Light at the End
"What Happens Next?"
thinking about war as a child
The First World War and the Armistice
Why do thousands of Americans spend their leisure time waging mock combat? How does America's long history of warfare impact its citizens? What does it mean to reenact war "authentically"? War Games explores these and many other questions as it takes readers into the heart of an American subculture whose thousands of members dress as GIs, Nazis, and the grunts of Vietnam and fight with each other over the many meanings of American wars.
Overview of War Games
As the United States fights wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it might come as a surprise to some people to learn that on any given weekend there are thousands of Americans who dress in uniforms, join their units, and come together to fight the wars of the past. While Civil War reenactments are well known, reenactments of more recent wars, including World War II and Vietnam, are far less known to the public. In War Games, author Jenny Thompson takes readers on a hilarious, strange, and thought-provoking journey into this unique subculture.
Based on Thompson's interviews with reenactors, survey data, and seven years of fieldwork--Thompson donned uniforms and joined up with several units to find out for herself what reenacting was all about--War Games tells the stories of thousands of ordinary Americans, mostly men, who make war their hobby. From engaging in trench warfare in Pennsylvania to reenacting D-Day on Virginia Beach, Virginia, these reenactors celebrate, remember, and represent war by meticulously recreating the experiences of the common soldiers of World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War.
The author recounts her own experiences reenacting as she takes readers into the guarded settings of the reenactors’ private battles. Here, reenactors join with their official units to dress in period uniform and assume their roles as American GIs, Nazi officers, and French resistance fighters. Prisoner interrogations, ambushes, trench raids, and mail call, as well as camaraderie and hilarity, are all par for the course in these weekend getaways. War Games also follows reenactors into the public spotlight where they march in parades, perform mock battles, teach the public about war, and defend themselves and their pastime.
War Games not only shows what it’s like to reenact, but it also explains what reenacting means. In clear prose, it delves into the reenactors’ group identity, exploring their motivations and experiences, as well as the ways they actually use and understand history. It examines the reenactors’ interactions with the public, veterans, and each other, and their opinions on a range of issues, from the media’s portrayal of war to contemporary politics. It investigates their near obsession with the all-important concept of “authenticity,” and lays out their private debates over issues ranging from overweight reenactors to the propriety of reenacting as World War II German soldiers. Ultimately, War Games unravels the meanings behind this decidedly odd pastime to show how these reenactors use their hobby to grapple with issues related to their everyday lives.
Not only does the book investigate how America’s legacy of war affects the lives of thousands of ordinary Americans, it also addresses issues related to the meanings of war, violence, and masculinity. In the end, War Games reveals just how powerful the war experience is--even for those who have never experienced it first hand.
“This strange, enthralling book on 20th-century war re-enactors becomes a wonderful case study on the power of history in our lives: history as a sort of Grail quest, history as fetish, history as reality itself. Thompson's reporting on these quarrelsome and oddly self-loathing people is exhaustive. Her analyses of the meaning of memory to them and, ultimately, to all of us, can have a meta-leveled precision that recalls the methodology of Proust.”
"Talking History," a radio show from the Organization of American Historians, with commentary by Jenny Thompson.
"What Are the People Who Reenact 20th Century Wars Up to?" An essay about reenacting on the History News Network website
Thompson's H-War Review of Barbara G. Friedman's From the Battlefront to the Bridal Suite: Media Coverage of British War Brides, 1942-1946.