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With war live from Iraq still raging, the Army brings its live stage show Spirit of America to town. 


"War is hell."

A sentiment voiced in the distant past resonates into the immediate present, and most likely will echo until the human race is extinguished. It's declared by foot soldiers and armchair generals, expounded upon by poets and philosophers, communicated by artists, and lamented by childless parents and orphaned children. It doesn't surprise.

But it might raise an eyebrow to hear the phrase spoken by Mark Murray, the executive producer of Spirit of America, a live-action show performed by the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment and the U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own."

The military, in the midst of an undeniably hellish war, is probably not at the height of its popularity. While few would say they don't support the troops themselves, that support is demonstrated in widely divergent ways. Some believe in the mission and the methods of its execution. Some others publicly demand to terminate said mission and bring the troops home as quickly as possible. Still others enter stores and purchase merchandise that proclaims said support. It's a volatile and loaded time in America, and maybe a curious one in which to hail the grunt workers of the chief.

But Spirit of America, contends Murray, is not about this war, or any war; it's about the men and women who fight it; kill in it; die in it.

"We don't glorify anything," says Murray in a phone interview. "There's no politics involved. We're not preaching. We're not trying to get anyone to join the army."

Publicity materials describe the show -- at Mellon Arena for four free performances Sept. 14 and 15 -- as "the story of the U.S. Army's history through the eyes of the American soldier," told via battle re-enactments, simulated gunfire, drills and music. Active members of an elite regiment, kitted out in full battle dress, pop off dummy rounds within the safety of an arena while a crowd packed with patriots ooohs and aaahs. It's military history as entertainment, and what Murray calls "a little civics lesson."

Some of the cast of 400 have been to Iraq, some will go in the future. For some of them, performing in Spirit of America is transformative. "Some guy bashful and withdrawn, I've seen him blossom," Murray says. "To see a soldier do something he didn't think he could do, that is a joy to behold." In fact, after completing her tours -- in the U.S., as a Spirit of America narrator, and in Iraq, as a supply clerk -- one performer plans to return to college to study theater, says Murray.

Still, Spirit of America will be viewed in a stadium, not a vacuum. While the hardest-working infantrymen in show business sweat metaphorical bullets under stage lights stateside, across the world their comrades-in-arms dodge live ones, too often while encased in less-than-adequate protective gear.

It's difficult to reconcile. It's great that a supply clerk might have found her calling by participating in non-agitational propaganda during her stint as a member of the U.S. Army. Hopefully she'll make it as an actress. Hopefully she'll make it home.

Spirit of America 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Fri., Sept. 14; and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sat., Sept. 15. Mellon Arena. Free; ticket required. 412-323-1919 or www.mellonarena.com.

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