Soldiers Seek an Elusive Escape in Shakespeare

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Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, is home to a multinational taskforce that conducts humanitarian and counter-terrorism operations across the Horn of Africa. For seven months last year, commentator Marine Major Adam McKeown was stationed there. A reservist, McKeown is an English professor at Adelphi University when he is not serving. While in Djibouti, in addition to his regular duties, McKeown offered a fully accredited Shakespeare class to more than 24 of his fellow service members. He says the class discussions provided less distraction from the war than he thought they would.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR news.

Camp Lemonier in Djibouti is home to a multinational taskforce that conducts humanitarian and counterterrorism operations across the Horn of Africa. For seven months last year, commentator and Marine Major Adam McKeown was stationed there. He's a reservist, and when he is not serving he is an English professor at Adelphi University. So while he was in Djibouti, in addition to his regular duties, he offered a fully accredited Shakespeare class to more than two dozen of his fellow service members. He says that the class discussions provided less of a distraction from the war than he thought they would.

Major ADAM MCKEOWN (Marine, Camp Lemonier): The solider told the class, it sounds good. We have to remember that the war began with a lie and this speech is just part of that lie. Another student, a navy nurse disagreed. She said, kings just do what they have to do to get people to go along. It may not always seem right to use but that's how it is. Shakespeare's just pointing that out. The war in question was not the one they were fighting but one that took place nearly seven centuries before in France, and the speech the class was discussing was the one Shakespeare's Henry V delivers to rally his exhausted soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt. I organized the Shakespeare class as a constructive diversion from the camp's more serious business. Our schoolhouse tent was a refuge from the stench of raw sewage and burning trash and from the relentless thumping of diesel engines and heavy helicopters. In some ways it was just like any other Shakespeare survey at any college back home.

Younger students were preoccupied with they would be doing after class, even though there was almost nothing else to do. Older students were grateful for an opportunity to chip away at the Bachelor's Degree that had become a lifelong project. Nobody liked writing papers. Everyone agreed that Shakespeare made more sense when the professor read it out loud, sort of. A Marine Gunnery Sergeant raised his hand. When you read it you make it sound like he's just making a speech, he said. But you can see he really cared about his troops. I could be wrong, but I'm just saying.

I asked him, doesn't it bother you that Henry is telling the common soldiers that they can only become noble by shedding their blood for the king's cause and not their own? Yes sir, I see that, the gunny said. I'm just telling you how it seems to me, but I see that, too. After class the students smoked cigarettes in the few hours they had to themselves before returning to their posts or to their tents for a little sleep. The sun dropped behind the Ethiopian highlands, another blistering day turned into another incongruously perfect evening in the strangely beautiful land.

Soon the heavy helicopters would begin their important work under the cover of night, and the nomads beyond the fence line would burn what they could not salvage for reasons only they knew. The gunny finished his cigarette and approached me differentially. Class is over, I was no longer a professor but an officer again. Sir, he said, can I ask what you would have told your Marines in that situation? The answer came almost too quickly. I would have told them the same thing. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, Henry said, will be remembered when all other memories of this time are gone. I'm not sure I believe him or if it even matters whether or not this war or our contributions to it will be remembered. What I do know is that we were bound to each while we were there in the desert working towards something we didn't always understand and dreaming in the few hours we had to sleep about home.

Shakespeare may not have helped us understand why we had to be there or why some of us would never return, but he reminded us that when kings start wars ordinary people fight them. The reasons do not change this fact. Sometimes all we can do is share the burden. Sometimes all we can do is help our little band of brothers and sisters hold on for one more day.

BLOCK: Marine Major Adam McKeown is an English professor at Adelphi University.

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