D-Day with beach umbrellas in the distance? Troops ordering ice cream? American and German forces celebrating Christmas together in the barracks? This could only be the curious world of 20th-century war reenactors. A relatively recent and rapidly expanding phenomenon, reenactments in the United States of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War now draw more than 8,000 participants a year. Mostly men, these reenactors celebrate, remember, and re-create the tiniest details of the Battle of the Bulge in the Maryland Woods, D-Day on a beach in Virginia, and WWI trench warfare in Pennsylvania.
Jenny Thompson draws on seven years of fieldwork, personal interviews, and surveys to look into this growing subculture. She looks at how the reenactors' near obsession with owning “authentic” military clothing, guns, paraphernalia, and vehicles often explodes into heated debates. War Games sheds light on the ways people actually make use of history in their daily lives and looks intensely into the meaning of war itself and how wars have become the heart of American history. The author's photographs provide incredible evidence of how “real” these battles can become.
The patriotic pageantry of the Civil War is one thing, but who would want to reenact the bloody stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front? Actually, a lot of people. There are at least 8,000 would-be warriors intent on honoring the sacrifice--and, above all, the look--of the unsung soldiers of modern conflicts, be they Americans, British, Russians, Vietnamese or Germans. Historian Thompson surveyed hundreds of reenactors, observed their public living history displays and did her part by attending private reenactments, posing variously as a Red Cross driver, a war correspondent and a Soviet infantrywoman. By day participants march, attack, fire blanks and commit atrocities (reenactors seem to delight in being captured and summarily executed and having their corpses looted), the dead returning to life after a few minutes to rejoin the fray. By night they feast, drink, tell war stories and dirty jokes, and generally bask in campsite and barracks room camaraderie. Most of all, they critique the period authenticity of the tiniest details of other reenactors' uniforms, accessories, haircut, lingo and body type. What do these weekend Valhallas mean? Not terribly acutely, Thompson figures it's all about her subjects' conflicted feelings about war and masculinity, the ownership of history and"the failure of modern society to provide social relationships on a human scale." Or maybe the martial atmosphere just gives men license to indulge their feminine side by obsessing over appearance and excluding others for their fashion faux pas. Anyway, it's a subculture hell-bent on making a spectacle of itself, so there's plenty of surface entertainment in Thompson's engaging and sympathetic study. Photos.