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War Games: Inside the World of Twentieth-Century War Reenactors Hardcover – June 17, 2004

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Smithsonian; First Edition edition (June 17, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1588341283
  • ISBN-13: 978-1588341280
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,179,063 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The patriotic pageantry of the Civil War is one thing, but who would want to reenact the bloody stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front? Actually, a lot of people. There are at least 8,000 would-be warriors intent on honoring the sacrifice-and, above all, the look-of the unsung soldiers of modern conflicts, be they Americans, British, Russians, Vietnamese or Germans. Historian Thompson surveyed hundreds of reenactors, observed their public living history displays and did her part by attending private reenactments, posing variously as a Red Cross driver, a war correspondent and a Soviet infantrywoman. By day participants march, attack, fire blanks and commit atrocities (reenactors seem to delight in being captured and summarily executed and having their corpses looted), the dead returning to life after a few minutes to rejoin the fray. By night they feast, drink, tell war stories and dirty jokes, and generally bask in campsite and barracks room camaraderie. Most of all, they critique the period authenticity of the tiniest details of other reenactors’ uniforms, accessories, haircut, lingo and body type. What do these weekend Valhallas mean? Not terribly acutely, Thompson figures it’s all about her subjects’ conflicted feelings about war and masculinity, the ownership of history and "the failure of modern society to provide social relationships on a human scale." Or maybe the martial atmosphere just gives men license to indulge their feminine side by obsessing over appearance and excluding others for their fashion faux pas. Anyway, it’s a subculture hell-bent on making a spectacle of itself, so there’s plenty of surface entertainment in Thompson’s engaging and sympathetic study. Photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Thompson's wholly admirable study of the reenactors of twentieth-century wars focuses on the World War II contingent, which is numerically larger than the rest put together (second largest is that for World War I, while other reenactors concentrate on Korea, Vietnam, and the Spanish Civil War). Thompson studied reenactor groups on the East Coast for seven years, especially the reenactors representing the U.S. Fourth Armored Division and the Grossdeutschland, an equally elite German tank division whose kit, for reenactment purposes, carefully omits the swastika. Thompson doesn't elide the faults of the reenactors, which include short tempers, quarrels over historical accuracy, and, occasionally, far-out politics, but she emphasizes that, in a sometimes roundabout way, they are studying history from the individual participant's point of view and seeking both wartime and contemporary camaraderie, a convincing illusion of being in the moment, and a way of identifying with the common soldier's experience. She doesn't give them a clean bill of health, so to speak, but does pronounce them eminently worthy of civilized consideration and only informed criticism, which she supplies in abundance. Approachable even by readers not interested in reenactment, this is a splendid example of a PC sympathizer fair-mindedly studying a largely non-PC phenomenon. Roland Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

More About the Author

Jenny Thompson graduated with a BA from San Francisco State University, and went on to earn an MA in American Studies at the George Washington University and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Maryland. Her work focuses on 20th and 21st century American culture, the cultural history of American wars, the history of images, and ethnography. She has taught at the University of Maryland and Roosevelt University in Chicago. She currently works as Director of Education at the Evanston History Center and as a consultant for a variety of public history projects. Visit her website at:

Customer Reviews

I just completed the book two nights ago.
T. A. Scherrer
The situations and personalities that she describes are very familiar, and in my opinion, are accurately represented.
P. Geyer
This book is a must read if only because it's one of the few on the subject.
John C. Ketcherside

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By M. Wise on May 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Okay, I'm actually IN this book and one of the people who's names have been changed to protect the "innocent." I own reenactor.Net and am a WWI and WWII reenactor myself. In saying that, I think I have a pretty good handle on the book, the hobby and how it is.

I know Jenny Thompson and she interviewed myself and a number of others when writing the book. Yes, it's brutally honest and does show some of the "puffy people" for what they are, but in doing so, Jenny gives a pretty accurate portrayal of the hobby... and YES, I did wince at some of the stuff, but it's TRUE.

If you're interested in WWII (and WWI) reenacting, by all means, buy this book -- it will give you a pretty insight into the hobby.

I read some of the other reviews and frankly, some are just "sour grapes" -- there were very few things in the book that I didn't agree with and got a big laugh to see myself quoted (a horrifyingly large amount of times)...

Anyway, this is all my opinion, but since I've been in WWI since 1989 and WWII since 1991, I think I know of what I speak. If you're interested in the hobby, then buy this book!
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Marco Antonio Abarca VINE VOICE on July 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The majority of books about reenacting fall into either the category of photo collections of reenacting events or "how to" manuals. One of the few books that has gone deeper into the subject was Tony Horowitz' Conferates in the Attic. Horowitz used the story of a colorful hardcore reenactor to examine America's fascination with its Civil War. His approach was typical of the "New Journalist" style of writing. Although a participant and observor, Horowitz was ultimately a talented journalist in pursuit of a good story. Reenacting was the vehicle he used to tell his tale.
Jenny Thompson was also a participant observor in search of an interesting story. She spent seven years going to reenacting events and joined several reenacting units. Thompson used her training as a scholar to produce Reenacting's first ethnography. As a social scientist, her objectives were much more amibitious than Tony Horowitz. Thompson wants to explain the hobby of reenacting and the motivations of the people who participate in the hobby.
I would not recommend this book for anyone who is impatient with intellectuals and scholarly discourse. By its very nature, an ethnography is a set of generalizations that are used as a tool to find deeper meanings. I would suspect that many people in the reenacting community would find this book to be overly intellectual.
What I found to be so interesting about this book is that it is the first time that I have ever come across a book that discusses the motivations of what must be a decent percentage of the American male population that is fascinated by the many facets of war. As one of these people, on an intellectual basis, I know that war is a tragedy and that I would never want to participate in a war.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By P. Geyer on June 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Being a reenactor of both world wars, I am pretty used to people outside of "the hobby" putting it down. While reenactors span a remarkably wide demographic, from high school drop-outs to PhD.s, from right-wing Republicans to left-wing Democrats, from conscientious objectors to combat veterans, we are often painted by academics and the national media with the broad brush of all being gun-crazed proto-fascists in desperate need of love and shock therapy. It is with this in mind that I approached Thompson's War Games with a mixture of both anticipation and dread; anticipation because I was excited to see somebody actually trying to explore the unique hobby in which I participate, and dread because I was afraid that the book would simply reinforce the incorrect stereotypes without attempting any sort of in-depth analysis of why people reenact.
Fortunately, my anticipation was richly rewarded by War Games. Thompson, having spent seven years attending reenactments and spending a considerable amount of time with reenactors, has successfully dug beneath the surface to get to the fundamental question of why people reenact. The situations and personalities that she describes are very familiar, and in my opinion, are accurately represented. She raises many of the existential questions of reenacting that I have asked myself, and the answers she provides offer a great deal of insight.
While Thompson obviously has a great deal of affection, and dare I say respect, for reenactors, she does not sugar coat the hobby. The fundamental issues of what represents "authenticity" and what relationship reenactors maintain with veterans and the public are often bitterly divisive among reenactors.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Lee Bishop on June 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I'm a WW2 re-enactor and I've been told I'm supposed to hate this book, the author and everything she stands for.
I'd heard about the book on a Monday on a re-enactor message board, and by that Wednesday I'd read the whole thing.
Now, the chips are clearly stacked against author Jenny Thompson. First, she's not really a re-enactor. To make it worse, she's a GIRL. Double ick!
I cannot review this book as anything other than what I am; a person who grew up doing re-enacting events. However, I think I have the ability to take a step back and call a spade a garden tool.
Thompson hung with several re-enacting groups over a long period of time and went to several events during that time. In fact, after looking at her photo, I'm pretty sure I remember once seeing her at an event, as small women are sort of rare at these events.
A lot of guys in the hobby are really ticked about this book, saying it makes them look bad, she's an outsider and doesn't know what she's talking about. You know the type, "I'm looking in a mirror and I don't like what I see, so it must be the person who made the mirror." Sadly, many of them haven't read the book, and some say they won't as they KNOW what it will say. Those people just won't see reason and without reading this book, they should keep their mouths closed.
I have read it. I find it a fair, hold-no-punches explaination of the hobby. Thompson might be an outsider, but I feel she went into her research with an open mind. She reported what she saw. It's as simple as that.
Personally, I've always known people who do this are nuts. What always baffled me was the sanctimonious nonsense people attach to themselves, like it's some lofty higher calling or something.
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