War Reenactments History, Dress Rehearsal for War

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War Reenactments are becoming a popular way to relive history and prepare for war
by Alex Taylor

There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys it is all hell. That speech, loosed by William Sherman on a class of Michigan cadets, is an acknowledged truth. War is hell. But that hasn’t kept Americans from war. And it certainly hasn’t kept Americans from war reenactments, either. Reenactments are a popular and, by now, familiar spectacle: a division’s worth of Civil-War buffs and amateur historians camped in the fields of Gettysburg or Saratoga. Reenactors sleep in tents, dress in uniform and, if they are a conscript in the Continental or Confederate army, march without shoes, as soldiers in those down-at-the-heel armies did. Among its enthusiasts, the reenactment is often described as living history,’ though this gives one pause. Down to the detail of a coat button or regimental banner, reenactments are accurate depictions of the past. But they are also woefully inaccurate, imposters, reallybattlefields without the fields of dead. This entwine is the subject of Small Wars, an exhibition of war reenactment photographs taken by An-My Lê, now in its final week at the RISD Museum of Art. 

A cowfield becomes a landing zone in Vietnam, VA 

Of the 50 works included in show, half document a number of Vietnam War reenactments held in rural Virginia. For the series, Lê, who was born in Vietnam before fleeing the country for the US in 1975, attends to what she calls Vietnam of the mind. In Rescue, one of the first photographs in the show, the reenactors are seen gathered around the prop of a downed…

     

fighter jet, about to rescue the bloodied dummy that hangs from the plane like the tongue of a thirsty dog. But South Carolina is no stand-in for Vietnam; the thin white pines lining the scene tell us that much. This theater of war, upon inspection, turns out to be mere theater, what Lê describes as the place where war is psychologically anticipated, processed and relived.

With its dense tangle of blacks and whites, Lê’s photographs are so profligately lush as to distract from the small warring within. In Ambush, the violent ersatz is lost to milkweed, creeper and underbrush, the leaves of which are made unbearably bright by the light through the tree boughs. As photographs go, Ambush is purely aestheticin its own way, as decorative as the breathless whoop of charge the hill’ one hears in war reenactments. Art meets artifice.

No one dies in Small Wars and the enemy is rarely seen:  a single Vietcong crouches in the tall grass like the lion of sportsman fiction. The single portrait of the series, G.I., depicts a 30 to 40 year-old man dressed like a soldier in fatigues, clean looking save for the artful smear of mud along his cheek. His watch is set to civilian time; in other photographs, his brothers in play are seen smoking behind camouflage duck blinds as though on a camping trip. The scene is so un-serious as to remind one of the uncle in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, re-fighting the battle of Namure in a fort on the lawn of Shandy Hall, complete with batteries, saps, ditches and palisadoes with which to follow Malborough’s campaign on the continent.

He at least is a veteran, separated from his wits by a war-wound to the groin. Though Lê’s photographs tell us nothing of the reenactor’s thinking, it is enough to dwell on appearances. Their Vietnam is a boy’s game in the woods. It is youth’s capacity for wishful buoyancy on display in Small Wars, not the military enthusiast’s attention to detail. A cow pasture turns into Landing Zone; a creek becomes Ambush Zone II. That a moral and military disaster like Vietnam should, within three decades’ time, turn into the stuff of sport like this is woeful. It may be that given the present bruising of American endeavors abroad, reenactments are a way to triumph in a medium that favors sprinters. We can win all the reenactments, even if we lost the war.

Lé’s feelings are difficult to seeI think of her as a sly presence, laughing from the margins of her work at the reenactments. In her 1994 photograph Untitled (not in the Small Wars show) one sees the very real effects of the War on the landscape of Vietnam, scorched by napalm and gauged by bombs, the latter of which have left the countryside full of craters, which in the years after the war filled up with malarial swamp. There the War’s palimpsest is as thick and intractable as mud. 

Baghdad, CA

The second series of photos included in Small Wars is Lê’s 29 Palms. These more recent works take their name from a marine base in California where battles are staged for troops soon to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The base, as the catalogue notes, is less than 100 miles from Hollywood, a number that suggests all kinds of tawdry metaphors, some of them deserved. 29 Palms looks like a studio back-lot, with the canvas and plywood storefronts of a western here replaced by military barracks standing in for some Sunni Triangle slum. The phrases Good Saddam and Bush Donkey are spray-painted along the barrack’s walls, where Puma sneaker wearing men who are actually American soldiers but pose as a gang of Mujahideen, smoke menacingly. Lê’s 29 Palms photographs look like Cowboys versus Indians played out on a desert parking lot, except that this dress rehearsal leads to the accursed real thing.

In interviews, Lê has described 29 Palms as a conscious evocation of the Civil-War photography of Mathew Brady. Brady’s influence on Lê is twofold: the look of a Bradythe hardened tar-like realism’ of his Confederate Dead Behind a Stonefigures heavily on the dense and sooty landscape of Lé’s photography. Lê has also consciously evoked Brady’s un-journalistic habit of carefully arranging his scenes and going so far as to pose the dead. While not quite cooked up, the pathos of Brady’s Confederate seems to have been elbowed along. In Colonel Greenwood, Lê crops the photograph such that the image of the soldier at observation takes on the look of the watching from the hillock’ scene from any number of movie westerns. Unlike Brady, who had the good chance to die long before post-modernism was invented, Lê draws attention to the way in which photographers can distort a picture’s truth.’ A text panel in the exhibition goes so far as to ask visitors to read Susan Sontag’s essay The Photography of War, which appeared in a 2002 issue of The New Yorker. But the photographic image, even to the extent that it is a trace (not a construction made out of disparate photographic traces), cannot be simply a transparency of something that happened, Sontag writes.

Sontag is right to be wary of photography’s claim to truth. Though the stereotype of the photograph has long been that it’s worth 1000 words,’ the medium has always been an easy hideout for liars and frauds in a way that its older, imperfect-looking cousins, painting and sculpture, have never been. That was the lesson of The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York last fall. How quickly the quacks and parlor sorcerers of the mid 19th century European fringe realized the power of photography, beating even the pornographers. But Lê’s photographs are so self-consciously rum, both in subject and formal set-up, as to pardon the photographer for her untruthfulness. The culpable smudge of finger is on the corner of each print. In any case, it may be that Lé is most enjoyable when she plays truant from theories of transparency. Two of my favorite photographs in Small Wars, Lê’s Night Operation III and Night Operation IV, are content-lesslike firecrackers set off by desert giants, falling intractably, strophe and antistrophe, in the dark.


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