“Bloody hell, men!”
Boom. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Boom.
Three men in tan uniforms lie inert on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Their remaining comrades radio for help and cower behind their jeep, trying desperately to shoot the Germans hiding in the bushes.
The canon sounds again, causing the crowd to gasp and giggle. More men fall, and the laughter picks up. Death is hilarious.
Back-up troops in maroon berets overtake the remaining Nazis, who surrender as POWs and trudge away with their arms in the air. A few hundred people break into applause, and one by one the corpses sit up, look around, retrieve their helmets and weapons and dust themselves off.
At the 26th annual Old Fort MacArthur Days Living History timeline event, held this past weekend in San Pedro, military buffs and re-enactors of armies from the ancient world to present day converge and geek out. Here, time collapses and death ceases to exist. War becomes artifice — a performance — wherein a celebration of aesthetics trumps any discussion of morality or mortality. The air is thick with gunpowder and barbeque smoke, the restrooms are labeled “LATRINES” and the elaborate facial hair puts Echo Park to shame.
Amidst the educational displays and encampments decked out in memorabilia both real and re-created, Polish nobility in bejeweled fur hats and yellow leather boots prepare to defend Vienna in 1683 while rubbing elbows with a man in a modern white furry ghillie suit, worn by snipers hiding in the snow. A woman in a homemade mint-green 1860s Victorian summer outfit, featuring a hoop skirt, a bolero jacket, crochet gloves and a straw skimmer hat, greets a khaki-uniformed army nurse, stationed at Jungle Hospital #2 in the Philippines, circa 1942.
Men debate the merits of cotton vs. wool uniforms, of dress orders vs. combat orders. They roll their eyes at the more ostentatious, European-style uniforms worn by the Confederacy early in the Civil War and at the second type of uniform worn by soldiers in the Pacific theater during World War II, introduced in 1944, which had a big, useless butt pocket meant to hold God-knows-what.
“A lot of people are period-correct down to the underwear,” Dahlan Netsch says.
Netsch and his buddy, retired Brigadier General Richard Pierce, 75, lounge on folding chairs in the shade. Except for his wristwatch, Pierce impeccably impersonates Major-General Charles Gordon, who was beheaded in Khartoum in 1885 while trying to defend British-held Sudan against a Muslim uprising. This is just one of Pierce's nearly 300 historical uniforms, about 80% of which are custom-made.
Once, Pierce brought a Turkish uniform to an Armenian dry cleaners; she spat on him and kicked him out. But at Old Fort MacArthur Days, nationalist grudges, like gaping wounds and the distances between countries and centuries, have magically evaporated. Adversaries clap each other on the back after battles, and the Turks shared their “Persian Gatorade” — vinegar, water and mint — with their sworn enemies, the Winged Hussars of Suligowski's Regiment.
Pierce served in the military for 30 years, but he was in the National Guard during Vietnam and was too old for Desert Storm, so he never saw combat.
“Mostly I was an administrator,” he says. “My job was to send young kids off to fight. I'm not proud of that, but that's what I did. If they sent politicians and fat old guys like me, there wouldn't be as many wars.”
It seems that many of the people here haven't fought in a real war. As the commander of the German Armies of Northern California, Anders Hudson, 41, oversees 1200 men. Hudson's great-grandfather fought in World War I, his grandfather in World War II and his father did 12 tours in Vietnam, but Hudson never enlisted. Every month he leads contingents of Nazis in mock battles, traversing up to 70 miles in a day.
Michael Collins, 62, sports the gray blouse and vest of a major in the Confederate Army, with three gold lines of braid, called chicken guts, on his arm indicating his rank. “The battle is at 2:30,” he says, grinning and checking his watch as if contemplating the start time of a Dodgers game. “It's my understanding most of our men will come back on their shields.”
A bystander, Juan Rojelio, 57, from the Chiricahua Apache tribe, scoffs at the grown men prancing around pretending to be Vikings or privateers. Rojelio's booth displays traditional Apache garb. “Everyone else is make-believe,” he says. In a startling departure from the mimed injuries of the rest of the weekend, Rojelio has strung a captured soldier up to the tree next to his tent: a homemade white-man mannequin with a blood-streaked face, bound, with his feet in the air.
“We would throw pitch on them and light them on fire in retaliation for atrocities they did to us,” he adds.
But for the most part, the lens of history replaces gore with glory. A group of four young boys carrying plastic pistols and clad in army-green camouflage dance around near the battlefield, begging their mothers to buy them more toy guns.
“I like armies 'cause they throw grenades and they blow up, like, almost everywhere,” says Charlie, who is 6 years old. His friend Caleb, age 7, agrees.
“Grenades can kill a bunch of people at once!” he says cheerfully.
Re-enactments are well-intentioned, but it's hard not to come away wanting a reality check. Afterwards, I Facebook chat with a friend of mine in the Navy who has been stationed in Kabul for the past four months. He tells me re-enactments glorify war to children, “as if Hollywood isn't doing a good enough job with that already,” and says he'd be “pretty freaked out” if people dress up to perform the war in Afghanistan 50 years from now.
He types: “its obvious those people have never been shot at. I dont care how much call of duty you've played, it's quite different when people are trying to actually kill you… i've been rocketed and shot at, but ive never had to fire back. i can tell you though… it made me want to shit my pants.”