It’s Ye Olde Reenactment Ethics Debate Again

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A recent article published on MSN has dredged up the endless debate about the ethics of military reenactment that is almost as old as the events depicted, and arguably just as important.

Strange and Disturbing Hobby

“It’s a hard time to be a Civil War re-enactor,” began Sean Braswell, “and not just because trudging through the summer heat in a wool jacket is tough. Thousands of Americans participate in such re-enactments each year, and although these hobbyists claim to be participating in ‘living history,’ they can’t help but feel the increased tension surrounding the activity after recent events in Charlottesville and the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments.” This topical point is certainly relevant with modern politics sharing the flags and iconography of a relatively recent period of reenactment that is still felt strongly by many communities. “Still, even before such developments, staging mass violence and make-believe carnage was a strange and somewhat disturbing hobby.”

But before you berate an outsider for failing to understand the broader values of reenactment – friends and communities brought together to commemorate the past and provide an educational and enjoyable experience for modern families – Braswell does into greater detail that gives commendable value to the often criticised hobby.

Diverse Community

“There is still a lot to be said for such re-enactments, and the community involved is more diverse than you might imagine, including many groups of African-American re-enactors. But the notion that restaging battles — like Confederate memorials — is somehow needed to preserve and remember the past is one that is coming under increased scrutiny,” he said.

“Re-enactments are a useful tool for teaching people about history,” said Jason Phillips, a professor of Civil War studies at West Virginia University, but they “sanitize the real war by expunging its gore, squalor and hatred.” He added that playing soldier can be insensitive for another reason: the frequency and severity of PTSD among real veterans.

While reenactors are well-intentioned, says Glenn LaFantasie, a professor of Civil War history at Western Kentucky University, their impressions inevitably “romanticizes the Civil War because they cannot convey the true experience.”

Braswell gave the rather unsatisfactory alternative that historical reenactment should look to recreating sports events. This seems largely ludicrous given the limited costume, unpredictable nature of play and the fact that a sporting match a century ago would barely look different to today’s matches. That said, many reenactment groups do include casual sports as part of their life in camp. Phillips offers a better alternative of ‘immersive experiences’ like concerts or notable theatrical shows, the kind of living history that is already available at various holidays and costume balls – some of which even run to original agendas.

What is your view on this controversial topic? Let us know in the comments below!

Header image: Frank Pierson (CC- BY – 2.0)