Blood and Gifts and Blood and Blood in the History of the U.S. in AfghanistanCulture Watch
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
There is a scene in J.T. Rogers riveting new play, Blood and Gifts, about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, when a very calm CIA operative helps Afghan soldiers unload a series of large wooden crates full of weapons. The crates cover most of the stage and, at their size, represent an enormous amount of firepower. No scene in the play better explains the sordid American interest in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when we helped the local army battle the invading Soviets.
This fall the Afghan war, at ten years in length, became the longest war in American history, and more than twice as long as World War II. It has cost the lives of several thousand soldiers (400 dead a year since 2008 alone) and an estimated $6.7 billion a month, plus an erosion of international prestige and heavy criticism at home.
The play that opened last week asks why we are in Afghanistan in a dozen different ways, with no answer. The only answer in the play is that we jumped in with money, arms and supplies when the Soviets invaded in order to win the Cold War. Nothing else mattered. We came back fighting against the Afghans (Taliban) right after the 9/11 tragedy in 2001 here in order to, well, to crush the enemy, whoever he was.
The war has been argued, and continues to be argued, by millions of Americans, as has the Iraqi conflict which is now drawing to a slow close. Here, in Rogers’s Blood and Gifts, directed with passion by Bartlett Sher, we go to the very heart of it back in the 80s, when the Afghans were the good guys, our beloved allies.
The drama is the story of James Warnock, played in a rough, tough manner by Jeremy Davidson. He was a station chief in Tehran in 1979 when it fell to radicals and was then reassigned to Afghanistan, a grim country of deserts, desolate mountains and a long history of bloody warfare. There, he acts as a middle man between the CIA back home and the local warlords. T hey beg for guns to use against the Soviets and he gives them all the weapons they need, more and more as the years go by, all in secret, as they show that they are winning the war. He does not listen to complaints about the Afghans from his friend, the British ambassador, and others. Winning is everything.
Warnock thinks he is helping freedom fighters just because they are fighting the American enemy, the Soviets. He thinks his allies, who love him for his ability to get them what they need, like him. Warnock does not realize that his Afghan friends repeatedly lie to him to advance their cause. He is used by them from the first day he arrives for weapons talks at the airport in Islamabad.
Blood and Gifts is the story of a war against the Soviets thirty years ago that goes right as the fighting among the warlords in Afghanistan goes very wrong. At one point an American screams at an Afghan leader that he and his local rival are killing more Afghans than Soviets. At another point, the Afghans badger Warnock for more money and insist that the CIA can get anything it wants. He shouts back at his tormentors, “don’t pay attention to the movies.”
The play takes place in Afghanistan and in Washington, D.C., where the Afghans go to beg money from a congressional committee and the U.S. Heritage Foundation. They sweet talk the CIA, cajole a senator, and get what they want. Warnock and the CIA are proud of them. They are doing America’s work against the Soviets for them. It is all behind the scenes, very hush hush, all of it sounding like a bad spy novel, but it is working.
The play examines the personal lives of Warnock and the allied leaders at home and abroad, explores the history of the Soviet invasion, Afghan defenses and the skullduggery by the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, whose leaders seem to have their fingers in everything. At times Warnock is powerful and at times powerless. At time he is admired and at times hated. His personal life suffers when he is not home when his wife suffers a miscarriage. Later, he is so devoted to helping Afghanistan that he leaves his wife at home for several years to return as the CIA station chief in Pakistan.
The script by the talented Rogers is a good one. He does not preach or pontificate. It is a straight drama and with lots of little subplots. The acting is superb. Warnock does a fine job as the increasingly confused operative, even though he doesn’t get as angry as he should. Dmitri Gromov is wonderful as the friendly and yet treacherous Soviet secret service agent in Pakistan, always exasperated about something, who befriends Warnock. Bernard White is tough, gentle and conniving as Abdullah Khan, the chief warlord in the drama, and Pej Vahdat is an at times smooth and at times vicious assistant to Khan. John Procaccino is splendid as the smarmy CIA chief who is so tied up in toppling governments that he never gets married and, he admits, has absolutely no understanding of women. Gabriel Ruiz is stunning as the bold, brassy ISI intelligence chief, a master puppeteer who always seems to get what he wants.
The history in the play about the Soviet invasion and secret U.S. involvement is pretty accurate. To help playgoers follow the history and politics, the theater inserted a two-page history of the Soviet invasion, Afghan resistance and the story of the region from 1980 to 1991. The history in the program sets up the story that unfolds on stage nicely. The play also explains the history of the country back to the middle of the nineteenth century, when the British arrived and promptly screwed things up. They yearned to be players in "The Great Game," as writer Rudyard Kipling referred to Afghanistan. Everybody wanted to control it because, thanks to its position on the map, it was the stepping stone to both the Middle East and China. Today, of course it is not, yet everybody seems to want it even more.
PRODUCTION; Produced by Lincoln Center. Sets: Michael Yeargan, Costumes: Catherine Zuber, Lighting: Donald Holder, Sound: Peter John Still. The play is directed by Bartlett Sher.
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