When the lights come up on Bearing Witness, Thomas Bird's one-man show at the Odyssey Theatre, Bird is standing near a bench which he informs us is outside the gates of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. This is where the Nazis sent their political prisoners and the educated classes, the intelligentsia, where they proceeded to work them to death. This is also where the most beautiful Jewish women from all the other camps were brought, so that Nazi officers could use them as prostitutes. Many became pregnant, at which time they became test subjects for Nazi doctors conducting whatever bizarre experiments they wanted to. Needless to say, the endgame for these women too was death of one kind or another.
Thomas Bird is a Vietnam War veteran who served with B Company, 2nd of the 5th Cavalry, of 1st Cavalry Division in 1965-66. In 1978 he founded the Vietnam Veteran's Ensemble Theatre Company (VETCo), and, as Artistic Director, presented 26 plays both Off- and Off-off-Broadway, including the highly-acclaimed Tracers at the Public Theatre in New York. For his work at VETCo, he was awarded a Drama Desk Award for "giving voice to the trauma of Vietnam." (He also co-produced HBO's Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam - winning Emmy, Ace and Peabody Awards - and was featured in the film The Killing Fields.)
So why did Bird's show start at Mauthausen?
Thomas Bird's father was a military doctor who arrived here in 1945 with the American forces liberating this camp. Mauthausen was the last Nazi death camp to be set free, and the event was overwhelming for all involved. Bird tells us that the impact on his father of seeing the skeletal condition of the living prisoners - as well as the stacks of dead bodies in shallow graves - was enormous, In addition, something happened when Doctor Bird was tending to the surviving victims that haunted him for the rest of his life, and which Bird's father could only tell his son about on his deathbed.
Bearing Witness chronicles Thomas Bird's spiritual journey in search of his father and the bond they once shared. I found it to be a deeply powerful piece of confessional theater, which I spoke with Bird about afterwards.
SF: Your show is called Bearing Witness. What are you bearing witness to?
TB: I'm bearing witness to my father and the strong moral and ethical principles that guided him. I'm honoring his service in World War II and trying to understand the terrible pain he experienced when something tragic happened during his treatment of survivors. I'm also bearing witness to the killing fields in Vietnam, and all the blameless villagers who were wiped out for no reason in a war driven by body counts. In a larger sense, I am bearing witness to the innocent victims of both wars, and the toll that has taken on our shared humanity.
SF: Your anecdotes about killing Vietcong soldiers and about seeing your infantry buddies get killed are so harrowing, as are your reflections about what it took for you to come to terms with that experience. Do you think that this country has similarly come to terms with what happened there?
TB: Hardly. It's part of our cultural sickness - maybe even the origin of it. This country has never expressed sorrow or remorse for all the violence we did, all the destruction we inflicted in Vietnam. We continue to believe that it is somehow weak to learn from our mistakes, and so we commit them again and again. The business of America is business, so we deal with our guilt by making countries prosperous after we've decimated them. But there is never any true accountability. Never any soul-searching or moral acceptance of the result of our actions. So the violence festers within our national spirit, and the sickness grows.
SF: How would you say this "sickness" manifests itself in our time?
TB: In so many ways. Violent video games for one, which I find as appalling and deformative as the slaughter at My Lai. School shootings for another. The AR-15 is basically the same as the M-16 we had in Vietnam. That was the first weapon that could shatter bones, It's a killing machine, and it has no place in civilized society, much less in the hands of teenagers. It's all part of this epidemic of what we called "mechanical killing" - which itself involves the loss of Empathy. Recovering my sense of empathy is what saved my life when I was choked with guilt for what I went through in combat. I discovered my purpose, my creativity, when I got that back. But it's the loss of empathy, and the loss of our moral compass, that is killing this country now.
SF: What about Donald Trump?
TB: You mean Mister Bone-Spur, our Deny-er-in-Chief?
TB: Yes, he gets 5 deferments - 5! - to keep from having to serve his country in Vietnam. But still he feels qualified to put down John McClain, who - whatever else you think about him - is a real hero who made genuine sacrifices for his country. Trump is shameless, he has no bona fides, no claim to honor of any kind, and he is as far away from the real military as chocolate is from vanilla.
I am proud to have served my country, to be part of a tradition of serving in the Infantry that goes back to the Greeks. But you have to separate the War from the Warrior. That's something my Dad and I agreed upon. You can be for the soldiers but disagree with the war. That is our American right, and it's at the heart of what has made this country great. But Trump has tried to equate the two and to use this as a weapon against his critics. Don't believe it.
That is certainly one of the things I've tried to put into Bearing Witness. Military might is one thing, but who are we if we lose our empathy, our humanity? That's why I cried at Mauthausen, for the way that all those innocent people were slaughtered in the Nazi death machine. But I look around now, and I have to wonder if we've really learned anything from that terrible lesson.