“I only hope that my ancestors will forgive me, or that I will be able to forgive myself”
Having spent many years interviewing female veterans, Helen Benedict has parlayed their experiences into a hard-hitting and award-winning range of writing – books, novels and now a play in The Lonely Soldier Monologues. Much of her work has been around uncovering the hidden voice of women who have served, and suffered, in the different branches of the US military – a subject that remains as pertinent today as when Benedict started, as demonstrated by the case of Cpl Anne-Marie Ellement here in the UK.
The Lonely Soldier Monologues focuses on US soldiers though, those who fought in Iraq between 2003 and 2006, and wraps together seven such stories, playing out their experiences in parallel. Split roughly into three sections – before the war, during and then after an interval, coming home – it’s a powerfully affecting piece of work, laying bare not only the innate misogyny of so revered an institution but also the personal tragedies it wrought on the service personnel who enlisted, unaware that they’d be fighting the enemy within as much as the enemy without.
For though the stories of these seven women have their differences – the various reasons for enlisting, the beliefs they possessed, the range of personalities and the upbringings that shaped them – what is more striking is the similarities that emerge. The insidious sexism they faced, the ever-present threat of violence – sexual or otherwise, the appalling lack of camaraderie in a world ostensibly predicated on the bond of brotherhood. Captured verbatim, their testimonies are urgent and uncompromising, a shocking exposé of the damage caused by life on the frontline and just who is inflicting it.
It’s almost too much. Prav MJ’s production is presented simply but powerfully by the cast of eight but suffers a little from a lack of variation of tone, especially in the middle section. It is more than redeemed by the final third though, with the women bravely revealing their scars, both physical and psychological, as they return to a world thoroughly ill-equipped to deal with female veterans. And the impact here of the voiceless soldier– an achingly symbolic figure – provides a stunning bolt of emotional clarity in an already fiercely-felt piece of documentary theatre.