Where the Fighting Never Ends
Inside the wide world of war reenactment.
Written by HistoryFiled under
In the South they are still fighting the Civil War. Not to mention the Vietnam War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and battles from countless other historical conflicts. In fact, all over the world, battles large and small, famous and obscure, are being recreated by groups of devoted enthusiasts, who apparently enjoy spending their weekends dressing up in period-authentic uniforms and marching with real (or replica) weaponry, at least until they are felled by foam-tipped arrows, hacky sack “rocks,” baby powder-filled mortars and the like.
Author Charlie Schroeder can tell you about the idiosyncratic world of historical reenactment in intimate detail. He spent months embedded with reenactors: chasing Celts at a replica Roman fort (complete with a moat, ten-foot-high walls and four guard towers) in Lafe, Arkansas; battling the Viet Cong in southern Virginia, in a disturbingly authentic recreation of the fighting in Vietnam; and serving as a Kriegsberichter, or German war correspondent, alongside a group of Swastika-wearing Nazi reenactors during a Drive on Stalingrad (in Colorado), which featured a tank, a half-track, and motorcycles with and without sidecars.
In the following interview, Schroeder discusses his book “Man of War” (Hudson Street Press) and explains why he lived in constant fear of suffering a life-altering injury on the battlefield. He also reveals what it costs to take up this hobby, and offers advice for newbies, who are referred to by reenactment veterans as “fresh fish.”
What compelled you to embed with historical reenactors?
I have always been curious about what draws people to a particular time. Also, I grew up in a historically rich area—Lancaster, Pennsylvania—in a log cabin that was built in 1738. After I moved to Los Angeles I missed it, especially living in a place that on its surface doesn’t have much of a history. I thought: Here’s a way that I can learn from history—by living it. But I had no idea that the hobby is so broad. I knew about Civil War and Revolutionary War reenactments and Renaissance Fairs, but I had no idea that people were dressing up as Romans and Polish Winged Hussars.
Why do you think people participate in battle reenactments?
One of the things about being a reenactor is that you get to dress up. You can answer the question: How does it feel to wear armor and chain mail? Then there’s the camaraderie that comes with this hobby. A lot of people who do this don’t necessarily know much about history. They just like getting away from modern life.
What are the rules at a reenactment?
There are hardcore reenactors who insist that everything has to be as authentic as possible. A lot of people want a period rush; they want to experience the sensation of traveling back in time. And then there are reenactors who are more moderate, who say, “I’m not going to sleep on cold ground…. And it’s okay if your shoes aren’t authentic.” They are perfectly fine with being a farby, a derogatory term for someone who is not as authentic in their portrayals.
Tell me about the safety issues.
Most reenactors are very thorough about safety. All the groups I was with made sure that no one was carrying live rounds. That’s a good thing, because there have been reenactments where live rounds have been fired by accident.
But even though you’re shooting blanks, it can still be dangerous. I broke an eardrum at a Civil War reenactment because a woman triple-charged her musket. And I know of a guy at another Civil War reenactment who had a hand blown off—it was blown two hundred yards down the battlefield—when they didn’t properly sponge the cannon and extinguish the embers. I was paranoid that I was going to walk away with some physical deformity.
Did you ever go AWOL?
Yes, from “Stalingrad,” Colorado. I lasted nine hours there. It was far too real for me. I don’t think you can prepare for the feeling of marching six miles with the temperature dropping to 20 degrees and not having adequate clothing to keep warm.
Tell me about former heavy-metal bass player Rik Fox [of Steeler, SIN and W.A.S.P. fame] and his interest in Winged Hussars.
Polish Winged Hussars were cavalrymen who would wear armor and feathers, which they attached to either their saddle or armor. Fox, who is of Polish heritage, wants everyone to know about Winged Hussars and what they did and how they dressed. He has completely transferred his heavy-metal aggression into this hobby. He is very determined and a good self-promoter—all the things that you think of when you think of a heavy-metal guy.
When you dress up as a Winged Hussar—we did, and we went to a Renaissance Fair—people are all over you, because they don’t know who you are or where you came from. They think you are Hawkman from Flash Gordon. So while Fox is no longer in a heavy-metal band, this provides a certain level of notoriety. This is his performance now.
What is the most controversial war to reenact?
Vietnam is the most controversial, even more so than dressing up as a Nazi. Dressing up as a Roman or a Viking or a Winged Hussar, there is a certain element of Halloween involved. But when you slip into fatigues or wear a jacket with a Swastika on your chest, it’s a little too real and uncomfortable. I’m of German heritage, and to see me with a Nazi haircut and a Swastika, it’s a little disturbing.
What does it cost to pursue an interest in historical reenactment?
Just to get started you are looking at a couple thousand dollars. Civil War you can get into for less than that, but reenactors are pretty particular about footwear and uniforms. And of course you need a weapon. It gets expensive very quickly.
What advice do you have for someone interested in participating in a reenactment?
Ask yourself: What do you want to get out of it, because you can find yourself in situations that are utterly miserable. You may be asked to make the leap from being a “soft” civilian—a guy on a coach with a remote control—to being a grunt in Vietnam. Get in shape and stay hydrated. It’s very easy to get injured by marching for miles with twenty pounds on your back.