War Games

I’ve never understood the appeal of historical reenactments and why many people participate in them. I think we can all agree that the American Civil War and World War 2 were events that could hardly be considered a fantastically good time. Furthermore, is dressing up in heavy military gear only to get “shot” in the stomach and lie in a field pretending to slowly die really the best use of a sunny Saturday?

It’s definitely one of the weirder forms of “cosplay,” which is saying a lot, given the strange fringes of that subculture. I can understand why an otherwise sensible adult might want to dress up like a character from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings but why an infantry grunt? Say what you will about all the “Slave Leias” and Gandalf the Greys out there, but at least their preferred form of escapism doesn’t involve carrying around 50 pound rucksacks.

Regardless, historical reenactments date back to at least the Roman-era when famous battles were staged in amphitheaters and stadiums. Nowadays, it’s not hard to find groups devoted to recreating the greatest hits of everything from 1,000 year old Viking skirmishes to the American Revolution. 

This begs the question: what’s the appropriate amount of time to allow between the atrocities of a given war and a reenactment? A quick Google search reveals that several groups scattered across the US are devoted to the Vietnam War. I wonder how many years will pass before faux-brigades set their sights on the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War. Is it appropriate to recreate battles from a military effort that’s still going once it passes, say, the ten year mark?

Many who participate in these events will tell you that they do it to “honor the heroes of the past” or offer spectators a “living history” but let’s be honest. Why do they really put on all this gear? Because it’s fun. It’s a more sophisticated version of paintball or Call of Duty.

On Saturday, I was walking back from the outdoor market in our neighborhood when I came across these three outside a pub. My first thought was, “Woah, where did they find a time machine” followed by “if I was an American WW2 soldier suddenly catapulted 70 years into the future I’d hightail it to De Wallen instead of hanging around Leiden.”

But no, they were apart of an event called “Military Day” taking place at the nearby Hooglandse Kerk. The organizers, a group called The Band of Liberation, had gathered together several dozen volunteers and a fleet of army vehicles for a series of activities and parades. I guess they weren’t willing to wait for Liberation Day. It was an odd sight, all these Dutch guys pretending to be American soldiers. After milling about for a while, the brigade fired up their engines and took off through the streets of Leiden to, presumably, liberate it all over again.

I could be wrong but I get the feeling that actual veterans rarely participate in reenactments. Although, there was at least one WW2 vet in attendance at Military Day. I saw him sitting on a folding chair, being roundly ignored by the participants as they checked each others’ face paint and posed for photos. His expression was locked, firmly, on resigned bemusement. If my Dutch was better, I would have asked him what he thought of all of this.

My guess is that he would have said something like, “don’t these silly kids know that war is hell?”

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