As her play, Bully Boy, opens at the all-new St. James Theatre in London, Sandi Toksvig explains how her own sense of rage led her to write about the impact of a contemporary military occupation on the mental health of serving soldiers…
For someone who thinks of themselves as a pacifist I have written a lot about war lately. Perhaps it is not so surprising. We are all subjected to images of conflict every day as one faction or another shoots it out in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan or any number of other distant places which come home to us through the television. At first my interest was mostly academic. I was working on my new novel, Valentine Grey. It concerns a young Victorian woman who, in 1899, decides to escape the confines of the drawing room by disguising herself as a man and going to serve in the second Anglo-Boer War. The war is interesting on many fronts, not least the fact that it was one of the first where the average soldier was literate. As a consequence, there are many contemporary diaries and I found I was able to march with the men as they battled across the veld. The stories were personal as some began to question what they were doing so many miles from home. As I studied the conflict, I realised that the war was not about morals or freedom but about money and influence, and it made me think how little has changed.
The Honourable Artillery Company in London provided many Boer War volunteers and my research there led to my being invited to a regimental dinner. As I sat chatting with soldiers serving today, my thinking turned from whole regiments in battle to individuals. Meanwhile, my partner, a psychotherapist, was dealing with a number of returned veterans in a private mental-health facility. She was enraged by their treatment and came home each day in a state of distress.
I began to read about the effect of war on the individual. In particular, Dave Grossman’s book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which had a huge effect on me. Some of the facts were astonishing. In Vietnam, it took an average of 50,000 rounds of ammunition to kill one enemy soldier. The truth is if the Americans had really wanted to be efficient on the battlefield, they would have been better off with bows and arrows. The US troops, it seems, were reluctant to kill anyone, and when they returned home anywhere between 400,000 and 1.5 million veterans of that war suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I read about every war’s legacy amongst combatants of all nations – divorce, marital problems, tranquiliser use, alcoholism, joblessness, heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers and of course, tragically, suicide.
I was already appalled by the Bush/Cheney strategy of ‘All-them-ragheads-look-alike-to-me’ which conflated 9/11 and Iraq; of the average member of the public’s inability to distinguish between Afghanistan and Iraq, and my rage grew. I thought about the young men I had met who had been sent to do an incomprehensibly difficult job by their nation and who, in many instances, had not been cared for properly when they returned home, broken inside. I wondered where the movies might be which celebrate the returning veteran and yet explain his vulnerable emotional state? I had so many questions. How is it possible that one in ten prisoners in England and Wales once served in the armed forces? What has gone wrong that half of all GPs are unaware of official guidelines on how to diagnose mental-health trauma because of battle scars from the front line?
When Patrick Sandford, artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, said he wanted to commission a play from me it was as if Bully Boy poured out of my head. Part of the problem with an issue as complex and distressing as soldiers’ mental health is getting people to engage with it. I have always believed that the theatre is a wonderful forum for confronting difficult subjects. ‘Theatre’ comes from the Greek word ‘theatron’ meaning ‘place for seeing’. It is a communal place where we come together for an exchange of ideas; where we can explore experiences which may have nothing to do with our daily lives but which touch our humanity.
There is much more to say than can be covered in a single play. In the end, I focused on a tale of just two men, but I am not unaware of the stories that remain untold. The truth is most Iraqi children now suffer from psychological symptoms. According to a study of 10,000 primary-school students in the Shaab section of North Baghdad, seventy per cent of children are suffering from trauma-related issues.
I remain full of rage on behalf of the young men who have been sent to do older men’s political bidding. I am appalled that George Bush and Tony Blair colluded in misinformation to the public. Bush quit drinking – it would have been better if he had quit lying. Meanwhile, Tony Blair ended up fantastically rich and, irony of ironies, a peace envoy.
I am thrilled to have penned this piece for Southampton, and that it has gone on to a new life in Northampton and become the opening production at the new St. James Theatre in London. North, south, I need people to pay attention – not to me but to the men whose voices deserve to be heard.
Bully Boy is currently playing at the brand new St James Theatre as the opening play in their first ever season. Click here to buy your tickets.