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'Re-enacting the Vietnam War'

This article originally appeared in The New York Times on Nov. 10, 2014.

VIDEO: \"In Country\"

By Michael Attie and Meghan O'Hara

Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, we were familiar with the idea of war re-enactments: masses of men in woolen uniforms dutifully recreating Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg or trading puffs of white smoke across the Lexington Battle Green while families and schoolchildren look on. Although they were recreating gruesome battles, it all seemed rather quaint.

We felt differently, however, when we learned of a small but growing community of men who gathered each year to recreate the Vietnam War. This was like picking at a scab that has yet to heal. It felt taboo.

This short film for Op-Docs (adapted from our feature-length documentary “In Country”) profiles two of these men. Unlike most war re-enactments, the pretend battles they stage are private, free of spectators and created for the experience of the participants alone. Outfitted in authentic period military gear, the men hike through the woods for days at a time, sleep on the ground, eat canned rations and carry actual Vietnam-era weapons (loaded with blanks). They do not stage battles but rather attempt to find and “kill” a group of Vietcong re-enactors waiting to ambush them.

Most remarkable perhaps is how this unusual hobby brings combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan together with civilians and veterans of Vietnam. They work collectively to create a fascinating space where real emotions and memories mix with history and fantasy. Their reasons for participating vary: Some seek the camaraderie they experienced in their deployment, while others want to relive a vital time in their life. And for all of the veterans involved, it is an event at which their service is acknowledged and respected.

But why Vietnam? Why would these men — many of them combat veterans haunted by their own experiences on the front line — try to recreate a war that so many Americans have tried to forget?

On this Veterans Day, as we approach the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War’s end, we reflect on the complex set of emotions that drives men like these to come together and seek out such an experience. Perhaps that complexity lies at the root of our own country’s struggle to understand men and women returning from war.

- Michael Attie is a lecturer in radio/TV/film at Northwestern University. Meghan O'Hara is a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco.

Topics: Opinion

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