988. That is as wonderful as the America that flipped the House in 2018 and that could likely flip the Senate in 2020. The America that was a sanctuary for my grandparents and that is the reason why I was born is not entirely a nation of rogues and murderous soldiers. Churchill and Roosevelt, and the thousands of British, Polish, American and other allied forces who gave their lives or came back maimed to defeat Hitler and the Japanese fascists made it possible for my parents to live out their lives – not to be tortured to death in Eichmann's planned extermination of world Jewry.
The Time of our Lies is a noble effort to celebrate Howard Zinn's motto: 'You can't be neutral on a moving train' and the title reflects his view that 'History is an antidote for lies' but it fails miserably to uphold his other admonition: 'If you don't know history, it's as if you were born yesterday.'
Carol Gould is the author of Don't Tread on me – anti-Americanism Abroad and Spitfire Girls. She is a BBC commentator and was a drama executive with ITV for many years.
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