Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review: “Man of War” by Charlie Schroeder

Spoiler alert: I didn’t like it and the book made me mad.

In 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning author Tony Horwitz wrote a book titled "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War." In major portions of the book Horwitz tagged along with Civil War reenactors that to the uninitiated came across as quirky at best, totally insane at the worst.  But the theme of the book was that even though the Civil War (at the time) was over 140 years old, that period of American history had an effect on the lives of people today. I like that book.  I've been a fan of Horwitz ever since I read it.

Charlie Schroeder took Horwitz’ idea of participating with reenactors (he pays homage to Horwitz on page 46) with the intent of including reenactors of all periods of history.  Like the rest of us, Charlie wanted to know why these people do what they do, why they choose a certain time period or event, why civilians willingly “choose to experience war,” and “why people liked to spend their weekends without any of modern life’s creature comforts” (pp.39-40). In my opinion, he failed to answer any of these questions.

Before researching "Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment" (Hudson Street Press, May 2012), Schroeder says that he knew virtually nothing about American history but that he became interested in part by attending a living history event in southern California called Old Fort MacArthur Days, where seventy-five different reenactment groups were displaying periods from Roman to Vietnam (p. 11).  It reminded me of an event I had attended at the AHEC called "Army Heritage Days."  That experience at Old Fort MacArthur Days (and obviously reading Confederates in the Attic) gave Charlie the idea that he would travel around the country participating in reenactor events and get into these people’s heads. He spent the next year traveling the country, participating with Roman, Viking, Colonial, Civil War, WWII (Nazis), and even Vietnam era reenactors.

Schroeder blames his prior lack of knowledge – along with his apathy – on his high school history teacher, who would give out extra credit for attending the varsity basketball game.  He also says that he used to make fun of the kids who participated in the Renaissance Fair, calling them “Ren Rats” (p. 14). It doesn’t appear that he changed his attitude much over the years.  In fact, one gets the impression that Charlie Schroeder had already made up his mind that reenactors are a bunch of wackos.  Most, according to Charlie, are politically right-wing and he goes about trying to prove it by quoting a number of fringe political statements he heard while on his year-long adventure. Charlie doesn't "get it," therefore he decided to just mock it. He seems to have cherry picked the oddest and strangest among this group of history fanatics in his attempt to prove the myth that they are all a bunch of crackpots. 

I'm very disappointed that Mr. Schoeder never got down to some serious Q & A with his victims to tell me why they do what they do and what it means to them. The book served to document a succession of missed opportunities, after having devoted so much time and money traveling around the country. I believe that the book was supposed to be humorous and “whimsical.” I did chuckle a few times but Charlie thinks he’s funnier than he really is. Actually, he comes across as rather elitist. If you don’t think he “doesn’t get it” and isn't mocking those who love history in the first person, wait until you get to the end. Charlie’s circus stunt "history ambush" walk between the two California missions in the last chapter was just idiotic.

A living historian interpreting a Native American warrior
during the French and Indian War.  Photo taken by the
Roving Historian at a reenactor event at the AHEC in 2007.
Charlie Schroeder never uses the term “living historian” which is a more appropriate moniker for what these folks do. Sure, some are strange and “out there.” Others are just interested in running around in the woods and playing army. But Schroeder never emphasizes the dedication to historical accuracy, and the commitment of time and money that many of these people give to the public. What about the guy who demonstrates glass plate photography and the women who spend time carding wool? Take a look at the picture to the left. Is anyone going to doubt that guy’s dedication to history?  Charlie doesn't talk about the positives of reenacting. Without dedicated living historians, most documentaries and movies would suck. I have a high degree of respect for people who turn other people (of all ages) on to history in a real first person way. You know, like those living historians did for Charlie at Old Fort MacArthur Days as he describes in the beginning of his book. Mr. Schroeder has done a great disservice to those living historians whose main goal is to educate the public, rather than just play dress up. Don't judge the living historians you encounter at our state and national parks based on what you read in this book. 

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