Intrigued after meeting a cross-section of historical re-enacters at Old Fort MacArthur Days, actor/NPR contributor Charlie Schroeder committed to a year embedded with various groups. Opening Man Of War with his World War II experience roleplaying a Nazi fighter in the Colorado Springs area, Schroeder establishes a template he reuses throughout the book: an introductory excerpt from the heart of his visit, maximizing initial bewilderment and odd details for comic effect, followed by a flashback introducing this particular subculture’s participants, then a return to the action for a relatively straight-faced recap.
The most interesting segments treat re-enactments whose implications carry troublesome implications. In Florida for a Civil War event, Schroeder notes the lack of black participants and condenses a brief history of pitched rhetorical battles over the racial undertones of play-acting Confederate victories where none occurred. Likewise, during a Vietnam War re-enactment that gives participants license to spew “gook” and other racial epithets, Schroeder’s willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt wanes when witnessing how people take up this period detail with gusto. These chapters are among the most memorable, personably exploring tricky historical terrain and how it still shapes American life.
But Schroeder doesn't want to lose anyone by remaining in extended thorny territory, so there are lots of tedious stabs at comic relief. Some are sitcom-lazy (interjecting “By Hercules” into the story of a Roman legionnaire weekend), as is the leaning on pop culture as visual shorthand for how participants look. (One Roman re-enactor gets dubbed “Shrekius.”) The closest thing there is to an overarching thesis concerns Schroeder’s twin desire for an antidote to his often-trying office job and his interest in understanding his historical heritage as an American—the better to counteract rabidly patriotic Tea Partiers, the target of many passing, appropriately NPR-ish jabs.
While Schroeder meets his the goal of avoiding caricaturing re-enactors as kooky eccentrics, Schroeder by and large notes political differences or similarities between him and the participants without meaningfully connecting them to the activity in question. Schroeder suffers physically for his material, and he’s a good color reporter, but it’s hard not to wish he’d eliminated all cutesy interjections entirely and mused a little harder on the meaning of his travels, rather than hurriedly finding ways to celebrate the quirky best in his generous hosts.