I have noticed this article gaining some traction recently, and I wanted to jot down a few quick thoughts in response, none of which will endear me to the progressive reenacting community of my era.
1) Obviously, at the outset, non-combatants have existed in every theatre of combat since the beginning of human conflict. Portraying them is an important part of any military reenactment. One of the most interesting and memorable parts of my participation in the 2016 Welbourne event was how to deal with a group of non-combatant woodcutters who were in a combat zone. (It was not the most interesting, that was being attacked by American light dragoons). Refugees, civilian urban populations, and non-combatants with an interest in following armies have always been a part of military experience. Armies do not exist in a vacuum.
2) The article by John Heckman asserts that unarmed, uniformed personnel have always played an important role and that significantly, there have always been more of them. This is certainly correct for 20th-century conflicts, but needs careful examination in earlier eras. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, or even nineteenth centuries, there were not more wagon drivers than musketeers. That is simply not how armies in that era were constructed. Musketeers often performed vital non-combatant service, and this must not be overlooked, but they remained musketeers. In essence, a British soldier in the American War of Independence might have spent more man-hours cutting wood than shooting at rebels, but his designation was not, "wood-cutter."
3) If we expanded this criterion to include civilians who support combat arms forces, obviously it becomes truer in this earlier era, but that is not what the above article argues for. Civilians have always outnumbered soldiers in every society, even in Sparta, even in Frederick's Prussia. When you include foundry workers, agricultural labouers who grow food to supply armies, the definition of "support personnel" can become hazy, even in the eighteenth century.
4) In my opinion, this article is part of a growing trend in progressive reenacting which seeks to downplay combat operations in reenacting in favor of focusing on non-combat events. Partially, I believe this is a response to the relatively absurd nature of reenacting combat at most large, mainstream events. The response of progressive reenactors has been to attempt to portray combat in a better way, but also to marginalize its importance at reenactments.
5) There is something about violence which human beings find continually fascinating. You can believe that is a bad thing (indeed, it is often difficult to look at the trend with optimism) but it is also a reality of the world in which we live. The popularity of super-hero and action films speak to this trend. The popularity of military history courses at universities speak to this trend.
6) As a result of the previous point, and perhaps our uneasiness with it, I have anecdotally experienced a concerted effort to devalue my work and my field. Every semester, I am told that my classes fill to capacity because military history appeals to "traditional" students, and that my students are "explosion-driven bros" (which devalues the presence of numerous excellent female students in my courses). When I expressed an interest in studying military history eleven years ago as an undergraduate, a professor glibly mentioned in class that most individuals leave that interest behind at age 12.
7) The closing lines of the above article are nothing less than a slap in the face to historians who seriously attempt to grapple with the nature of combat in the past:
In my opinion, it is much more interesting to open a person’s mind to larger issues during times of war than simply interpreting the role of a combatant who is more armed with weaponry than with good history.This statement is a slight to the careers of historians who have revolutionized our understanding of how human societies experience combat. It is a slight to public historians and interpreters who have devoted hundreds of hours of compiling what life was like for ordinary combatants in wartime.
I'll finish this unvarnished rant with thoughts from two historians I have a great deal of respect for. In 2008, Matthew H. Spring commented:
“…the ultimate purpose of all armies is to fight, … therefore, the most fundamental task facing the military historian is arguably to study combat…”
In 1987, Christopher Duffy observed:
“We can retrieve the military thought of Saxe, Frederick, and the rest only by the laborious business of retracing their campaigns (a deeply unfashionable exercise among the practitioners of the New Military History) and by reading correspondence and other forms of evidence that were totally unknown to most of their contemporaries.”
What is the takeaway?
We need compromise and respect on both sides of this issue. Obviously, supporting roles and civilians roles are vital to the wholistic portrayal of the past. Some of the best reenacting in recent years has focused not on direct opposed combat, but operational level movement which I think is a vital trend which can incorporate both sides of this equation. Reenacting something like the Race to the Dan River is a military event which occurs at an operational level, and requires both combatant and supporting personnel to achieve well.
The recent Day-D commemoration at the National Army Museum carried this in an excellent manner. There were numerous combatant reenactors with weapons on display, but also members of supporting services in uniform to discuss the wider war with the public. Both were "armed with good history."
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Thanks for Reading,
Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, xi.
Christopher Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, viii.