On November 11, 2020, the Atlantic Council held its first annual Veterans Day celebration of military service with a virtual premiere screening of VETERANS DAY 2020, a powerful short film depicting the funny, strange, heroic, and heartbreaking stories of men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hosted by the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice area, this flagship event featured welcome remarks by Atlantic Council Executive Vice Chair Adrienne Arsht, keynote remarks by Atlantic Council Board Director General David Petraeus, and a panel discussion among the film’s playwright, director, producer, and one of the veterans whose story is depicted in the film.

VETERANS DAY 2020 was adapted from the Atlantic Council’s stage play “War Words” by Michelle Kholos Brooks, an award-winning playwright and nonresident senior fellow of Forward Defense at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Her work of documentary theater colors the popular understanding of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars with personal perspectives of how the wars changed or mattered to the lives of those serving in the armed forces, based on the playwright’s interviews with veterans and their families. Petraeus has commended how well the script “captures powerfully the experiences of those who have served in uniform… [and] conveys vividly the intensity of [their] relationships.”

The filmed adaptation, VETERANS DAY 2020, was produced by the Council in partnership with Washington’s Arena Stage, and was directed by the company’s deputy artistic director Seema Sueko. It complements Arena Stage’s initiative to sustain artists and audiences through the pandemic using theatrically-driven films addressing the year’s most pressing issues. Working in collaboration with Brooks, who wrote the adaptation, Sueko’s film portrays the nuance, complexity, and diversity of wartime stories through the creative multimedia application of Zoom as a soundstage.

Immediately following the premiere screening of VETERANS DAY 2020 on November 11, the Atlantic Council convened a panel featuring Brooks, Sueko, and veteran Nathan Graeser, moderated by the film’s executive producer and Scowcroft Center Senior Fellow Steven Grundman. Brooks discussed the origins of “War Words” and how she approached a subject that was novel to her at the time. As a playwright and former journalist, Brooks shared her intention to act as a translator and interpreter for the true stories of veterans. While working on the original script, she found that many veterans gradually opened up and began to share their experiences, appreciating her for listening and expressing that they were “moved that somebody actually wanted to hear their story.”

Sueko highlighted a unique veteran connection with the very first professional play with which she was involved, Shirley Lauro’s “A Piece of My Heart.” At that time, she learned the “power of this connection between the artist and veteran communities,” and therefore sought to deepen that connection with VETERANS DAY 2020. Additionally, given that this short film emerged in part from the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, Sueko emphasized how VETERANS DAY 2020 embraces a new era of connecting with others through screens, a common thread shared by families seeking to communicate with their military loved ones stationed around the world. Grundman and Sueko further highlighted the film’s central message, encouraging audiences to take up VETERANS DAY 2020 every year as an “opportunity to humanize yourself and humanize veterans and active-duty military” by “[building] community intentionally and deliberately.”

Graeser discussed the ways in which the film successfully portrays the diversity and heterogeneity of stories and experiences from those across the armed forces. As an Army chaplain whose own story was depicted in the film, Graeser shared how his role in the military was to act as a grounding force for other service members amidst difficult situations and complex emotions. Due to the nature of many military homecomings both “filled with heartache and filled with blessing,” Graeser saw the key goal of the film as “[finding] a way to build a bridge so that vets don’t get lost on the way home.” He emphasized the role of theater and art in facilitating a connection between civilian and military communities anchored on both sides, creating opportunities for artists and members of the armed forces alike to connect, learn, and grow.

VETERANS DAY 2020 marks the launch of the Atlantic Council’s campaign to promote a Veterans Day tradition of bringing staged readings of “War Words” to communities across the country. It also represents the latest installment of Forward Defense’s ambition to generate unique insights by the application of creativity and the arts to the exploration of international security affairs as part of its Art of War pillar. You can re-watch this short film here or below. To learn more about the Atlantic Council’s Veterans Day programming and further work by the Council’s Forward Defense practice area, please visit Forward Defense’s website here and sign up for future updates.

Olivia Popp was an intern for Forward Defense in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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The art of war

Applying innovative methodologies such as wargaming, narrative fiction, and the creative arts to tomorrow’s military and defense challenges.

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.

Related Experts: Adrienne Arsht, Michelle Kholos Brooks, and Steven Grundman