A Closet Pacifist's View of Reenacting
by Jonah Begone
A knock on the door. Opening it, I see three little boys dressed in their G.I. Joe camouflaged finery, holding plastic M-16's. They want to know if my son can come out to play. A few hours later I get a phone call from a friend in my reenactment unit wanting to know if I'm going to this weekend's event. Little boys never change.
I worry about reenacting sometimes; worry about what it represents to my children. My concern started when my son was three. He watched me pack my rifle and gear into the car for another weekend jaunt (my wife and children don't reenact), and asked "Are you going to shoot somebody with your gun?" I hastily set him straight and assured him that Daddy was only playing "pretend," but the incident has left me with an unsettled feeling.
It's not that I fear I'm influencing his eventual entrance into a branch of the armed service - when all is said and done he'll do what he wants to do - but that he may be getting the wrong message, and that perhaps our spectators are getting the wrong message. My first big event was a skirmish at a small town park. Well-attended by the locals, a great cheer went up whenever somebody took a particularly spectacular hit; the whole thing seemed very morbid to me. The crowd's mood changed, however, when a cannon discharged prematurely, severely injuring one of the crew. As I helped wheel the thing away through the crowd after the paramedics left, somebody yelled "Get out and take your damn cannon with you!" I've had mixed feelings about reenactment battle spectators (and participants) ever since. I've also wondered about how reenacting influences our attitudes towards war.
I remember hearing a reporter make the comment in a news coverage of a reenactment "If you think these men are glorifying war, THINK AGAIN." Well I have, and I still ask the question: do we glorify war? We don't reenact rape, torture or pillage. Why are we reenacting mass murder? Wars have claimed millions of human lives, most without any lasting personal remembrance. Oh sure, we talk at granite monuments about "sacrifice" and "remembrance," but when all is said and done much of what war has done to humanity is absolutely impossible to commemorate (or worse yet, prevent) in any enduring, meaningful way. War is a faceless, nameless eradication -impossible to calculate in terms of human suffering, uncomfortable to think about in any detail, much of the time unspeakably obscene and tasteless to "reenact."
I am occasionally heartened, however, when I perceive that our impressionable youth get the right notions about reenacting. A young member of my unit wrote in our newsletter "...Manassas, Antietam, Spotsylvania, the Crater/thanks to this hobby I love peace all the greater!" So do I, I guess, but I would still like to see reenacting change anyway - to something less representative of one of the terrors of human existence.
My mature (perhaps jaded) view of reenacting is that I now refuse to consider it on anything but a recreational basis, without the emotional baggage of "meaning" or "commemoration." I'm content to let non-reenactors do the professional Memorial Day and Veteran's Day stuff - I'm content to stay at home with my family, fly my U.S. flag and ponder why these things happen and feel sorrow for it on those days, as a non-reenactor. The number one reason I reenact now is because it's fun, or should be. When we start becoming obsessed with command structure or formal organization, when it becomes para-military or when organizations become more important than the reason for their existence, it ceases to be fun.
I was at a terrific Revolutionary War event recently. I remember thinking that the planned battle was actually getting in the way of my enjoyment of the weekend, and that I must be going crazy or getting old for feeling that way! Now I suspect I've finally got this reenactment thing worked out correctly, and that a lot of you are wrong, dead wrong.
I've often heard the misguided sentiment that "men on active duty or men with prior military experience should be the leaders in reenacting." No, no, no. Four quasquicentennial years of boring drill and military camp pettiness have proven otherwise. We don't need more authenticity Nazis - what we need in the way of leaders is more like Fraternity brothers. No, I'm not talking about converting the hobby into a powder-blowing, beer-drinking extravaganza. I'm simply endorsing a lighter, more recreational attitude about it. If we can talk to and teach the public at the same time, fine, but let's get off our high horses about why we're out there, okay?
Look, I have enough courage to say in print that violence sickens me. I'm not a killer. I'm not a hardened veteran. I don't want to portray one on the weekends. Yes, I understand that the veterans we celebrate didn't start off that way, but war hardens people. How many of us would find the prolonged companionship of a combat veteran enjoyable without experiencing first hand what made him that way? Our public isn't stupid - when we reenact battles a lot of them must be asking themselves what sort of people would do that on the weekends if we don't claim a recreational motivation.
Before you rush to your typewriters in outrage, think about what I've written and ask yourself if it doesn't make at least a little sense.