Countries go to war for all sorts of reasons. Naturally, these are generally of the political kind. There may be some leader or other who feels there is something to be gained – by them – by deflecting the public’s attention away from some pressing domestic issue which the said politician is laboring to settle or, more likely, to sweep under the rug. And there are violent altercations that ensue from actual existential perils, such as Hitler’s invasion of Poland which sparked World War II.
But where does one place the Falklands War of 1982? Not to tread on anyone’s toes, one should note that Argentina refers to the British protectorate as Islas Malvinas but, for convenience sake, I will stick to the British name, simply because it rolls off the tongue more smoothly. The archipelago consists of almost 800 islands, of which only two are inhabited. To place the British Overseas Territory in geographic context, the Falklands is located around 300 kilometers east of the Argentinian coastline and 13,000 km. from the UK.
At the time, British foreign minister Lord Carrington criticized Israel for invading Lebanon in what was then called Operation Peace for Galilee. In a cutting riposte, prime minister Menachem Begin scoffed at Carrington saying that while the IDF entered a neighboring country in order to remove a threat to Israel’s security, the British sent warships halfway around the world to protect a bunch of sheep farmers. Unbeknown to Begin, Carrington had already resigned, so that particular snippet of political wit fell a little flat.
Be political bitching as it may, the altercation down in the southern Atlantic Ocean was anything but humorous. David Jackson and Marcelo Vallejo are patently and personally aware of that, as is portrayed in stark dialogue, monologue, musical, and humorous terms in Minefield, a documentary play written and directed by Argentinian actress, writer, and film and theater director Lola Arias. The work is on the current Israel Festival roster, with performances set for the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio auditorium on August 9, 10, and 11 (9 p.m., 8 p.m., and 11 a.m., respectively).
A work on the Falklands War and the horrors and lighter side of conflict
Four decades on, after they were sent to the Falklands to attack or defend, Jackson and Vallejo are joined by four more vets – all told three from each side – to dip into their memories of the yesteryear violence and to explore what hostile and damaging residue, if any, remains.
THE WORK began onstage life seven years ago in London. In the interim, it has done the rounds of many of the world’s theaters, drawing tumultuous applause and, no doubt, a tear or two in the process.
Over the past decade, the 47-year-old Arias has made a habit of producing works that fuse fact and fiction, based on documentary and drama formats, that involve people from different backgrounds. Sometimes, as with Minefield, that includes former foes who get a rare opportunity to express their feelings about the trials they were put through, and how their lives have subsequently panned out.
The cannon fodder of 1982 are now bona fide theatrical performers, even though the majority have no formal training as thespians. Arias exploits numerous presentational means, such as heartfelt monologues, dark and other humor, video, and music. The vets, once pawns in a bigger political game, now have their opportunity to tell their own tale, free of military discipline and political constraints.
The now 65-year-old Jackson was a Royal Marine commando, serving in the signals branch as a corporal. Vallejo was responsible for a mortar unit stationed at Mount Williams on East Falkland Island, the largest in the archipelago. Vallejo recalled the challenging weather conditions on the island when he and his comrades in arms landed, and they got stuck into putting up tents and establishing a physical presence.
I asked Jackson about his overriding feeling about the war. Rather than wax philosophical about the waste of human life or express revulsion at the senseless bloodshed, he talked about his pride “of what we achieved,” adding, “I’m proud of my service in the Royal Marines.”
The British vet, now a trained psychologist after over 20 years of military service, quickly moved on to one of the core themes of Minefield. “For me now, what is important is more about how societies support veterans and their families after the guns have stopped,” he stressed. His postbellum life has been dedicated to that cause. “That was my main motivation to become an academic. I entered academia late in my life. I was in my 50s when I started my doctorate, and I work on projects that give a voice to veterans and their families.” Naturally, that made him a perfect fit for the Arias venture.
Jackson is also getting in on the artistic portrayal business himself. “I am an expert in creative representations of veterans and families’ narratives. I have just finished my first short film as creative director [called] What is a veteran? Beyond the cliché.” He has also penned a text which delves into the machinations and dynamics of Minefield, which he terms “the use of creative methods to tell our stories.”
Vallejo talked of mixed emotions and thoughts during and after the fighting was over. “On the one hand, I feel proud at being a member of the group of people who fought for a just cause. On the other hand, there was fear and discomfort, and a lot of tension that the war imprints on your body a long time after the dispute ended. Stress, confusion, and even guilt – all these emotions intertwine.”
Vallejo, a sporty 60-year-old Argentinian, who looks like a cross between an Olympic sprinter and a professional cyclist, clearly still bears the scars of his experiences at such a young and impressionable age. He said he remembers being “cold, hungry, and frightened – frightened of shooting at the other side and of being killed.” Others were not so “lucky.” “The worst feeling was seeing my comrades being killed.”
Jackson has since acquired tools that enable him to process some of the emotional fallout of the war, although he cited “pretty scary incidents.”
“I think it’s important that you try and accept those memories however bad they may be. An acceptance in some way then enables you to move forward in your life. Whether that’s true through having effective therapy or finding something that supports you in some therapeutic way after the war. I’d like to think that working as a psychologist with veterans, being in Minefield, and my academic work help me in some way in accepting the past.”
HOWEVER, IT wasn’t an undiluted passage of doom and gloom. There were some lighter, or more human, moments betwixt the violence and the struggle for physical and psychological survival.
“It is tough to find some funny things that occurred during the war,” said Vallejo. “But there were definitely feelings of friendship and helping each other.” In fact, there was a brilliant ray of sunshine – in literal and personal terms – betwixt the soul-sapping stuff.
“After a whole week of nonstop rain, the sun finally came out. That was wonderful,” Vallejo recalled. He and his mates decided to squeeze every bit of fun and relief out of the unexpected meteorological turn for the better. “One of us played for the famous Boca Juniors soccer team. We managed to make a football out of scraps of paper, cloth, and socks. In the middle of this tragedy of the war we played a game there, in the sunshine. It only lasted 15 minutes but it is a beautiful memory.”
Jackson said he experienced various funny incidents during his active service in the Falklands War and in Northern Ireland. True to his optimistic outlook on life, he noted: “You actually tend to remember the funny stories.”
The funny bone tickler he recalled was the result of a combination of survival instincts, a chronic lack of room, and even more disturbing, a loss of control of one of his mates’ digestive system. “I remember when we were being bombed by jets in bomb alley. I was laying some telephone wire. Air raid warning red was signaled, so I jumped into the first available trench to find that in a trench built for two, there were four other people. We were all squeezed in this very small space, and my head was facing someone’s backside.
“All of a sudden, my colleague farted, and I clearly was not impressed. The whole trench was filled with hysterical laughter.” Perhaps the British Army upper echelons should consider a change of diet for their gallant fighting men and women.
Jackson said he believes that dropping a witty line or two is a valuable asset in Minefield and helps convey the real-life storyline in a palatable way. “Of course, humor is appropriate because every word that is spoken while we’re on the stage is part of our lives. Humor is part of our lives.” Then again, Jackson noted, you don’t know how something will go over until you’re right there doing the business, by which time, of course, if it didn’t work it would be too late. Luckily, the comedic slots of Arias’s text seem to hit home in the best possible way. “The trouble with humor in the play is that we only knew that some of the lines were funny in front of an audience. However, with 180 shows [behind us], we now know that the humor we have in the play has no international boundaries.”
For his part, Vallejo said he was surprised when parts of the script elicited laughs from the audience. “We were surprised when we were on stage in various places around the world, and people in the audience burst out laughing. That was very unexpected. We’d thought of making fun of those things.”
It was also something of a healing process for the war veterans. “It made us view our experiences in a different light, even though there is nothing fun in a booby-trapped area.”
IT MAY have been over 30 years since the war ended, but Vallejo remembered well the reluctance he felt when it came to working with his British counterparts in the rehearsal room who, for all he knew, may have taken a potshot or two at him or may have killed some of his friends.
“To begin with, it was very difficult to turn up for rehearsals with our former enemies. I even went there wearing a shirt with Malvinas on it, and sometimes I wore my army uniform.” If Arias thought this was going to be just a matter of cherry-picking vets from either side decades down the road and have them act their war experiences out for paying audiences, she had another thing coming.
Gradually, Vallejo understood it was time for a change of tack if the theatrical exercise was going to work out. “I realized I wouldn’t like to see the British do the same, wear their uniform, so I stopped. Our encounters were always conducted with mutual respect, and we left our pride and [political] beliefs to one side. That allowed us to have a fruitful process and learn from each other.”
Jackson took a more philosophical approach to the issue and looked at the bigger picture. “I think this is based on some idea of what enmity is. Meeting the enemy is bound up in the history of warfare. However, it is an individual choice, and I think it is also framed within more complex and wider issues around the reasons politicians send young men to war. [Argentinian cast members] Marcelo, Gabriel and Ruben were just like me. They had families, they had bills to pay, they had common interests like me.
“On reflection, I see the war as young men thrown together by the political circumstances in both countries at that moment in time.”
Vallejo said he believes there are important lessons to be learned from Minefield and hopes he and his colleagues manage to get the messages across. “War is completely impractical. It doesn’t achieve anything. It damages the soldiers and their families. The banality and pointlessness of war is something we should learn from in the show.”
Jackson said he preferred to focus more on those who do their leaders’ bidding and what should be done to address the emotional wounds they bear. “Young men and women will [always] be sent to war. The onus is on the politicians who send them to look after them once the fighting has stopped.”
Despite having taken Minefield on the road so successfully for so long, presumably bringing the production to the war-torn Middle East is a very different prospect. Vallejo certainly thinks so. “I always feel a great sense of responsibility when I come to perform, particularly in Israel where almost every young person learns how to use arms,” he said, adding that he would like Minefield to have some positive impact in that department. “If I manage to spark some thought about the futility of carrying weapons, in young people in the army, I will have achieved my objective.”
Meanwhile, the British psychologist pointed out that the Middle East is not the only part of the world that has been blighted by wars. He said he does not feel that the ongoing conflict here makes Israel special in terms of how to present the play and what its impact may be. “I feel exactly the same as taking the play to Germany, Japan, Chile, Poland, Spain, and other countries which all have had a history that is defined by war and violence. I am honored to be once again invited to tell my [our] stories and give the opportunity for other people to witness these stories.”
Jackson said he doesn’t believe in a quick fix, especially not by artistic means. “A few years ago, I read Robert Fisk’s book The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. I learned many things, and at times it was a tough read. However, for me the ‘Middle East’ is historically complex. The play is certainly not going to deconstruct this.”
Still, he does nurture the possibility that Minefield may leave some of us with food for thought. He said the show is not about offering just a good time for one and all. “The audience enter the theater space with assumptions, preconceived ideas, and perhaps some knowledge of war and post-war experiences. They are not passive members of a larger audience who have paid to have a night out in the theater.”
Minefield audiences, Jackson observed, tend to be committed. “They are witnesses to our stories, and with that comes a moral and ethical responsibility to engage with those stories. A good show for us is when we ‘feel’ we are taking the audience by the hand and showing them our lives. This is important. We are not telling, we are showing. Hopefully, when they leave the theater, the play will challenge any assumptions and preconceived ideas.
“At best, the play will resonate with them in some way and connect with their lives. If one person changes the knowledge he had when he entered the theater, then I have done my job. For me, the play is about the art of storytelling, which is bound up in the long history of what it means to be a human being.”
For tickets and more information: www.israel-festival.org/en/