You need only mention outmoded concepts like “original sin,” to get folks really riled up.

Over at the Daily Dish, Chris Bodenner posts anonymous reader feedback on my recent account of a sesquicentennial civil war reenactment. The reader was apparently involved in reenactments as a teenager, but after a few years had a conversion and quit the reenactor scene:

Mine is just a single perspective, but man, do I disagree with Lewis McCrary’s argument that “for the reenactors” the hobby is a reminder of “original sin”; that even “the more provincial reenactors intuitively understand … that war is a result of the fallen human condition.” I suppose that McCrary’s perspective may hold for a few reenactors, but these were certainly not the people I knew. …

Perhaps the hobby is different nowadays. I haven’t donned my gray kepi and butternut shell since 1988, when I participated in the 125th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg as a member of the 12th Alabama Volunteer Infantry. I can tell you, though, that we in the 12th understood only a handful of concepts intuitively, among them “farb,” as in someone who is not appropriately authentic; “hard-core,” as in someone who is intimidatingly authentic; and “motherf*&@ing hot,” as in what it felt like to march around in July wearing layers and layers of wool.

Rather than worry about original sin, we worried about whether the buttons on our jacket were too farby. …

… [T]he one thing that makes war war – death – is the one thing that this Gettysburg [reenactment] was so conspicuously missing. How can we have deep thoughts about, in McCrary’s formulation, men doing violence to one another when the violence is so obviously absent? And if, through sheer willpower, we do manage to summon such deep thoughts, what can they possibly mean in the context of a hobby we are all here to enjoy?

In my experience, we obsess over authenticity precisely to avoid this uncomfortable truth about reenacting, and if – if – there is some intuitive understanding of the fallen human condition, it is not manifested in some unique or superior take on the Civil War. Rather, it comes out in the sheer absurdity by which I loved and cared for my three-band, muzzle-loading, reproduction 1862 Enfield rifled musket, paid for in full with paper-route money – an instrument of death that never hurt a flea.

Before delving into more controversial observations about a subtext of “original sin” or the “human condition”, I was at great pains in my account to show what a spectacle reenactment events are — and the Dish reader is indeed correct that they don’t even come close to capturing the violence and death of the real battles. If I’d had more space, I might have mentioned that films, to the extent they are able to simulate death and suffering, are perhaps in a better position to provoke reflection.

But reenactors are not professionals. Those I met (and I concede that they might not be a representative sample) did not seem as obsessed with authenticity as the Dish reader’s group was (people I spoke to were cleaning their weapons with windshield wiper fluid). In the latter part of the essay, I was less concerned about questions of immediate aesthetics, though, than what motivates so many people to choose this activity for their leisure time — over say, stamp collecting or some other pursuit less connected to history and war — and how they justify reenacting such violent episodes. I concede that most reenactors are probably not sitting around consciously thinking “deep thoughts” about original sin or the perhaps fallen human condition, but it seemed to me that most of their narratives about the war did contain some intuitive reliance on these concepts to remain coherent — just as other narratives (like Faust’s) often imply that history should be about moving us forward, toward some higher consciousness that will enable the abolition of violence.

Much of this turns on what is meant by “intuitive” understanding — and I may have indeed have used the wrong adjective. I didn’t intend to suggest that reenactors are experiencing some kind of false consciousness, or on the other hand, holding seminars around the campfire. Their narrative of the war is often grounded in trying to understand the motivations of individuals, both good and evil, and thus relies upon some assumptions about why people go to war. This is a somewhat different issue from what the Dish reader describes: what strikes me as very conscious peer pressure to appear authentic.  He may be right that this is a distraction, but I’m not sure it tips the scales toward the argument that reenactments are a pernicious activity.