Posted in commemoration, historical reenactments, material culture, military, photographs, resistance, rituals, Vietnam War

Historical Reenactment: Romantic Amnesia or Counter Memory?

Apel, Dora. “Historical Reenactment: Romantic Amnesia or Counter Memory?” In War Culture and the Contest of Images, 47-76. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

(This post focuses on only one aspect of Apel’s book.)

Public performances, such as anti-war demonstrations and guerrilla theater, continue to be powerful vehicles for raising social awareness and producing significant instances of counter-memory. In War Culture and the Contest of Images, Dora Apel investigates how photography and other visual practices (including public performance) can be used to create a culture of social consciousness and encourage people to question the world in which they live. She argues that, depending on context, images can critique the reality of war as easily as they can reinforce the practice of romanticizing it. Apel contends that America’s perpetual state of war cultivates a militarized society. Her work explores ways to interrupt this mindset. Claiming that art and war occupy the same space, she argues that contemporary artists are uniquely positioned to engage in social justice activism.

When performing historical reenactments, individual experience outweighs historical or political meaning. Apel notes that the reenactor-soldier “allegorically embodies the uniform he wears.” [1] Reenactments provide access to a particular quality of manliness consisting of “virtue, courage, and the sublimation of personal needs to a higher purpose” that are forged only in the heat of battle.[2] In other words, the primary goal of reenacting is to generate meaning for the participant rather than to reinforce or challenge public memory.  Reenactors wish to experience the “intensity and intimacy of male bonding” that occurs in real wars. Apel emphasizes that over eighty percent of reenactors have relatives who served in the wars that they reenact.[3] Soldiers are traumatized by war and then share that trauma with their families and communities upon their return. Reenacting is a way for family members to find meaning through performance and to connect with relatives who are unwilling or unable to communicate their experience.

Most reenactors are civilians with no desire to experience real war, and veterans of real wars generally do not participate in reenactments because they have little desire to reconnect to their traumatic past.[4] This is true as well for African Americans, who show little interest in engaging in activities that revisit painful memories of enslavement or segregation. Their image of previous wars is not nostalgic. Whereas, white Civil War reenactors tend to mythologize the war and reject its real historical implications.[5]

Apel claims that it is possible to use reenactments to deconstruct official histories and to study our own biases.[6] Rather than performing passion plays or historical pageants of earlier times, reenacting events from wars, such as Vietnam, allows us to reexamine traumatic histories and myths that shape contemporary social and political realities. Apel’s studies reveal how performances can “reframe [the] past from the perspective of those who were silenced or obscured.”[7]  In Apel’s study, “Vietnam in Virginia: An-My Lê,” a group of Vietnam War reenactors in Virginia allowed Vietnamese American artist An-My Lê to photograph them on the condition that she also join them as a participant.

An-My Lê participated in historical reenactments of the Vietnam War in Virginia over the course of four summers in order to photograph the experiences. The relationship was two-sided: the reenactors hoped to win her sympathy and she hoped to win their trust.[8] She often played a North Vietnamese army soldier or Vietcong guerrilla. The reenactors would often construct elaborate scenarios around her character, which Lê describes: “I have played the sniper girl (my favorite—it felt perversely empowering to control something that I never had any say in). I have been the lone guerrilla left over in a booby-trapped village to spring out of a hut and ambush the GI platoon. I have played the captured prisoner.”[9]

Lê found that her participation in the reenactments reawakened childhood memories from Saigon of night explosions, screams, and the trauma of finding dead bodies in the streets. Apel notes that Lê’s desire to interrogate those experiences can be seen as part of her desire to photograph and reenact the Vietnam War.  Small Wars (1999–2002), the resulting art exhibit, has been shown in major art venues across the country.  Unlike the violent photographs of the real war that “implored the viewer toward a moral stance,” Lê’s photos are “quiet, lush, beautifully printed silver gelatin prints” that were produced with a large-format camera and tripod, similar to those used by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan for the studio of Matthew Brady during the Civil War.[10]

Apel explains that due to Lê’s respect for the reenactors’ “complicated motivations,” the photos selected for the show rely less on drama and focus more on a feeling of quiet introspection.

[S]he concentrates on moments of anticipation or reflection, such as two soldiers taking a break to write letters or read the newspaper (Stars and Stripes), resting in the grass (GI), a misty forest opening with the blurred movement of soldiers (Ambush I), or the trails of sparks captured with a slow shutter speed of an explosion in the forest (Explosion). The quietude of the scenes is underscored by the middle-gray scale of the photos that downplays the dramatic, instead shifting the focus to the immersion in the landscape, which takes on a mythic quality and becomes a character in the scenarios, almost overshadowing the dwarfed soldiers in frozen tableaux.[11]

The resulting photographs of American soldiers in Vietnam offer another image of the warrior. Unlike most of the teenagers drafted into the war with Vietnam, these noncombatants volunteered to participate. Not much information is offered about the reenactors. We only know that they were men who did not fight in the war, but claimed that they wanted to. They felt a need to connect to the enormity of that experience. One reenactor had lost a brother and the fathers of two others had fought in the war.[12] Apel provides an image of the warrior’s extended family and a civilian survivor.

[1] Dora Apel, War Culture and the Contest of Images (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 50.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5] Ibid., 57.

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Ibid., 67.

[11] Ibid., 68.

[12] Ibid., 66.