But a Campfire Sent Me Looking for a Book
I’ve always been an avid reader, and books on various historical topics have always littered my bookshelves. I feel that it is important to view the world with one eye on the past. History provides perspective and perspective is necessary for understanding viewpoints (both our own and those of others). Books about history have helped me establish perspective and understanding, but many of those books were quite long (and some were also quite dry). This is why I enjoy historical reenactments and living history.
I attended a living history event a few weeks ago by a group representing French voyageurs. I already knew about the history of the French in Louisiana. I also knew that several cities, towns, rivers, and such near me have French names, but I did not know how far north France’s influence reached before I attended the event. Over the span of half an hour I learned about the lives of French voyageurs, American Indians, and how both impacted the history of the United States. Attending a reenactment and/or living history event may not make you an expert on a topic (neither does visiting a museum) but it is a great place to start learning. Standing next to a campfire learning about Nouvelle France and birch bark canoes was enough inspiration to send me to the library.
Reenactment and Catharsis
John Steinbeck explains why veterans often do not discuss their combat experiences in “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk.” Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara explore a similar topic in the film In Country. Attie and O’Hara follow a group of men over the course of a weekend as the reenact Vietnam War era patrols, ambushes, and fire fights. The documentary isn’t as much a look into the world of reenacting as it is a look into the mind of the combat veteran.
Several of the participants in the reenactment are veterans of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The audience is given some insights as to why these men who have experienced war first hand would want to reenact combat. One reenactor, a former soldier of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, states that he feels “whole” and “stronger” when he is with his fellow reenactors. Another reenactor, a veteran of the war in Iraq, discusses how the military philosophy of adapt and overcome desensitized him to feeling core emotions. The audience is left to infer that by reenacting with fellow veterans he is seeking to find part of what he left on the battlefield. All of veterans who reenact give varied reasons why they participate but each man is searching for something.
One of more poignant moments of the film is a piece of archival footage from Vietnam. A reporter asks a soldier, “You think you will ever be able to forget it?” The soldier replies, “No, I won’t.” This may be at the heart of the reason why these men chose to reenact. Steinbeck states that some men experience a form of amnesia that causes them to forget combat and this is why they won’t talk about it. Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara show us many veterans remember combat all too well and that reenacting may be a way to address and cope with those memories.
In Country (2015) directed by Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara.
The Impact of Historical Reenactments
It doesn’t require a vast knowledge of history to know who was victorious in World War II, yet amateur historians like me continue to attend WW II reenactments. This past weekend was my eighth visit to the annual World War II Days held in Lockport, IL. I knew who would emerge victorious but I still went. There was a bit of a twist concerning this year’s reenactment that got me thinking about why I attend every year.
The three day living history event hosted Civil War and Vietnam War reenactors, but the main focus, as the title suggests, consisted of living history demonstrations and a reenactment of a battle from Word War II. The battles reenacted have varied during my past seven visits but the premise was always the same, U.S. and allied forces battle and defeat a German force. The twist this year concerned the opposing forces. There were a few groups of reenactors that portrayed U.S. forces in the living history portion of the weekend, but the battle that was reenacted was between Soviet and German forces. Watching a Soviet force defeat a German force got me thinking about history from a long view. Germany was an enemy that needed to be defeated and the Soviet Union was an ally that was needed to defeat Germany, but history has shown the Soviet Union (maybe I should say Joseph Stalin) was not the great liberator of the masses it (or Stalin) presented itself to be. As I walked among the German, Polish, Soviet, and U.S. camps I got to thinking about how living history events and reenactments show us how fluid history can be (I don’t mean this in any sort of revisionist history way). History is a fluid timeline that in some ways folds back on itself. Reenactors exist in the present with a full knowledge of what has happened between the historical events they reenact and the modern day in which we all live. These living historians provide us with an experience from the past tempered with knowledge of the present.
Attending World War II Days gave me cause to think about the roles each of the major allied and axis powers had in the war and its outcome. The event allowed me to, for a brief moment, put myself in the time that was World War II and it left me thinking as I went home about the long term relationships those powers had after the war and how they shaped the world we live in. Living history events and reenactments, if done well like Lockport’s World War II Days, give us the opportunity to think about history and its impact on our lives, and this is a good thing.
World War II reenactors should not smoke filtered cigarettes.
What We Can Learn From Historical Reenactments
Did you ever play ‘war’ as a child (maybe a few of you played ‘doctor’ but that’s a topic for a different post)? Have you ever played Call of Duty, Brothers in Arms, or some other similar video game and wondered about its historical accuracy and what it would be like to participate in historical battles? My experience with historical military video games is limited, but I have engaged in a wide variety of war games ranging from cap guns as a child to paintball games in my twenties. I think those experiences combined with my interest in history has drawn me to visit several historical reenactments overs the years. This same interest is what drew me to Charlie Schroeder’s book Man of War My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactments. If you want to learn about historical reenactments and the people who participate in them you will want to read Schroeder’s book.
Schroeder began thinking about history and reenacting after a visit to Old Fort MacArthur Days outside Los Angeles. He wondered, “What if I could reenact my way through history?” The answer to that question is an informative and entertaining memoir that spans over a half dozen time periods with reenactments ranging from the Roman Empire to the Vietnam War. Schroeder’s first hand experiences provide an informative look into the motivations of many historical reenactors while also entertaining the reader with Schroeder’s growing obsession with history. He states, “When I started my journey, I didn’t think I’d become so enamored with the past….” This growing obsession with the past leads Schroeder to one of the primary motivations for reenacting historical events, “Reenacting shrinks the broad subject of history to a personal scale, away from the dates and ideas to something we can all relate to, the human experience.”
Charlie Schroeder’s Man of War My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactments is informative and enjoyable on a couple levels. It is an entertaining memoir of one man’s experiences in the world of historical reenactments. It also provides an informative insight into why men and women participate in historical reenactments, and how we as audience members can learn a little more about the human experience through their hard work at reenactments.
Man of War My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment (2012) by Charlie Schroeder