Book Review: War Games

February 14, 2009 - 5 Comments

by Jim Barnes

About ten years ago, I read Tony Horowitz’s book, “Confederates in the Attic.” I remember it that at the time, some CW reenactors were upset at the book because they felt it made them look eccentric and a little silly. I didn’t think it was all that bad. After all, I know that I am eccentric and probably more than a little silly. While Horowitz poked fun at the reenacting community at times, it never seemed mean-spirited.  At that time, I was doing CW exclusively. In 2001, I got into WWII reenacting and I remember hearing that someone was doing a book about that aspect of the hobby.  So a few months ago, I heard of  “War Games”, an examination of twentieth century reenacting and reenactors by a scholar named Jenny Thompson, and I thought “oh, that’s the book they were talking about.” (I usually am a few years behind when it comes to books.)

I ordered the book from Amazon and eagerly awaited its arrival. When I opened it I was immediately struck by the negative tone of the review excerpts on the dust cover. A critic named Henry Allen notes that Thompson reports on “these quarrelsome and oddly self-loathing people,” and an anthropologist named Mark Leone says, “she shows us ordinary men who lead partial lives where their emotional emptiness is met through camaraderie in playing army. An empty America is the result.”

Not a good way to start out. Not only are we self-loathing, but we are apparently responsible for everything that is wrong with America. Considering that we are numerically a very small group of people, I would have thought that at least the crooked politicians and the gang-bangers would have come in ahead of us!

Undaunted, I plunged into the book. The author wrote the book as her Ph.D dissertation at the University of MD. As a result, it is well-organized and heavily annotated. The author spent seven years ‘researching,’ which including insinuating herself into various reenacting organizations and making friends with numerous members, while distributing and studying questionaires. While she covers WWI reenacting in some detail and touches on Vietnam and Korean groups to a lesser extent, her main focus is on WWII, particularly a GI unit, the 4th Armored Div.

The result is a year-by-year critique of the hobby as seen from her perspective. While she does give lip-service to the benefits that it gives to participants, she inevitably comes back around to the negative.

Every blemish, every zit that she notices on the face of 20th Century reenacting is laid out for the reader. Thompson particularly dwells on reenactor politics and the quarreling that goes on among people in the hobby. The guys with whom she spends time never seem to enjoy an event. They constantly bitch and complain about everything to the point that you have to wonder why they do it. (I have known people like that and have wondered the same about them. But in essence, some people just seem to like to complain and they probably do it at home about their neighbors and co-workers as well.)

She notes racism and sexism as problems in the hobby. Yes, these things do exist, just as they do in society and just as they do in other hobbies. But there are plenty of reenactors who don’t have these attitudes as well. She gives a lot of space to the male-dominated aspect of the hobby and offensive bawdy humor etc. If she thinks this is unique to reenacting, she has evidently never walked through the service bay at her local auto dealer or had a drink in a biker bar.

In fact, one of the weaknesses of  this work is its insistance that the culture of reenacting is fundamentally different from that of other hobbies and subcultures and beyond that, is unsavory as a result.  All subcultures have their own unique flavor, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those flavors are distasteful.

In the end this work fails because Thompson can’t move past the baggage she brings with her. She sees things she doesn’t like about reenacting and moves to the assumption that these things exist because of reenacting. Reenactors are damaged goods with unsatisfying lives to her. When one has a normal existence outside the hobby, they seem to be the exception. God forbid anyone live differently than the prescribed Yuppie lifestyle. I think she probably intended to be even-handed, but usually when she says something good about reenacting, she has to end the section with something that makes her upset or angry.

Overall, one has to question the ethics of doing something like this to people with whom you have made friendships. These are not celebrities with public persona’s or, conversely,  tribesman somewhere out in the Amazon rain forest. These folks in the book will read it and live with the result of their lives being made public. When people pour their heart and soul out to you, does that justify doing an axe job on them just because they signed a disclaimer? Doing so to advance one’s academic career or to sell a few books seems particularly crass.

Maybe the difference between Tony Horowitz and Jenny Thompson is that Horowitz is a Civil War buff to start with, so he had one foot in the hobby in the beginning and ends his tale with affection. I sense little affection in Thompson’s work.  In the end, the book is interesting as a cautionary tale about dealing with the media or interviewers in general. Also, since it does expose every imaginary flaw about the hobby, at least the reader can learn what not to do.

Overall, Jenny Thompson never really understood reenactors because she never had what a friend of mine has called ‘the hook’ for reenacting. She just never got it.

So one last thought for the guys on the dustcover, whom I mentioned earlier, as well as Ms. Thompson.  To quote Mark Twain:

I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value–certainly no large value…However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden.
Mark Twain’s Autobiography

Enjoy your next event!


Comments (5)

Patricia Patterson

February 14th, 2009 at 10:42 pm    

I read this book when it was first published. I actually met Ms. Thompson on one of her “immersion visits” at Ft. Indiantown Gap. I was not impressed, and I remain unimpressed.

Since Ms. Thompson needed a thinly covered subject for her doctoral thesis, reenactors, and reenacting groups were chosen for a close up look. Lucky us.

Here’s the thing: she never got it, not really. She saw everything through the eyes of a public school educated person with the pedestrian leftist bent of a certain time period. Sadly, she never learned to think outside of that box.

Apparently, through all her higher education in the world of “social science”, she never got around to Small Group Dynamics. So, the bickering she so roundly notes was a total revelation to her. Gosh, it’s never been to me, or anyone who ever spent time in small groups whatever the subject or task.

So, she spends seven years hanging out with various individuals and groups, and still never discovers the basic reasons that we do what we do. She plants her arrogance and self-importance first, and then “goes with the flow”. Bull. She wore the uniform, went to the field, smiled in our faces, joined our groups and in the end STILL was never with us, was not one of us through the good times and the bad. She was a tourist, an outsider, a fake.

It is to our credit that we accepted her, it is to her shame that she accepted that and then wrote what she wrote for personal gain.

Through college, my military service, the private sector and other hobbies, the best people I have ever met are reenactors. The strongest patriots, the hardest workers, the poets, the salt-of-Earth people, the historians, the fun-loving, the honest and even the rascals make us what we are.

Are there jerks, twits, and the truly weird in the mix? Yes, but go to any hobby or group and you will find the same. Ours are few and far between, and for the most part, we are self-policed.

Perhaps someday, someone will write a book that gives credit to the people that stand up and say, “Don’t forget them, the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who gave us our liberty”. Those who are fading fast and whose memory WE keep alive despite the silliness of an academic opportunist who never really got it.

Jim Barnes

February 15th, 2009 at 7:23 pm    


Thanks for sharing that. There are so many things wrong with the book, that I know I didn’t say half the things I wanted to say. One of my sons came over yesterday (he’s a writer himself, just finishing up a Master’s in journalism)and read my review, then examined the book. He remarked, “Gee, Dad, it must have sucked to have read through all that!”

Couldn’t have expressed it better myself.

Matt Gillespie

February 17th, 2009 at 11:54 am    

Thanks for the reviews, I won’t bother to read the pin-head’s book. I recall a History Channel special, several years ago, that was supposed to be about Civil War reenacting. The special quickly degenerated to a show about the Confederate Flag controversy and little about the hobby. Now this book. Will anyone get it right?
I’ve reenacted Civil War for 16 years and am starting WW1. I’ve served in the U.S. Army, taught school & coached 23 years, been a janitor and mechanic while in college and I have to say, as a group, reenactors are fine, honest people who complain far less than most groups. I’ve left 100s of dollars worth of stuff laying out at reenactments and have never once had anything stolen. There’s no way I could leave anything out at school or in the service, it would disappear in a heart beat.
I do hope that someday a prominate writer or film maker will do a work on reenacting and give the hobby its due.


February 5th, 2010 at 6:10 pm    

I agree with all of the assessments made above, but I would add this. As a grad student myself, I’d give her a low grade on the book because it was poorly researched. Her questionaire had too few respondents, and she spent almost her entire time “in the field” with one unit. To truly see the hobby, she should have spent more time with other units, gone to the Midwest and the West Coast as well.
I also plan to write a book on the hobby, which will be better for 3 reasons;
I am a reenactor, it will be better researched, and unlike her, I get it.


Jim Barnes

February 5th, 2010 at 6:12 pm    

I agree entirely. Good luck on the book!

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