Reenacting War to Make Sense of It

A new documentary follows a group restaging battles from Vietnam, including enthusiasts hoping to emulate the reality of conflict, and veterans trying to better understand it.

About halfway through In Country, Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara's documentary about war reenactment, O'Hara asks one of the participants—a high school senior—why he's there, toting a gun and seeking out the Vietcong. He replies without hesitation that he loves the life because "it's real." Unlike the Boy Scouts, he says, war is authentic and true. The idea that conflict is uniquely, powerfully real isn’t a new one; it's a familiar presence in discussions about the subject, whether in the news, in memoirs, or in fiction.

But it rings oddly here, since In Country after all is a documentary not about war, but about war games. The 80-minute film, in theaters Friday, follows a group of Vietnam War reenactors as they traipse through the Oregon woods, pretending to engage in firefights or to mow down the enemy. Occasionally, they pantomime death—though how dead they're supposed to act, and for how long, is a source of some negotiation and confusion.

While the war in the film isn't “real,” many of the warriors are. Sure, some of the reenactors fit the weekend-warrior stereotype—they like the idea of pretending to go to battle—but others have a more direct relationship with the subject: At least one is a Vietnam veteran, while others fought in the Iraq War. For them, the reenactments aren't so much entertainment as a way for them to come to terms with their involvement in a kind of violence that most of their fellow Americans know nothing about.

The obvious comparison here is with Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 The Act of Killing, in which veterans of the brutal 1965 Indonesian genocide re-staged their crimes. The murderers in The Act of Killing, a more ambitious and disturbing film than In Country, are eager to revisit their actions because that violence is glorified. In Indonesia, they’re celebrated as freedom fighters, and the news media, the government, and the public line up to validate them. There's certainly some of that same spirit in In Country as well: A Vietnam vet says, with emotion, that his fellow reenactors treat him with great respect, both in honor of his service and in deference to his historical knowledge. Along similar lines, a South Vietnamese participant says, "The group has helped me to have the will to think about my homeland, and to continue the struggle in different ways."  Reenactment frames the war, the soldiers, and/or the cause as righteous.

The investment of other veterans is more complicated: The Iraq vets never exactly say why they're reenactors, but they do make some telling remarks about realism and authenticity. One man, a medic, talks about his PTSD, and the way war disconnected him from his inner life. "Everything's just surface; surface personality," he says. "Not the deep emotion. I can't find them. They're gone." Another man says it was "more of a shock coming home than it was going to Iraq. Boom, you're a husband; boom you're a father." For both, war isn't some kind of ultimate reality. Instead, it's a rupture in reality, which transforms emotions and relationships into painted scenery—flat and false.

In his review of The Act of Killing, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued that global capitalism has alienated people from their moral selves, creating a situation in which the Indonesian murderers "experienced reality itself as a fiction." That doesn't exactly seem right for the men of In Country, though. They don't necessarily already see themselves as stars in a film; instead, it seems like they're trying to see themselves as stars in a film.  Re-staging war isn't mistaking fictional war tropes for reality. It's trying to use make-believe as an assurance that war is real—or, perhaps, as an assurance that war has meaning.

The violence reenacted in The Act of Killing was, and remains, central to Indonesian society and identity—the 1965 killings are still crucial to the government's view of itself as a necessary bulwark against communism and other alien elements. But the Vietnam and Iraq wars occurred thousands of miles away from U.S. shores, and are much less central to current American politics today. Even the Tea Party doesn't spend its time denouncing Ho Chi Minh, and Saddam isn't going to be a campaign talking point for anybody in 2016. War is supposed to be real, and yet, these wars, in American culture, no longer seem to have meaningful solidity. For most people, day-to-day, they don't matter. And if the wars don't matter, what does that say about the men and women who fought in them?

The U.S. today is both constantly at war and almost entirely insulated from it. The Afghan war ends; the conflict with ISIS ramps up; drone warfare in Pakistan goes on and on. Warfare may be understood by its participants as an absolute truth, but it's also, contradictorily, a phantom that has no direct effect on domestic existence. As James Fallows says, "the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public." Politicians invoke the bravery of the troops and make sweeping declarations about America's commitment to confronting threats around the world, but for most Americans, those are abstract considerations: Someone else, and someone else's son or daughter, is going to fight overseas, and later deal with the VA's broken bureaucracy.

War's exotic distance can make it attractive; that high-school senior who loves the reenactments tells the In Country filmmakers he's enlisted in the military himself. But the same distance and separation from everyday life makes war unknowable: inconsequentially mythic, and mythically inconsequential. Some of the reenactors in the documentary are trying to bring war home to create a story in this country that makes sense of their experiences in that one. If the result to an outsider can seem at times almost chillingly trivial, that's hardly the fault of those involved. Rather, it seems to capture the reality of a nation that says violence is truth, and then treats war as casually as a game.