HYSTERICAL RECREATION: A LOOK AT MODERN ‘HISTORICAL REENACTMENT’
A few Introductory Remarks:
I’ve been involved with and have maintained a strong interest in military history for decades, my special area of focus having been for the most part aeronautical human systems technology (read: egress, aerospace medicine, human factors, aircrew life support, and crash/rescue), but I’ve also maintained an avocational interest in military uniforms, regalia, and accoutrements from my earliest days, as a child growing up in the 50s. Ironically, although I am an ardent pacifist by nature who eschews war and firmly advocates peaceful alternatives to war, I am sometimes hard-pressed to explain this apparent polar contradiction that also being a student of military history constitutes. If I ever figure it out, I’ll let you know; meanwhile, suffice it to say my range of interests and outlooks is rather complex and convoluted to say the least!
My interests in ‘militarism’ began at an early age, since my father’s family possessed a strong tradition of service in the British armed forces. Coming from a good Irish Catholic family in County Meath, Ireland, Da’s father left his homeland in the late 1800s to immigrate to the United States. His family settled in Trenton, New Jersey, joining the already sizeable Irish population there, and before long Da had 9 brothers and sisters, of which he was the youngest. Although Da never got further than what would be equal to our American 8th Grade in his own early years, he was a bright, self-educated, resourceful, and determined lad who applied himself to whatever he undertook.
In the late 1890s Da tried to join the US Army, that was at that time embroiled with Spain over Spanish territorial claims in the Caribbean (Cuba and Puerto Rico) and the Southwest Pacific (Guam and the Philippines). Before long, what we now know as the Spanish-American War began to heat up and in 1898 a call went out to enlist volunteers for a campaign against the Spanish Army in Cuba. Although at age 17 Da was too young to enlist as a private soldier, he was able to sign on as a drummer boy in Teddy Roosevelt’s famed ‘Rough Riders’ regiment [The minimum enlistment age in the Regular Army before the 1898 Spanish-American War was 16, with parental consent necessary for minors under 21. For the volunteer forces raised in 1898, the minimum age was set by Congress at 18. After the war in 1899 Congress raised the minimum age for Regular Army enlistment to 18].
Having survived the two month campaign against the Spanish under Roosevelt, Da returned to the New Jersey area and later joined the New Jersey State National Guard, where he rapidly advanced through the ranks and received an officer’s commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. Somewhat after that he joined the regular Army, retiring from active service as a Captain after several assignments that included commanding the Army’s old Camp Gordon Rifle Range in Georgia (later designated Fort Gordon), where his skills as a marksman were well utilised. In the early 30s, Da left New Jersey and came to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he again became involved in the California State National Guard, rising to the rank of a Major, before meeting my mother and getting married (his second marriage, her first) in 1935.
He also became associated with the San Francisco Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church, taking on responsibility as the director for the physical education and traffic guard programs of the entire San Francisco Bay Area Catholic parochial school system. Living close by the US Army’s 4th Army Headquarters in the Presidio, Da cultivated numerous contacts among the regular army officers there and conducted many of his school military reviews at the Presidio’s review fields, with the Army’s close cooperation. Since the entire nation was by this time quite concerned about the growing threat of global conflict by a rearmed Germany and militaristic Japan, even the elementary school traffic guard corps had a semi-military flair and Catholic parochial school PE exercises were conducted with a distinctly militaristic touch. As a result of these pre-war close cooperations with the US Army, by the time war was declared with Japan, Da was drawn into the sudden US mobilization effort, due to his lifelong work in military affairs. When the war ended in 1945 and peace returned, our family entertained a number of military dignitaries at our Marina District home (which was situated, by the way, in a flat directly over that in which Joe DiMagio and his family lived). Among them were North African and Italian Campaign hero General Mark Clark, Corregidor hero General Johnathan Wainwright, and a number of other high ranking officers associated with the former 4th Army and Western Defense Command headquarters that had been established at the Presidio.
Thus, as a young lad who had been born in 1946 (almost exactly 9 months from VJ day, amusingly), I was constantly surrounded by military figures, both family and family friends, and it seemed to me as if practically everyone wore uniforms as late as the late 40s. Demobilisation continued long after the war ended, of course, so it seemed natural to me to take a strong interest in all things military.
Although Da passed on when I was only 4 years (1950), I had already begun to collect unit patches and Army insignia by the age of 8. This interest, combined with the prominent public media focus on 1950s experimental aircraft testing at the nearby Edwards AFB flight test facility, served to forge a strong and continuing awareness on my part of the armed forces (especially the US Air Force) and the historical aspects of our military services. I myself served briefly in the US Air Force, during the Vietnam conflict of the Cold War years, but that’s a different and tangential story in itself. Suffice it to say that these interests continue strongly today, despite my avowed left-of-center political leanings and personal conviction that war should only be sanctioned after all possible diplomatic efforts have utterly and completely failed (and then only under certain circumstances).
Historical Reenactment: some necessary background
Today, with the Second World War now 64 years in our past, our fascination with the westwhile ‘last good war’ continues, although for the most part a great number of veterans who actually fought in that war have now passed on or are rapidly advancing in years. Interestingly, a new generation of younger Americans have come along with an expressed interest in the wartime events and campaigns of the early to mid-40s, although much of what they have learned about that conflict stems directly from highly partisan historical accounts, books, and films dating back to years well beyond 1945. In particular, interest in WWII military aviation remains quite strong, given the dawning strategic importance of airpower in that era’s conflicts.
It is further interesting, and I believe worthwhile, to note here that as life today becomes ever more depressing and sobering in the face of the still developing world wide economic draw-down, people are turning more and more to fantasy as a means of relieving some of the essentially grim psychological pressures of modern life. Partly in consequence, America in the past half-century has developed a strongly rooted interest in pure fantasy and escapist entertainment, thanks to the rise of Hollywood's epic films that range from lavish biblical fantasies (e.g. ‘The Ten Commandments’ and other DeMille cine works) through science fiction (perhaps the best example I can think of is the ‘Star Trek’ series). In its inimitable manner, the American corporations and their media advertising adjuncts have cleverly converted fantasy and ‘escapism’ into an effective marketing tool to employ in their unceasing efforts to sell material consumer products. With the subsequent rise of advanced animation and computer-generated software, the selling of fantasy has today become such a powerfully coercive force in our lives that the more astute among us occasionally find ourselves resenting the fact that raw, archetypal imagination (such as that fostered by reading books) has almost been entirely replaced by insidious, ready-made virtual games and films (that are increasingly blurring the line between artful fantasy and artifactual reality). This is both a good and a bad thing, obviously, since an unquestioning embrace of fantasy that is bereft of minimal applied intelligent reflection can be a very dangerous force for influencing and shaping awarenesses in a manner not altogether healthy or beneficial for society at large.
This effect may be witnessed at its worst in recent expressions of outwardly directed adolescent violence that are instances of direct psychological decompensation by youths; it is suggested by academics that these incidents are attributable largely to modern action films and electronic games that feature extreme levels of violence and gratuitous brutality. A genre within which traditional moral behavioral norms are increasingly submerged and often entirely lost in newer emerging pseudo-realities, they serve to blur the line between pure imagination and the social requisites of real life. It is generally recognised that human imagination is properly indulged within a supporting framework of intelligent reflectivity, knowledge, and a structure of clear cut understanding of what society permits in civilized social settings. This contrasts markedly with the ignorant, antisocial ‘acting-out’ of aberrant or deviant acts that may grievously violate or impermissibly negate maintenance of traditional ‘realities’.
In the United States, the cult of ‘spin’ and elaborately contrived substitutions of fantasy for factual reality have advanced so far that the concept of ‘reality’ that we formerly acquired through endless and repetitive social interactions with others is today replaced almost entirely by utterly unreal Madison Avenue artifice. With whole generations now growing up with understandings based solely on what they observe on television and in films as the primary source of their social learning processes, it is little wonder that we are seeing more and more violent psychological decompensation (read: public acts of grossly extreme violence) in our nation. Of course the causes of these egregious breeches of behavior are far more complex than this, but the substitution of commercially driven fantasy for social reality (that has itself become an American specialty product) is perhaps one of the most flagrant and worrisome dilemmas we presently face as a nation.
Historical Reenactment: how it began and some expressions
Today, given all that has been referenced above, and although history as a general education subject is still lamentably deficit in the general population, some Americans express an interest in history through what we now call the ‘historical reenactment’ phenomenon. This movement, having gained considerable momentum since the 50s, found some of its earliest inspirations in the ‘Society for Creative Anachronism’ (hereafter referred to as the SCA), an offshoot of the science fiction and fantasy milieu of the 1960s. Comprised originally of a group of dedicated fantasy buffs, the SCA grew up out of an effort to recreate the customs and traditions of Medieval European nobility through mock battles. Holding a strong appeal for many, the concept of the noble knight in shining armor winning his lady’s favor on the jousting field quickly grew in scope to expand into what soon became the popular ‘Renaissance Pleasure Fairs’ (60s and 70s). In the latter instance, a recreation of the entire European Middle Ages experience took form as a country festival that invited the public to come and participate in what was described as a prototypical slice of feudal European life in the 1100 to 1300 period. At such events, all sorts of activities flourished, including demonstrations of Medieval forms of battle, displays of individual combat, jousting matches, crafts, characteristic foods, and even a daily ‘Royale Progresse’ by the Queen (usually a courtly parade through the fair by Elizabeth I and her royal courtiers).
In later years (the 80s and 90s), the SCA inspired recreation of Middle Age society spawned even more offshoots, such as harvest fairs, summer fests, and a range of closely related period events. At such events, the primary activity quickly became the selling of crafts and products (clothing, foods, replica edged weapons, etc.), with joisting and knightly displays of battle becoming more of a supporting backdrop (the effects of commercialism). Eventually these ‘harvest fairs’ began to take on different identities, one of the most well-known being the Victorian flavored ‘Dickens Christmas Festival’ that originated in the San Francisco Bay Area.
At all of these events, the public was invited to attend (as paying visitors) 'in costume and in character’. This further served to encourage ordinary people to indulge in a bit of harmless and entertaining fantasy themselves, acting the part of a noble or peasant and getting more completely into the spirit of things.
By the time the 80s has ended, this essentially harmless form of escapist fantasy yielded up its innocence to organised commercialism, as cine films that took full advantage of computer assisted design (CAD) software came into currency. In a subsequent development that in turn fostered elaborate computerized games and fantasy videos, the fine line between traditional realities (with its book-based requirement of applied imagination) was further distorted by a hardened marketing focus on visual action that discouraged imagination and emphasised vicarious violence through computerised fantasy gaming. Although adolescent motor skills increased as a result, traditional imagination was by now a fatality and a cast off relic of simpler times. Given the fact that adolescent brains have not yet fully developed (recent evidence suggests that full adolescent maturation is not reached until well into the 20s), it is not difficult to see how factual reality may be easily confused by the sort of elaborate, escapist and action-oriented fantasies in common current circulation.
Although classical imaginative fiction such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ adventure books encouraged adolescents to think as well as imagine (the same is true for the Harry Potter books), in today’s world of contrived, sophisticated FX films (like the soon to be released ‘Terminator Salvation’) and action-gaming, absolutely nothing has been left to imagination at all. The new genre is entirely a fast-moving, highly formularized visual spectacle of action, blood, extreme brutality, torture, revenge, combining all of the worst aspects of human depravity boiled together into two hours of vicarious cine thrills. The same result obtains from all of the current crop of violent action games available for PlayStation, X-Box, et al.
Historical Reenactment: a redux
OK, given all of this discouraging and speculative rumination, there are also gentler, somewhat more instructive expressions of what we have come to call ‘historical re-enactment’. I specifically refer to groups that have grown up to recreate, commemorate and foster awareness of past military engagements and actions. The groups included in this category are many and varied, ranging from those that specialize in the recreating battles of the American Revolutionary war era and the American Civil War years, to those that recreate World War Two era history.
The individuals who participate in these ‘re-enactments’ of historical military battles or campaigns take their interests quite seriously, as attendance at any of the many American Civil War reenactment camps will quickly demonstrate. Few things are more visually impressive than the graphic spectacle of several hundred (or thousand) blue coated Union Army and an equal number of gray coated Confederate soldiers engaging in mock combat across an open field. Despite the fact that most Americans have become aesthetically insulated against the vicious brutalities of modern (or ancient) warfare (their experience typically being limited to the viewing of a war news report clip), the opportunity to see a demonstration of war (even in a simulated form), gives the average person pause for thought and reflection on what most have never been forced to confront before (the awful effects of war and armed combat).
In some cases, after the spectacle is over and everyone has gone home, an interest in the historical nuances of the period remains active in some and this may lead to the reading of available accounts in books on that particular war. Sadly, and usually, only a handful of spectators are so motivated and for far too many (who may lack sufficient capability for reflection) the spectacle remains simply a Disney-like form of warlike voyeurism. I’ve noted the same effect at our local air museum on our so-called ‘open days’, when we open up the cockpits of our military aircraft to let the public climb into and sit in the ‘offices’ of our fighters and bomber aircraft. Fortunately, for every dozen or so of what I call simple ‘Lookie-Louie’ visitors, there is usually at least one person among them who demonstrates some interest in and understanding of what these aircraft represent. Most of the time it is a younger person and in some cases one can almost see the child's interest in aviation expanding as the airplane’s function and performance is explained. I can recall at least one distinct recent instance where the young individual in reference was a bright young girl of about 16. Shortly after graduating from high school (I was told), that girl entered the US Air Force Academy, flew fast jets, and is today a highly qualified applicant for the planned NASA space flight missions of the coming decades.
Although I am not myself a participating historical re-enactor (I laughingly refer to it as ‘hysterical recreation’), I respect those who do take this sort of interest very seriously and maintain communication with a number of individuals who are actively involved in World War Two military aviation re-enactments. For my part, I presently limit myself to collecting uniforms of various air forces—most especially hats and tunics (or ‘blouses’ in the proper terminology). At one time in the past, I collected aircrew life support gear (helmets, oxygen masks, pressure suits, and other aircrew survival items), although my use for them was mostly as photo-resource material to accompany papers and articles. Once I had gathered sufficient information (data and photos) on the gear, I eventually let them go or donated them to museums, but I am still collecting uniforms today--although strictly as a hobby. Of particular interest to me are those of Britain and the former British Commonwealth nations (Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, India, etc.).
Not surprisingly, there is such a strong resurgence of interest in World War II military aviation history now that a great number of individuals are collecting items from this period. Uniforms, in particular those with distinct and documentable historical provenance, now command fairly steep sums of money and the competition (between period history buffs and re-enactors) for surviving genuine specimens (as on eBay, for instance) is almost as much of a struggle as the real WWII battles were themselves! One of the most interesting effects of all this interest in WWII military aviation (especially in the Royal Air Force) has been that the surge in demand for genuine specimens of uniforms and gear has soared into the stratosphere. With that increased demand has come about the replication of these items for collectors at fairly significant prices. At present, the quality of many of these ‘replicated’ items has become so high that only a truly knowledgeable collector possessed of substantial understanding can successfully differentiate between a genuine article and a high quality fake. In many cases, sadly, the fakes are sometimes passed off as genuine, with stiff prices being asked.
Curiously, the fakes are frequently made by the same providers and manufacturers of the originals many years ago, and the quality is often outstanding. With the flood of Russian collectibles and artifacts to the west that has occurred since the early 90s, a great industry in itself has grown up around Russian replicas (centered largely in the Ukraine). Experience and knowledge are the only assets that will help an interested neophyte find his/her way past the fakes to source out the genuine specimens, but in many cases the fakes and replicas are almost as eagerly embraced for their excellent suitability as convincing reproductions that may be used by re-enactors without fear of harming or jeopardizing valuable originals.
Caution and care must be continually exercised in the pursuit of militaria collecting, however, since many of the individuals who sell or provide articles of this type are, if not altogether duplicitous, somewhat less than honest about their wares. One of the best examples I can think of involves a chap in Canada (Quebec) who has been selling what we call ‘Air Rank’ RAF officers’ peaked caps in ‘unissued’, mint condition for about US$58.00 each. [For those of you who are not well-versed in British terms, a ‘peaked cap’ is the British counterpart to what we Americans would call a ‘visored service cap’. Others call them ‘forage caps’ and the Germans refer to them as ‘Shirmmutze’. A ‘peak’, to the British, is a visor. It can understandably be a bit perplexing to the collecting newcomer.] The fellow in reference sells (via eBay) what he advertises as being ‘authentic ‘Air Rank’ peaked caps, obtained directly from Canadian Government surplus stocks. [A further note of explanation: In the Royal Air Force, what would be ‘general’ ranks in the US armed forces are termed ‘Air Rank Officers’, and would include ‘Air Commodore’ (our ‘Brigadier General’, with one star), ‘Air Vice Marshall’ (our ‘Major General’, with two stars), ‘Air Marshall’ (‘Lt. General’, with three stars), ‘Chief Air Marshall’ (‘General’, with four stars), and 'Marshall of the Royal Air Force' (we have no similar rank in peacetime, but it would equal 5 stars). The precedent for the RAF system of ranking may be quickly understood when one looks at traditional Royal Navy ranks from which they derived.] To be sure, these 'sexed-up' caps look beautiful and the cap devices and ‘scrambled eggs’ on the visor all appear at first to be quite authentic and impressive. So impressive and so authentic in fact, that only a bit of digging into factual data offers an explanation of the real truth: that they are not authentic at all, but VERY clever fakes.
A further complication is that this seller’s statement of authenticity is only half false, however. What this devious fellow has done is take recent issue (1980s) Canadian Forces Air Command (the modern term for what used to be the ‘Royal Canadian Air Force’, before the unification of the Canadian Army, Air Force, and Navy in 1968) and glue an ‘Air Rank’ cap badge to the hat, along with glued-on visor bullion. Moreover, the ‘Air Rank’ bullion cap badge is oversized and not the regulation size authorized for wear back in the RAF/RCAF days, and the glued-on gold bullion attached to the visor is actually a Mylar type material that closely approximates the real gold bullion that would actually have been used.
Somewhat perplexing is the fact that the bullion cap badge (despite its over-sized nature) has been made by makers of the original authorized bullion badge (in Pakistan) and the Mylar visor braid is also a modern product that is used on some caps today. In effect, what we end up with is a ‘half fake’ that has been made up from authentic materials to simulate what would appear to the unwary to be an authentic and original item. Thus, the Quebec chap is only half misrepresenting the truth in his sale of these intriguing fakes.
It should be noted here in passing that Canada has not had any ‘Air Rank’ Air Marshall ranks since about 1970 and that in any event, as of the late 80s, the Canadian Forces Air Command personnel no long wear ‘peaked’ caps at all (berets are now commonly worn as a substitute). Given this information, and the fact that there is a lot of seemingly conflicting information out there on the subject of former Commonwealth air forces uniforms, it is, I believe, somewhat easier to see how difficult it is to be certain of anything, without a lot of careful study and investigation.
Along with a close colleague and friend at the air museum, I occasionally put on one of my RAF type uniforms to provide a bit of historical ‘color’ for our air museum’s ‘open days’. He will generally show up wearing the WWII ‘pinks and greens’ of a circa 1945 US Army Air Forces Colonel and I typically wear my RAF Squadron Leader’s uniform that is roughly contemporaneous. Even so, hardly any one of our visitors would be aware enough of all the myriad details to be able to spot a slight incongruency in our attire (although we take great pains to be absolutely authentic, without exception). I venture to say we could both show up wearing Ronald MacDonald clown outfits and it would evoke the same sort of semi-stupefied take on things that typically obtains when we appear thus attired (more ‘hysterical recreation’, perhaps?).
At any rate, historical reenacting is still a fun and potentially informative undertaking, when carried out by knowledgeable individuals with serious purpose and kitted out in authentic uniforms. It can be and is a useful educational tool for schools. Although it may well be an extension of the sort of fantasy that I began this article stridently decrying, it is far more educationally relevant than most of the thoughtless, all action, and violence filled visually weighted fantasy that is so characteristic of modern game and entertainment media.
As the Spitfire pilots would say, before heading off to attack a marauding stream of German Heinkel 111s in 1940, “Tally ho, chaps!” For their part, the German pilots often wished each other ‘Hals und Beine bracht!’ (Break your neck and leg!), a salutation not unrelated to the old Vaudvillian good luck saying, ‘Break a leg”. All very rich and enjoyable fantasy, of course, but I like to think that ‘historical reenactment’ offers a higher calibre of imaginative challenge than ‘Terminator Salvation’ and other contemporaneous American pop-culture fantasies.
I'll leave you with two quotes: The first is from Leonardo DaVinci, who said "The natural desire of all good men is for knowledge." Right on, Leonardo! At risk of seeming to be an old poopy-pants, I might add that's 'knowledge' as in 'factural reality', not as in fantastic flights of fancy that are totally at odds with anything in our lives that has real substance.
The second and last comes from a source I can't recall at the moment, but it has become a favorite: "Those who can't learn from the past are doomed to re-create it..." (my apologies to George Santayana).