‘He was the perfect soldier, but once you’re home, it just doesn’t work’

Actor and theater maker Gillis Biesheuvel in the Genie Museum Vught.Picture Sas Schilten

A soldier receives the highest Dutch decoration, the military Order of William. He saved lives by the book and we call him a hero. But when he returns from his mission, he continues to run afoul of the law. Usually minor offenses: possession of drugs and weapons, urinating in public, battery on an officer. Sometimes he is acquitted, sometimes convicted, but the hero is always negatively in the news. But why?

This pattern by Major Marco Kroon (52) fascinated the actor and theater maker Gillis Biesheuvel (50) so much that he decided to make a performance about it. Crown is about Marco Kroon himself, and about the closed world of defence. A world distant from civilian society, which often makes it difficult for veterans to return to normal life.

‘Nukubus, that’s what the soldiers call us’, says Biesheuvel, ‘useless cusses. As soon as you join the army, the connection to the ordinary world is severed: loyalty lies exclusively with the army. This results in many veterans ending up in an impossible split.’

Together with author and NRC-film journalist Dana Linssen interviewed Biesheuvel five soldiers, from all ranks and parts of the army. Besides Marco Kroon himself, there is also a female fighter pilot, an intelligence officer and a spiritual advisor. In addition, they watched films and documentaries and read a lot: Kroon’s books of course, but also Peace and War by Jonathan Holslag. Biesheuvel: ‘Holslag shows the continuous wave of war and peace, ebb and flow, for centuries. If you read that book, you will be cured of the illusion that war will one day disappear.’

Marco Kroon in 2022 during the commemoration at the National Indian Monument 1945-1962.  Picture ANP

Marco Kroon in 2022 during the commemoration at the National Indian Monument 1945-1962.Picture ANP

When he was called up for conscription at the age of 17, he may still have had that naive thought. ‘I thought: If everyone just stops fighting, there won’t be any more war.’ He refused service and got away with it; a year later conscription was abolished. Now he sees it differently. ‘All my conversations with the military led to admiration and understanding. The Netherlands has had a pacifist climate since the 1970s, where I also grew up, mainly because we haven’t experienced a war for a long time. Civilians stood with their backs in defense. But public opinion has changed since the war in Ukraine.’

According to Biesheuvel, every democracy needs a strong army. “Although it is primarily because of the threat it poses. You don’t want to be trampled underfoot, and you have to be able to make that clear to the attackers. But you have to keep talking as long as possible. Once a war has started, its duration and outcome are completely uncertain. Then, in reality, only one thing is certain: the consequences are disastrous for all parties. Unfortunately, it is sometimes unavoidable.’

What struck him in all the conversations: ‘The total dedication of soldiers to the army and to their work. How passionately they believe in the necessity of what they are doing, even if it is difficult, morally confusing and dangerous. They usually do it out of idealism. And they literally walk through fire for their colleagues. I like that.’

It was also a surprising similarity to his own profession. ‘Just as I wanted to be on stage as a child, these people have wanted to be in defense all their lives. Doing something with so much passion makes you vulnerable, I recognized that. As in art, the defense has only been cut back for years. The picture was bad, the picture negative. And yet these soldiers trudge on in increasingly unfavorable conditions. They do very hard work and it is also thankless. It often takes its course later.’

Many veterans struggle with their role in civilian society, Biesheuvel noted. “Look at Crown. He was the perfect soldier, but once he’s home, it just doesn’t seem to work. In the closed, sheltered world of defense, men like him can function optimally. You have a very clear purpose, and the military provides structure, direction, discipline, routine. Ordinary life is much messier, that’s where it sometimes goes wrong.’

Of course, often this is due to trauma; Kroon also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Biesheuvel: ‘We learned from that chaplain that veterans often suffer most from something he calls ‘moral damage’: the feeling that everything you’ve done, everything you’ve given up and endured for the army has been for nothing . It leads to frustration, bitterness, depression. And PTSD is often added to that.’

Also the veteran who plays Biesheuvel in the performance Crown has been traumatized. In Linssen’s text, he suppresses this sufficiently: this man no longer feels anything. But when his daughter leaves for a military mission, he is confronted with his hidden memories and fears. He no longer feels sorrow for himself, but losing her hurts him.

Biesheuvel: ‘We hope that the performance shows all those aspects, and the strange discrepancy: on the one hand the total dedication to the work, on the other hand the great suffering it entails. And no matter how many veterans take that suffering home with them.’

Marco Kroon guest of honor at the premiere Crown in Vught

The show Crown, directed by Sarah Moeremans and starring Luca Bötzel as the daughter, premiered last week in Vught. Among the audience were many veterans with their families, and Marco Kroon was the guest of honor. There was a lot of recognition, Biesheuvel saw, although Kroon joked with him afterwards Broadcasting Brabant that he’s “more of a Netflix guy.” Next year, Kroon can see himself in the cinema, then the film will come out firing line which is inspired by his life.

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