Civil War re-enactors diligently remain true to character, some would say maniacally so. But what about Vietnam War re-enactors? What happens when “true to character” means re-creating abuses that led to atrocities like My Lai? What if the people wearing rice paddy hats and playing the Viet Cong aren’t Vietnamese? What if they’re not even Asian?
In a recent documentary, a white, college-age male gets asked why he’s playing a Viet Cong and he says, “to put it blunt, you can’t play cowboys and Indians, without Indians. You know what I mean?”
A few minutes later, US troop re-enactors liberally hurl racial slurs when they capture and abuse Vietnamese re-enactors. When challenged about the summary execution of Vietnamese, without a trial, a clear violation of the Geneva convention, a US Army re-enactor says , “I think we’re doing a good job here. Did you see how the f**king gooks got up and ran!?”
Shocking? Consider this, about half of the re-enactors were on active duty in Vietnam. And there’s a concerted effort to ensure nothing recreated tarnishes the reputation of those who served. Yet despite the patriotism, surprisingly, there’s no attempt to cover up the fact that this was not the US Army’s proudest moment.
Why does it matter? At first, I thought this was a bunch of southern red necks running around in tobacco fields, in a delusional re-telling of events from a different continent, mocking Asian accents and yelling pain inducing slurs, in what they thought was a “fun” weekend playing war. In fact, it was a harsh and realistic portrayal of the impacts of imperialism and racism. Most importantly, it reminded me how easy it is to be closed-minded. And how people like me, who consider themselves very open-minded, can fall into that trap as well.