Thursday, August 30, 2012

War Games

The Germans take their positions to defend the beach as Allied bombers buzz overhead, dropping their loads with ear-splitting thunder. Staccato machine-gun fire reverberates as bright red flashes of ignited black powder erupt from the muzzle of each weapon. At water’s edge, Allied soldiers spill onto the beach in an unrelenting stream, jumping from crater to crater, exploiting the foxholes which their bombers have carved into the sand. The battle rages as Americans fall, Germans fall, but slowly, slowly the Allies creep closer to the German line until it is, at long last, overrun.

I sit on the side of the hill, perhaps fifty yards from the corpse-strewn beach. Soldiers – the able-bodied, the wounded and the dead – rise to appreciative applause. The crowd cheers as the public address announcer declares that victory is ours. But I can’t bring myself to cheer, thinking of the dead and wounded. After all this is war…or is it?

No, it isn’t. This isn’t June 1944 on the beaches of Normandy, France, but August 2012 in Conneaut, Ohio, USA on the tranquil coast of Lake Erie.

This is an annual event – “D-Day Conneaut” – in the quaint northern Ohio town. In a recreation of Occupied France, re-enactors take on the roles of American, British, Free Polish and German troops, French Resistance fighters, Red Cross nurses, war correspondents and USO performers. I even encounter a frisky guard dog – a German shepherd, of course – in the Axis “camp.”

The re-enacted battle is more real to me than reading a soldier’s memoir or watching a war movie, however gruesome and disturbing. I can actually feel the concussion of rifle fire against my breastbone. I am almost certainly not going to experience an actual battle first hand, but I’m sure this is the closest thing to it. The re-enactors take their roles very seriously. The uniforms, weapons and machinery are accurate down to rank insignia and battalion designations. Some men wear 1940’s style wire-rimmed eyeglasses and the women style their hair in the fashion of the time. As I walk amongst the re-enactors I ask some of them how deeply they incorporate “the part” into their consciousness. To what extent do they believe they have become actual participants in war, or are they conscious all along that this is only role-playing? Do they think, even for a fleeting moment, that their lives could be in danger? Do they feel as though they have been transported to another place and time where they might die? I’ve heard that actors embody their roles so intensely that the emotions of the characters come through to the audience. I’ve never acted, but as a fiction writer, I delve as deeply into my characters’ hearts and minds as I can so that their words come through on the page and their emotions and actions ring true.

When I visit the American camp, I inquire with fascination about the realism of the recreated battle. If they are firing blanks, why the red flash as the shot resounds? I learn that results from the ignition of paper at the discharge of the empty shell casing. I’m impressed – it’s all quite convincing. I ask how they know they’ve been hit, since blanks do not inflict pain. A re-enactor explains that they take turns playing dead, though sometimes they merely give up; dressed in heavy wool uniforms, in the heat of an August day, with thirty pounds of arms and equipment on their backs, it is sometimes easier to just lie down and rest in the sand. They feign death, content in the knowledge that although this battle is over for them now, they’ll be plenty more in their futures as recreational re-enactors.

I visit the German camp with keen anticipation. I’ve read many memoirs of Wehrmacht soldiers and imagine meeting a Guy Sajer, Johann Voss or Bruno Manz. (See my prior posts for their stories.) Then I remind myself that this is not France 1944, but Ohio 2012, and any Axis soldier I meet is likely to be an American with a passable German accent. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” I ask one of them. “Klein” (small) he replies with a timid smile. “Ein bisschen” (a little bit), I correct gently. I meet another whose German is so much better than mine I can barely hold up my end of the conversation. When I ask where he is from he says, “Dortmund,” and I almost believe him. I speak to a man dressed in the uniform of the Feldgendarmerie, the military police. This group was amongst the most feared of the Axis forces, even by their own countrymen, for enforcing draconian military laws on ordinary German soldiers. They were known derogatively as “Heldenklauer” (hero-snatchers) by other members of the German forces for arresting and sometimes executing soldiers for the smallest infractions. He assures me that members of the military police saved thousands of civilians from the Nazis. I’m skeptical – I’ve never heard this story. But I thank him for the information and promise to research it further. (Perhaps you’ll read a future post about that here!)

A range of questions swarm my brain as I walk from camp to camp. What must it feel like to play “the bad guys,” as one spectator refers to the Axis troops? And for those playing members of the victorious Allied forces, the embodiment of our beloved and honored “Greatest Generation” – do they do this for nostalgia or entertainment, as a hobby or as a patriotic tribute?

Perhaps the most moving scene comes as we sit on the hillside at Conneaut beach, waiting for the battle to begin. A small white van arrives with a contingent of elderly men, actual veterans of the Second World War. The spectators rise and cheer and some wave small American flags. I applaud too. In fact, if my own father were alive today he might be among them, having served in the US Army in the Pacific Theater of Operations. But with my applause comes sorrow for those lost on both sides of the battlefield. My hope is that this remembrance of war and its terrible consequences will renew our commitment to peace.

Germans prepare to defend the beach. Note the spectators in the foreground and background. 

The Allies land on the shores of Normandy,

and take their positions as they face the German lines.

Under a pall of smoke, the battle is nearly over: dead Germans on the right, advancing Allies on the left, and spectators in the background.

Interior of a tent in the Allied camp

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

Note: All photos are courtesy of Jonathan Foise from D-Day Conneaut 2012.