Simon Carroll-Jones as Benjamin Stokely

The Easter weekend came right in the middle of our rehearsals. It was frustrating to stop working but perhaps, we thought, no bad thing to take a few days away from thinking about global conflict. And then we woke up to fairly apocalyptic news. In Korea, US stealth bombers flew a 6,000 mile round trip to drop bombs on a target range, demonstrating their willingness and ability to protect South Korea against the North. North Korea threatened violent, even nuclear, retaliation. Meanwhile at home, the government implemented massive benefit cuts in the name of “freeing” people from “welfare dependency”. We moved into British Summer Time but the snow continued and the world still seemed gripped by the mentality of the Cold War.

It’s hard to believe that the decisions to implement such life altering events are approved by one person, one brain using the same cognitive process as you when you decided what to have for breakfast today. It must be a staggering responsibility. When we ask our world leaders to reflect on the human cost of their decisions, they usually deflect scrutiny. They say, “I inherited certain circumstances and I had to make an impossible decision. It’s not a matter of doing what is ethically ‘right’ because neither A nor B is ideal.”

Fair enough. Perhaps we cannot fathom the ramifications of their choices, the information that they are privy to and the pressures that they operate under. But can we accept that the choice is as binary as it is presented? Is bargaining with terrorists the opposite of licensing torture? Is cutting benefits the opposite of closing hospitals? In an impossible choice between A and B, what would it mean to table option C?

When we started devising The Situation Room, we wanted to examine this question through the lens of war. Because it’s there that the results of split-second decisions are furthest reaching. We wanted our audience to have a distanced, top-down view of the war in question. So we explored the period of history most famed for its proxy conflicts, The Cold War. We read about The Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war; about the partition of Berlin, about Vietnam, Korea, Chile, Laos, Cambodia, Guatemala, El Salvador; all conflicts propelled into greater violence by the intervention of the USA and/or the USSR. We found that despite their opposing rhetoric, in order to gain support in their ongoing global power struggle, both of the superpowers were prone to supporting despotic regimes throughout the developing world. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the American-backed President of Nicaragua, “He may be a Son of a Bitch, but he’s our Son of a Bitch.”

Roosevelt’s comments were typical of the attitude the greatest good was the resistance of world domination by the evil forces of Communism. Because the enemy is presented as utterly remorseless, and their threat is shown to be constant, any action taken to preserve ‘Western Values’ – be it supporting a corrupt military junta or ordering a village to be napalmed – is acceptable.

On our enforced break from rehearsals we were reminded that sadly this is not an outmoded way of thinking. Even today as we step back into the world of The Situation Room, we’ve been reading about Camp Nama, the secret joint US-UK installation at Baghdad airport, where prisoners were kept in cells the size of dog kennels, beaten and electrocuted with cattle prods. Governments are still committing atrocities in the name of their version of civilisation and spreading fear of what is other to make those actions more acceptable to their own people.

Researching the rhetoric used to discuss these kinds of decisions, we’ve found that it’s helpful to look at war as a game and lives as a resource.  In the twentieth century, Game Theory was devised as a way of measuring the arms race. Its application grew in The Cold War; it became a way of second guessing the response of your intended actions by an unseen enemy. Like thinking five moves ahead in chess. Predictably, when you spend so long scrutinising the guy sitting opposite, you don’t think too much about the pawns.

As our audiences arrive at Shoreditch Town Hall, they’re divided into two teams. Their objective is simple: to beat the other side. As the show goes on, the actions become more extreme, the morality more blurred. The choice between A and B becomes harder to make as the pressure on you to make it becomes higher. If the game is violence and the goal is victory, will you win at all cost or will you play to lose?

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Image: Simon Carroll-Jones as Benjamin Stokely in The Situation Room. Photograph by Vish Vishvanath.