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What Are the People Who Reenact 20th Century Wars Up to?

From History Channel documentaries to Band of Brothers, popular representations of war are ubiquitous. For some people though, passively consuming war stories isn’t enough. They want to take their interest a step further.

The impulse to turn war into a three-dimensional pastime is manifest in the activities of thousands of American Civil War reenactors who “re-fight” the battles of the past. These reenactors are well known, having been portrayed (and parodied) on TV shows like ER and in Tony Horwitz’s book, Confederates in the Attic. Less well known, however, are the estimated 6,000 Americans who reenact the wars of the twentieth century, including both World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Across the country, these more modern warriors join up with their reenacting units to participate in both public and private events. Dressed in period uniforms, they portray Russian privates, Canadian nurses, American GIs, British officers, Vietcong soldiers, and even Nazi SS troops. At air shows and living history encampments, they set up displays of their private collections of period militaria-- including vehicles and weapons--perform battles for spectators, and try, they explain, to teach people about the common soldiers of all nations.

Their private events, which are closed to spectators, take place across the country at camps, military installations, and private sites. An organization of World War I reenactors, for example, owns an eighty-acre site in Pennsylvania, which boasts a network of trenches, a pseudo-bombed-out “French” town, and a no-man’s-land littered with rusted rifles and helmets (and sometimes is inhabited by a rubber rat or two). During their weekend-long private events, reenactors march and sleep, patrol and fight, talk and laugh, and try, as they say, to get a taste of the Great War experience. “To do it for real, you’d get killed,” one reenactor explains. “But if you want to try to get a sample of what war was like without getting killed, this is about as close as you’re going to be able to do it.”

Twentieth-century war reenactors are aware of the criticism they draw. From being called warmongers to neo-Nazis, they are often derided by people appalled at the reenactment of recent wars. Others, however, celebrate reenactors’ efforts to commemorate, educate, and achieve authenticity in their portrayals. (One World War II German unit boasts about the highest authenticity standards, a fact underscored by one unit member’s crafting of “period” trash to strew about the unit’s campsite.) But whatever the opinion of these reenactors, critics and admirers tend to accept the idea that reenactors seek to recreate the past.

As a scholar interested in studying how Americans have represented war throughout the twentieth century, I was fascinated by this decidedly unusual hobby when I first encountered it in 1993. And so it was that I embarked on what became a seven-year research project. As I tried to unravel the meanings of this evocative avocation, I interviewed and surveyed reenactors, participated in more than forty events, and dressed in my own period uniforms, portraying a World War II American correspondent, a World War II Russian soldier, and a World War I Red Cross driver. In doing so, I learned as much about reenacting as I did about how and why people make use of history in their daily lives.

Twentieth-century war reenacting grew out of the Civil War reenactments that took the public spotlight during the 1960s centennial commemorations of the American Civil War. Reenactors who started out in that branch went on to found more modern war reenactment groups throughout the 1970s. For example, the World War I reenacting group, the Great War Association, originated in 1978 with roughly thirty-five participants; today, thirty-three full-fledged units take part in the group’s events. World War II reenacting took off in the 1970s, partly spurred by military vehicle collectors who gathered for displays, eventually spawning full-scale reenactments. Korean and Vietnam War reenacting appeared later, but small Vietnam War reenactments were hosted as early as the 1980s.

Fundamentally a grassroots enterprise, what reenactors call “the hobby” operates without any single, official organization. But over the years it has evolved its own system for maintaining law and order: insurance policies, registration procedures, safety regulations, and event hosting and planning are all components of this volunteer endeavor. Reenactor-run units and groups, linked primarily through the Internet, plan and host events, while individual units operate with sometimes very strict membership and authenticity standards.

While the vast majority of reenactors are male (96.8 percent) and white (97.8 percent), they vary in nearly every other demographic category. Among them are Ph.D.s, machinists, lawyers, artists, students, nurses, truck drivers, and police officers. And while more than 90 percent are civilians, almost one third have military experience. There are even some actual veterans who reenact, including veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. But most reenactors emphasize that they didn’t join the hobby out of a desire to be in the real military. What unites this varied group is a shared, passionate interest in history, and a real historical legacy: over 80 percent have relatives who fought in the wars they reenact.

Like many Americans, reenactors are captivated by the war story, the tale of average people who found themselves part of the world’s most momentous events. Nearly all reenactors grew up reading about these experiences, watching war movies, or hearing tales told by their veteran relatives. “Our heads were filled with war stories,” as one reenactor says. And indeed, it was an early experience with mediated forms of history that later led them to develop what some call their “addiction” to the hobby. Despite all the books and movies, their curiosity about war was not satisfied. Many say the failure of available media to convey the reality of the war experience compelled them to take history into their own hands. Only through their private reenactments, they argue, can they come close to understanding war. “The History Channel is great,” one unit states, “but once you put on sixty pounds of equipment, stand knee deep in muck, and enjoy bully beef out of a tin on a damp chilly morning, the pictures on TV don’t carry the weight they used to.”

Especially to a novice, a private event can be astonishing: night battles in the trenches, eerie interrogations in the woods, Russians troops huddled around a campfire in a drizzling rain. These are the scenes in which reenactors strive to experience a “magic moment”-- a time when everything comes together and looks and feels authentic.

But behavior at events can also be inauthentic. Reenactors joke and talk about contemporary things; they eat, hang out, and pose for and take photographs. Some behavior is downright hilarious: one unit once ordered a pizza delivery right in the midst of a battle, and at another time, upon being “killed” one reenactor famously shouted, “I’m dead! I just want to party!”

Such “farbiness” (the word reenactors use to describe inauthenticity) generates endless arguments over how far they should go to achieve realism. From debating rules of engagement and issues involving weight, age, and gender to questions of politics, history, and knowledge, reenactors clash over the nature of their portrayal. All the while--in one of the hobby’s main contradictions--they readily admit that they cannot truly recreate war authentically.

But I found that reenacting is not an attempt to recreate the past and relive it. In fact, reenactors don’t even reenact specific historic battles, nor do they behave as if they were other people. “We’re being ourselves,” one reenactor explains. “We’re not being Australians or Germans.” Theirs is a rather generic rendition of war in which they try to represent, in authentic detail, the “typical” experiences of common soldiers. But, they are “not reliving the experience,” another reenactor says. “We’re living it for ourselves.”

In seeking the ever-elusive “magic moment,” reenactors are not trying to time travel. Instead, they attempt to create their own authentic-looking illusions of history. But these are not replicas of the pure past. They are replicas of other representations of history. So rather than trying to recreate war itself, reenactors try to stage moments and scenes that duplicate elements from the films, photographs, and stories which they judge to be authentic representations of war. But this time it is the reenactors themselves who are in the center of these “authentic” representations. This is history in action. It’s an attempt to produce and consume history simultaneously. And reenactors revel in their power to create their own historical evidence: films and photographs that feature themselves at war. In doing so, they exercise a kind of power over representing history that isn’t available to them otherwise.

It is this very power to represent history, and thereby claim ownership over it, that enthralls reenactors. Raised in a culture replete with war stories, they can now put on the boots of the common soldiers and walk around in them for themselves; they can tell their own war stories. One reenactor explains this phenomenon: “No other collection that I can think of--like stamps or coins-- you can't just shrink yourself into a stamp and put yourself in the book and go, you know, `Oh, look! I'm a stamp!’ Right? I mean this is something that you can actually collect and actually show off. Be a part of it.”

The desire to be part of the long history of war representations lies at the heart of reenacting. And, in understanding this desire, and the ways it plays itself out in the hobby, we can glimpse something of war’s powerful impact on American culture.

Sample of the War Reenacting Glossary from War Games:

Ghost: A “dead” reenactor who resurrects him or herself in an event without waiting an appropriate amount of time.

Kevlar reenactor: A reenactor who will not die no matter how many times he or she is shot.

Stitch Nazi: Term used in both praise and derision to describe a reenactor who is obsessed with authenticity.

Touronz: Tourists, satirically. Used to refer to visitors at public events.

Related Link: Esther MacCallum-Stewart, comments onBBC recreation"The Trench"