How Many Miles To Basra? focuses on a unit of four British soldiers in occupied Iraq during the immediate aftermath of the war. This play portrays the moral dilemma facing British soldiers sent to fight in Iraq – how to reconcile doing “your job” with doing “the right thing” when the two are irreconcilable.
Playwright Colin Teevan has said that back in March 2003 he trusted Tony Blair on the question of weapons of mass destruction. However, by the time this play was written and first broadcast on Radio 3 in 2004, it had inevitably became about more than simply the experience of those at the sharp end of the conflict.
Issues of truth and justice are explored through telling the story of Ursula, an ambitious journalist. She is a BBC war reporter who becomes “embedded” with the unit at a time when Iraq is already being considered “old news” by her bosses after the supposed liberation of the country.
On her return to Britain, her boss dismisses her story as unreliable and irrelevant.
The play effectively brings the bloody everyday reality of the business of empire home to its audience. After a criminal blunder sees the unit kill three innocent Iraqis, Ursula hires an Iraqi driver to follow them as they try not only to cover up the murder but also make amends by going off on a secret mission of their own.
Indeed, the play’s graphic and harrowing depiction of those sent to do the actual fighting raises questions not only about the present – in Afghanistan as well as Iraq – but also the past.
The unit’s sergeant is ridden with guilt from his time spent stationed in Ireland. One of the most powerful aspects of the play is the way in which the soldiers casual racist demonisation of Arabs – inevitable in any Western “civilising mission” – is effectively undermined as the real history of imperialism in the Middle East and Iraq is brought in.
The voices of ordinary Iraqis are not absent either – the British troops are told by one that “to remove this monster Saddam, who you made to keep us in our place, you have bombed us, impoverished us, stood by and let our children die of the most preventable illnesses, starved us physically and intellectually, and then bombed us some more you reduce a country to rags, and then you call us ragheads”.
Overall, outstanding acting ensures this well-researched and well-written play succeeds in vividly portraying those soldiers sent to kill in our name, and apparently for our safety.
While not without humour, the subject matter means this is never comfortable viewing. It is necessary viewing, nonetheless, for every anti-war activist who has the opportunity to see it.
How Many Miles To Basra? by Colin Teevan is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds until 21 October. Go to www.wyplayhouse.com
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