A War Without Blood & Gore: Photographs of World War II Re-Enactors
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In 2014 and 2015, roughly paralleling the 70th anniversary of the last years of World War II, I photographed groups of re-enactors on the East Coast, primarily in Pennsylvania. The name of the project, A War Without Blood and Gore, comes from a line in a Vietnam War protest song by the American singer Phil Ochs entitled “Draft Dodger Rag.” It goes: “If they ever give a war without blood and gore, I’ll be the first to go.” This project, like most of my work, was done with black and white film and cameras that are very similar to the ones used at the time.
World War II was the last “good war” for the United States. The U.S. was faced by existential threats from totalitarian regimes in Europe and Asia, and the country united to fight a war that could be clearly portrayed as a battle between good and evil. Since the end of World War II, wars have become more ambiguous; there haven’t been the clear-delineations between good and evil, and the motives for fighting have become less starkly clear.
The World War II re-enactors who I photographed make use of authentic period artifacts – weapons, vehicles, uniforms, etc. – to recreate the lives of the soldiers, sailors and aviators of the conflict. These individuals were very knowledgeable about the period and happy to answer questions. While some got into the personas of veterans, others took on the roles of portraying members of certain services or units. They bring to life the history of the war to generations born decades after Germany and Japan capitulated, and through displays and demonstrations they preserve the memory of the war’s veterans and their sacrifices. The German re-enactors made me uneasy, but there have to be two sides in a war, even in a pretend one.
I had the feeling that for many of them, World War II represented a simpler time, when there was a sharp delineation between good and evil, when the entire country pulled together in a common struggle, and when American industry produced the tools needed to win a war. Very few of the people at the re-enactments were actually alive to see the America of the wartime years, but I sensed that many of them longed for it after decades of change and upheaval that followed the victories of 1945. In many ways, these photographs reflect the present with all its uncertainties, as much as it recreates the vanished world of the Second World War.