Iraq Vet, Former Journo, Writes Play Raising Questions About Torture

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There?s hardly an issue in the Iraq War that doesn?t come up in ?Rendition,? a play written by Ryan Kelly, a former Black Hawk pilot in Iraq. And there are just as many voices.

Torture is Kelly?s overriding theme, and it is taken to an extreme with an ending not unlike Shakespeare?s ?Titus Andronicus.? Kelly, a former Army captain who served as a company commander in Iraq, admits he doesn?t know what he would do if he had to choose between torturing a captive or losing a loved one.

Its title aside, ?Rendition? isn?t about snatching suspect terrorists and taking them to a country where the rules on torture don?t exist. It?s about the actions of protagonist Sgt. Steven Craig, whose girlfriend and fellow soldier, Oriane, is captured by Iraqi insurgents while on patrol.

Craig, Pvt. Lemonjello Johnson and Spc. Ron Bullbill subsequently capture an Iraqi they call Ali.

Ali, who identifies himself as Fahd Al Salam, tells his captors he was educated at Princeton. When they see he?s wearing Oriane?s bloodied Mickey Mouse watch, they torture him to find out what happened to her.

Kelly, 38, a former journalist and national winner at the 2000 Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival, spent 13 months in Iraq, coming home in November 2005. He said he wrote the play after becoming angry when he learned that the U.S. was kidnapping suspects in one country and moving them to another, where torture was permitted.

He said he wanted to explore what someone would do ? what he would do ? if a loved one was in danger.

?I am personally conflicted. I want to win the war, but I don?t know how,? Kelly said. ?I?m sure it would be ugly.?

His play was read recently to an audience of 200 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, drawing loud applause. One elderly man stood up, stated that he thought the war was justified, and quickly left.

The Denver Center?s Tony Award-winning resident company has a history of premiering new works, some controversial, and ?Rendition? has been submitted for its consideration.

Kelly?s letters from Iraq to his mother have been published in New Yorker magazine and Operation Homecoming. His writing also is included in a new documentary, ?Muse of Fire,? with Ray Bradbury and Kevin Costner.

The Denver reading nearly coincided with the release of a military survey that found that 44 percent of U.S. Marines and 41 percent of soldiers said torture should be allowed to save the life of a soldier or Marine.

?Rendition? recognizes that U.S. soldiers have been trained to follow the rules.

As Craig and Bullbill torture the Iraqi, Johnson asks: ?What about the Geneva conventions??

Bullbill replies: ?Does this look like [expletive] Geneva to you? Do you see any green trees and schnitzel ?cause I only see camel spiders and sand! President says it?s OK. And so it is. So pull the sand out of your [expletive] and cowboy up.?

Even with a minimum of stage movement, the dialogue, at first humorous as the soldiers debate whether one of them stinks because he doesn?t shower, becomes spellbinding as they try to come to grips with rules of war first developed when princes did battle and could count on sitting down for a meal afterward.

The soldiers? profanity-laced dialogue has the ring of authenticity as they argue about whether it was necessary to fire on a group of Iraqis during an earlier mission.

?You blew those [expletive] away ? no warning shots ? nothing. Just opened up on them,? Craig tells Bullbill.

?That?s right! I did! And I?d do it again. [expletive] warning shots!? Bullbill replies.

Fahd and Bullbill dispute which side is the most savage.

?We are not the ones dropping bombs on the innocent in your cities,? Fahd says.

?No, just towers,? says Bullbill.

?You are a nation of fear. Fear. You promote it. You believe it. You eat it,? Fahd says. ?When they cut off her head I will send it to you.?

It?s irony in bold face. Ultimately, two of the soldiers die in a shootout caused by an argument over whether to admit the killing of their Iraqi captive to their commanders.

The third is killed by insurgents, who videotape the butchered remains. Oriane is released and is heard calling over the radio to her sergeant lover.

?Writers fall in love with their characters. I loved them all, but they had to die,? Kelly said of his characters, conglomerates of people he knew in Iraq and at home.

John Pike, an analyst with Globalsecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va.-based think tank, says the Army has made the rules on torture clear ? but they still present a dilemma for soldiers trying to protect their buddies. He says international law permits reprisals that are proportionate and not indiscriminate, but the U.S. government has not sought to advance this argument.

?The government says we do not torture,? Pike said.

There have been a number of high-profile incidents of alleged abuse in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the killings of 24 civilians by Marines, the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl and the slaying of her family and the sexual humiliation of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. On Tuesday, the U.S. military apologized and paid compensation to the families of 19 people killed and 50 wounded by Marines Special Forces who fired on civilians after a suicide attack in eastern Afghanistan in March.

Pike says that given the constant stress soldiers in Iraq face, with no rotation to safe areas as in previous conflicts, the number of major incidents is surprisingly low.

?Just because we are combating barbarians doesn?t mean we have to become barbarians,? Pike said.

Kelly hopes to see his play produced soon. ?It?s the question of the day. If we are going to go to war I want it as the lead item on television and I want questions answered,? he said.

The play?s director, Anthony Powell, says the violence will be brutally realistic when it is produced on the stage.

?It needs to be down and dirty,? Powell said.

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