As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War winds to an end, the hundreds of Americans who regularly reenact that conflict are likely to get plenty of attention. The reenactment at Appomattox is going on right now, in fact.
But the Civil War isn’t the only American conflict that draws citizens, decades later, to replay its battles. In their new documentary In Country (in theaters April 10 and VOD April 28), filmmakers Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara follow a group of men who, for one weekend a year, recreate the Vietnam War.
They wear the uniforms. They carry the weapons. They even, as shown in the clip above, use the lingo that would have been heard on those battlefields (even when some of that language is offensive). The experience is so immersive that Attie and O’Hara had to dress as war correspondents in order to get approval to film the weekend.
But the time-travel aspect of war reenactment is, the filmmakers say, a little stranger when the war is still relatively fresh. As the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon approaches — the war concluded at the end of April, 1975 — Vietnam remains raw.
“When I heard it I couldn’t believe it,” Attie recalls. “Why would someone want to recreate this war that was so divisive? Both Meghan and I were born after the war ended, but it still seemed like something that was fresh and controversial.”
Whereas Civil War and Revolutionary War reenactments are often family-friendly events, a Vietnam reenactment lacks the distance that neuters the violence. Attie says there was a joke in his high school that the school year would conveniently end before history class got to the Vietnam War, because nobody wanted to talk about it. It felt, he says, like a conflict that people didn’t want to remember — even though the men in his new film are proof otherwise.
And their remembering is not just a matter of learning about the history, obsessing over details like how long the soldiers’ hair would have been in one year versus another. It’s also an exercise in empathy, the movie posits, as veterans in the group are able to revisit their real experiences or, in one particular case, impart their wisdom on a soon-to-be Marine along for the ride.
“It made me think, when does history become History with a capital H, and have the teeth taken out of it a little bit?” O’Hara says. “These men are trying to wrestle with it and it seems so soon.”