‘Betrayed’ reawakens Iraq nightmares

Since the American-led invasion in March 2003, many Iraqis have risked their lives by working for the coalition. And yet despite their critical work, coalition authorities have often failed to treat them as equal government employees or protect them from extremists, who consider them traitors. Betrayed, which played to audiences at the ’62 Center last weekend, is the story of three Iraqi translators, “non-belongers” as they call themselves, who must endure being shunned by their Iraqi neighbors and American employers.

In terms of cultural and linguistic fluency within the local population, the American-led coalition was perhaps the least-prepared force in recent memory. In an ideal world then, Laith (Sevan Greene) and Adnan (Ramiz Monsef) – the two main characters in Betrayed – would have been greeted with open arms by the grateful coalition. Their Iraqi neighbors, moreover, would have praised their efforts to help the Americans keep the peace and rebuild the country. In both cases, however, the opposite proved to be the rule. Even though their supervisors appreciate the work Laith and Adnan do, they do not fully trust them, especially as the insurgency intensifies, and it becomes clear anybody could be spying or wearing a suicide vest. The translators try to keep their work secret from their neighbors, but suspicion looms, and they begin to receive death threats from extremists who consider them complicit in the coalition’s countless acts of humiliation and violence, most spectacularly at Abu Ghraib.

The threats become more frequent as the extremists’ ability to carry them out with impunity grows. When one of their colleagues is murdered, Laith and Adnan appeal to their American supervisors to allow them to bypass the hour-long lines they must endure in order to enter the Green Zone, where it is easy for bystanders to identify them as cooperating with the coalition. Their request is denied, despite support from their immediate superior, Bill (Mike Doyle), the only American who seems at all interested in learning about Iraqi culture or venturing outside the Green Zone. The other Americans are either too overwhelmed, too arrogant or too disinterested to understand what is really happening on the outside.

George Packer, the author of Betrayed, is not a playwright by profession. He’s a journalist for The New Yorker, well known for his reporting on the Iraq War. Betrayed is based on a story of the same title he wrote for the March 26, 2007 edition of the magazine. Like the play, the story chronicles the lives of several Iraqi translators at a time when the insurgency was near its peak, at which point thousands of Iraqis and over a hundred American soldiers were dying every week from sectarian violence. Packer’s piece won him praise from all sides, but he felt it didn’t do justice to his subjects or “the moral complexity of their situation,” as he writes in the author’s note.

Directed by Pippin Parker, Betrayed presents itself as an accurate picture of what’s happening in Iraq right now. It has a moral purpose – to recognize a class of brave Iraqis and condemn their plight – but whatever it reveals about the nature of war or nationalism or friendship is purely a consequence of what Packer considers to be the truth on the ground. It’s not a piece for the ages; it’s for Americans today – to move us while our opinions can still save lives and to help us think more clearly about a morally complicated war. To do this, the play did not need to be an artistic masterpiece; it needed to achieve verisimilitude, which it did, marvelously. The actors were their characters, and the plot was backed up by the facts, albeit a carefully selected group of facts.

Betrayed convinces us it’s not too late to be outraged, nor too early to come to terms with what our country has done in Iraq. Since the American-led invasion in March 2003, 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died, as have 4600 coalition soldiers (including 4300 American soldiers). If Congress approves President Obama’s latest funding request, $694 billion will have been spent, which is more than was spent on the entire Vietnam War in inflation-adjusted dollars. The other costs – the shattered lives of the wounded and grieving, the trust of the Iraqis we betrayed – can never be known.