There is no question that AWOL: A Soldier’s Journey tells only one side of a complex story, but this is the key: The voices that speak in this play are the voices that are usually kept silent. They understand that they will be judged and labeled, but still they ask that we listen.
AWOL tells the tale of three American military members who sought refuge status in Canada while the war in Iraq raged on. Each shares the story of how he or she was inspired to join the military. Each speaks of a crisis of conscience that grew as wartime experience shattered the simple black and white worldview of adolescence.
The crisis, for each of them, arrived in the moment when they truly began to see “those people” as people. Human beings with children and families, caught up in the middle of something they did not understand, asking why over and over again.
A formerly gung-ho medic, played by Paul Whitty, paints a horrific picture of seeing children bleeding on the floor, a mother cuffed and screaming “My babies! My babies!” in Arabic as soldiers rip holes in the walls searching for caches of weapons.
If there are no weapons in the house, none at all, no matter how exhaustive your search, then why is this child dying?
Orders are orders, agreed, and it is your duty to follow orders, agreed, but at what point does overwhelming evidence you can see with your own eyes, hear with your own ears, begin to tip the balance?
At some point, each character relates in his or her own way, the programming began to skip and sputter out and the questions began. Does living in the same country as a known terrorist automatically make you a terrorist also? Is every piece of intelligence that leads to a door being blown off its hinges accurate? How do you, as the “boots on the ground,” deal with the tears and the screams and the blood that you see day after day?
“What is an insurgent?” One character asks. Maybe, he reflects, it is someone who is pissed off because you stormed into his house and maimed or killed his family members.
Katie Huard is subtly brilliant in the role of a young mother who is the given the job of gunner when she, out of economic necessity, signs up to fight. A gunner, she explains in a slow, detached voice, has a life expectancy of around 15 seconds in a firefight. But it is a traumatized toddler, crying in an eerily soundless, shaking manner, that finally unnerves her.
A third perspective is offered by the character of a young man, played by David Mandel, who wanted to one day become a music teacher but ended up in the National Guard instead. He thought he would be dropping sand bags in front of flooded rivers, helping American cities recover from disasters. Life had other plans.
The stories told in AWOL are based on interviews by playwright Joanna Crowell of real life U.S. Iraq War resisters seeking refugee status in Canada. The men and women who made the decision to walk away from their homes — to risk punishment and scorn by crossing a border instead of returning to base — do have a story to tell.
As a creative work, it is powerful and controversial, with performances that are all the more emotionally evocative because of the calm detachment of the voices.