I knew less about “Occupation” than any of the four series that were being spotlighted during the course of BBC America’s time at the TCA tour, but I certainly recognized the actor who was in attendance to promote the show. James Nesbitt’s been working steadily since he turned up at the 2007 TCA tour to sing us a song or two and tell us about “Jekyll,” having played both a tabloid journalist (“Midnight Man”) and Pontius Pilate (“The Passion”), but this time he’s part of the ensemble of “Occupation,” a series which takes a look into the lives of three soldiers who all return to Iraq for the wrong reasons: one for love, one for money, and one for duty.
We do see at least one American within the context of “Occupation,” but for the most part, we’re offered the British perspective of the war in Iraq. It’s a side of the story that we haven’t really gotten to see before, but creator Peter Bowker (“Viva Blackpool”) believes that the themes of his series are fairly universal.
“I think it’s about love, about what it is to be a man, and it’s about doing the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons,” said Bowker.
He is not, however, going to hazard a guess as to how Americans will respond to the series. “I think fairly typical things happen in any wars that are engaged in,” he said, “and I think that in this particular war, although it took awhile longer in Basra for the local population to become alienated from the Brits, I think it did happen. I think maybe the surprise will be that it’s not a war drama in that the whole thing isn’t set actually in the war. One of the starting points for this for me was ‘The Deer Hunter’ and noticing in ‘The Deer Hunter’ how little screen time, relatively speaking, is spent in Vietnam. As a writer, ultimately, for me what happens afterward is a far more interesting dramatic field than actually what happens during wartime.”
In order to acclimate himself to the material of “Occupation” as much as possible, Bowker worked with the charity Combat Stress, which counsels traumatized ex-servicemen.
“What the counselors said there was that the mind-set of soldiers who were seeking help was very similar to the mind-set of soldiers coming back from Northern Ireland, in that it didn’t seem entirely clear what the aims of the war were, and going in to ostensibly help a civilian population, which then became hostile…and with good reason, in lots of cases,” said Bowker. “That seemed to be the mind-set. The thing they said that was most significant was the speed with which ex-servicemen were seeking help from the Iraq war. They had never seen that before. They thought of a new intensity, but they said that was partly because young soldiers were no longer seeking solace in alcohol, they were seeking solace in drugs…and we do touch on that in the piece.”
If you’ve never been a situation such as this, then it may strike you as a bit unlikely that a soldier would make a concerted effort to return to the country where he once fought a war. Nesbitt has a theory about that.
“In the arena of war there is, sort of bizarrely, a sense of security for soldiers, because they’re more comfortable in their uniforms, I think, than they are in their civis,” he said. “I think the rhythm that war gives them with the camaraderie, which we discovered, was so important to them – that they can confide in each other, that they are completely together – is in stark contrast to them coming away from that situation losing the uniform, going back into a family life where they feel terribly displaced because of what they’ve seen and what they’ve gone through. They can’t really share that with their partners and their families. I was struck very much by how they’ve lost the rhythm of how to behave physically and emotionally at home. In our piece quite early on, you see when my character comes home he just doesn’t know how to be with his family. They don’t know who turns the kettle on. They don’t know how to react. It was something about the human element of the impact of war that it has on the families that struck me as something that I think is and will hopefully be universal.”
“Occupation” premieres on BBC America in October.