You probably don’t spend much time, on a day-to-day basis, thinking about war. I don’t. The country has been embroiled in violent overseas conflict since my last year of high school, leaving 5,787 men and women of my generation dead and tens of thousands more wounded, but most days I worry more about how all the damn ants are getting into my living room than I do Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t think I am much different from most Americans, in that respect. We have placed our wars, and our soldiers, in the same mental box as the national debt and the eventual possibility of colon cancer.
The soldiers we have dispatched to the forgotten wars don’t have that luxury. In the Telling Project, a performance piece organized by Austin, Tex. writer Jonathan Wei, veterans are interviewed about their experiences at war, receive acting coaching and then perform their own stories. The Telling Project has mounted shows in Eugene, Portland, Seattle, Sacramento and Washington, DC (Baltimore and Starkville, Miss. productions are underway), and Portland Center Stage has invited participants from the Oregon productions—two Marines (Jeremy and Joshua Coombs), a sailor (Shirley Cortez) and a National Guardsman (Jeremiah Washburn)—to share their stories again on the set of An Iliad in Oregon Stories of War. They perform with confidence and vigor, even though dredging their memories for us is obviously not easy. The show is very entertaining when it isn’t distressing, but its thrust boils down to this: We can’t know what it’s like to have walked in their shoes, and we should stop pretending, through bumper stickers and patronizing speeches, that we do.
I will not attempt to reproduce any of their stories here, save to say that they touch on fear and death and guilt and will probably upset you. They are neither the most heroic nor the most tragic tales you’ve heard—the performers all have the same number of limbs they shipped out with—and they are all the more moving for being relatively unexceptional.
Everyone who’s gone to war has seen more tragedy and heroism than most civilians ever experience. When soldiers choose to share their stories, the least we can do is to listen. And please—and I have never written this before—stay for the talkback.
SEE IT: Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7 pm Mondays through Nov. 15. Free.