(Editor’s note: Another interesting submission from Chris Ketcherside who has written a couple of posts for this blog. I’d almost call him the resident military historian seeing as the editor has no real experience in this type of history…but that discussion is for another day!)
Book Review of Charlie Schroeder’s Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment
Hudson Street Press (May 24, 2012)
Reviewed by Chris Ketcherside
Charlie Schroeder’s book Man of War has one great advantage to it in that it is one of very few, one of a mere handful, of books about its topic. Very little has been written about reenacting or living history, so his book is a welcome addition.
Unfortunately, aside from rarity of subject, it is not exceptionally good. In full disclosure, this reviewer is a reenactor, so I may be biased somewhat against some of his opinions, but accuracy and opinions were not his only issue. Even non-reenactors will at worst have problems with the book, at best they will be led astray.
His decision to research and write this book came from his attendance at living history event that featured displays from across history. Being curious about the people who would dedicate so much time and resources to such an esoteric hobby, he decides to embark on an ambitious journey, participating in as many different reenacting events in as many time periods as he can in the course of a year. In doing so, he presents a wide variety of hobbies, historical periods, and people. His events include public displays and private events. The best thing about the book is that if you are interested in the topic, each period gets a full chapter, so the reader can see the variety of periods, events, and get to know some of the people involved to a small degree. If someone is thinking of getting into the hobby, this book is the best thing, after the internet, to serve as an introduction. And he covers a good sized breadth of history, from Ancient Rome to the Vietnam War.
If you are a reenactor, however, you will walk away shaking your head at his lack of real depth. Schroeder admits that he starts his odyssey having almost no real knowledge of history, and, while his efforts at researching the time periods he participates in are admirable, it amounts to little more than a good start. The drawback of the width of his experience is its lack of depth. He only skims the surface of the periods he’s in and the people he meets.
This reviewer found the book in the military history section of Barnes and Nobles which seems like the wrong place, after all, it’s not military history per se, but in retrospect it is where the book’s target audience is most likely to find it. Technically it should be in the social sciences section by subject, but once you start reading it, you’ll think it belongs in the humor section. For professing to be a professional journalist, Schroeder’s writing is, at best, cute bordering on flippant. It is rife with pop culture references; these are his go to descriptors, especially for how people look. It seems like he is trying very hard to be a poor man’s Dave Barry without the sense of timing and spot on comparisons, but comes off as if he’s writing for Mad Magazine, but without their sense of irony or wit.
Unfortunately, the flaws go deeper than that, and not just from the perspective of a reenactor. But, first, I offer a defense from what I see as an attack from him. The first event he attends is a WWII private tactical battle, in which he kits up as a WWII German. From there, until the end of the book, he refers to WWII German reenactors as “Nazi” reenactors, the “Nazi” army, “Nazi” soldiers, etc. Now, as a “Nazi” reenactor, as he would say, I know he had it explained to him that we see a difference between Nazis and other German soldiers. I won’t get into this debate here, but part of the reason we reenact this particular impression is to dispel this notion. Furthermore, he writes how his hosts at this event explained the difference to him, which he then ignores with no explanation. I can only assume he continues to use the term for one or more of the following reasons; he is oversimplifying for his audience, which always offends me, he doesn’t care about the difference and has it out for German reenactors, or he didn’t understand the difference.
Beyond this, there is something else he misses. He chose an event that is reenacting the battle of Stalingrad. To prepare for this, he read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943, which was an excellent choice. But at the event itself, he was dismayed that no one wanted to discuss the larger history of the battle or that book. He apparently tried to start conversations around what he had read, but found no audience or others wishing to discuss the larger facts or issues of the battle itself, most of the participants focused on the event at hand, or details about small unit actions or the uniforms and kit being worn. What is interesting is that he questions this, and finds it disappointing, but apparently never asked at the time or later on why this was so. He may have lost the chance to do so at the time, because he quit this event after the first of its three day length. In his defense, this was a difficult, fully involved event, what we call an “immersion” event in that from the start of the first day, the event goes 24 hours with no breaks into modern day. That is, you live as they did, eat as they did, with no modern amenities or real rest for the duration. It involved a lot of hiking and little sleep, and he was exposed to the frozen wastes of Colorado in the late fall. So, it overtaxed him. But the point he missed, and would have learned if he asked, was that this is what the reenactors were trying to experience. His effort to read the book for research is commendable, but he doesn’t realize that all the reenactors there have also read that book, and others, and know all those things, and they all know that they all know. They have little to gain from discussion of books and general history, they are there to learn firsthand, as much as you can in a peaceful environment, the things one cannot really get from a book. Things like the discomfort of the equipment, the exposure to the elements, what things tasted and smelled like. They are there to experience and learn about the hardships that caused Schroeder to quit. He implies that they have missed the forest for the trees, but the truth, which he would have learned if he had bothered to ask, is that they know the forest well, and now want to learn about the individual trees.
Schroeder makes a pretense of introspection, but if he had reread his own book with any objectivity, I think he would have been amused by his lack of the same. Early in the book, he discusses the theme of reenactors focusing on “minutia” of guns, buttons, fabrics, and so on, the bits and pieces of their kit. Again, I would say it is for the reasons stated above, reenactors have a passion for history that goes beyond library research. What I found amusing though, is that later on in the book, he writes about his involvement with a group of Viking reenactors. He explains how they kitted him up, and educated him on their clothing and items to such a degree that at their next public display, he participated in their elaborate demonstration, where he expressed much personal satisfaction in the education he provided on Viking weapons, that is, the details of their kit. He became what he beheld, which could have been a great moment of personal reflection in the book, had he mentioned that he noticed it. But he did not, so it was not.
One may think that Schroeder’s personal growth was not a real subject of the book, but it seems to be a thread throughout, and at times he is very specific. One chapter he discusses at length how all his traveling and reenacting was affecting his wife. She was very upset, and expressed concern that she lost him for days at a time when he was gone or preparing for an event. To this reviewer, this really appeared to just be narcissistic. He traveled for, at most, 4-5 days once a month. I am not sure how this constitutes significant separation, and given the amount of detachment he writes with, I doubt he was “lost” in the impressions he borrowed for these events. In any case, this bit of personal conflict will be laughable to a number of people who must be separated from their families for periods of time, ranging from military members, to police, firemen, and many others who simply travel for their job routinely. And to reenactors, who give up as much time without as much dramatic effect. Part of me is hesitant to negatively review Schroeder’s inner family dynamics, but, he brought it up. He made it part of the book and aside from being amused, I didn’t really care, and I doubt most readers will.
Lastly, his lack of follow up hinders the basic veracity of the book. We don’t know if it was inability to follow up with the questions and issues he raises, or a refusal to do so, but if he had, he could have cleared up many misperceptions he has that he relates to the reader. For instance, yes Mr. Schroeder, many, in fact, most reenactors visit the places related to their chosen time periods. He makes a point to say that most reenactors do not do this. Interestingly enough, he makes this point with the group reenacting ancient Rome. One of the reenactors he says states that he has not been able to travel to these ancient sites. Schroeder, apparently able to travel easily, doesn’t comprehend the difficulty of travel to Europe for some people. And, he does not remark at all about the bulk of reenactors who conduct events on the actual sites of their chosen period. Second, reenacting is a small world. Whether they realize it or not, most reenactors are only 2, or maybe 3 degrees of separation from other reenactors. And, as such, we know when he is getting names and other facts wrong, even if the reader does not.
Man of War’s best recommendation is that if you are interested in the subject, you must read it for no other reason than there are so few books on this subject. Other than that, there is little to recommend it. For a better, more in depth read, I’d recommend Dr. Jenny Thompson’s Wargames over this.