By Jeff Stein
May 5, 2009
War reenactors, especially those who don the Blue and the Gray on
weekends for play-action Civil War battles, are ubiquitous in the
summertime, especially in the eastern United States.
But an enterprising college journalism student recently discovered
young men in New Jersey, including veterans of Iraq and Somalia,
practicing for an advanced counterinsurgency fantasy war game on a
U.S. Army base in Upstate New York - with the blessing of military
officials who've found the contests a good recruiting tool.
The so-called "Airsoft" games -- "like paintball, but more extreme,"
according to Laura Nahmias, a graduate student at Columbia
University's School of Journalism -- reenact battles like the U.S.
Marines' bloody struggle with Sunni insurgents in Iraq's Ramadi and
the fight for Mogadishu immortalized in "Blackhawk Down."
"Players use guns that are exact replicas of real ones but only shoot
pellets," Nahmias reported in "War Games," a story first streamed on
the school's Uptown Radio web site on April 17.
The games include "sound effects of munitions and sirens," Nahmias
reported, and even, where called for, "screaming civilians."
Some veterans think of the games as memorializing their fallen comrades.
Like retired Army Col. Danny McKnight, a battalion commander in
Mogadishu, who told Nahmias that reenacting the 1993 battle of
Mogadishu was his way of "making sure the battle and those men are
Army officials, McKnight also told Nahmias, allow the games to take
place at their Mounted Urban Combat Training facilities at Fort Drum,
N.Y., Fort Knox, Ky. and elsewhere, because it attracts young recruits.
"I think recruiting tool is the right word to use, and I'll put it in
terms of this," McKnight says on the radio show.
"The support is there," he added, with the result that "there's
probably been a dozen that I know of that have chosen to enlist in
the military" after the games.
"There is ample evidence of military encouragement of the military
training in the Airsoft games. The veterans talk to me about it
openly and there are photographs of the reenactments taking place at
Fort Drum and Fort Knox, Kentucky," Nahmias reported.
"But when I showed the photos to media affairs officers at those
bases, they were incredulous. They said they were they shocked to
hear that civilians were using the Urban training facilities during a
time of war, and that National Guard recruiters were active at these events."
Nahmias added, "After confirming the training, New York military ...
spokesman Eric Durr said his office plans to investigate the
involvement of National Guard in these events."
One of this year's big events, at Fort Drum, N.Y., on Memorial Day
weekend, is a fake counterinsurgency battle called "Pine Plains."
Why would these young men, especially veterans, want to recreate such
bloody hell, even with just paint and pellets?
One reenactor, Brian Douglass, told Nahmias the astonishing story of
"He played Airsoft before he joined the Army in 2005, He was shot in
the head in one of the famous battles in Iraq, Ramadi in 2005. He
survived. When he returned home, he quickly joined the Green Mountain
Rangers to play Airsoft games again."
Getting shot in reality obviously didn't scare either man off.
"But playing with these guys -- the adrenaline you get?" Douglass
said. "It's addicting."
Jeff Stein can be reached at email@example.com.
For the entire "War Games" Webcast, go to Uptown Radio.