Big bang theory: live-firing experimenting at Oksbøl
Is it necessary to understand the experience of war in order to understand war? And is it possible to understand the experience of war at second hand? These key questions, put forth by historian Yuval N. Harari in his work on the different ideas of ‘witnessing’ that have dominated western thought historically, hung with me in the crisp morning spring air, as I took part in a so-called ‘live-fire’ event of historical 1864 artillery performed at the modern military training terrain in Oksbøl.
At the event, two Danish heritage institutions focusing on the 1864 war (the Dybbøl Battlefield Centre and the restored Frigate Jylland) had teamed up with modern army personnel to test, record and measure the power of historical artillery in a controlled experiment setting. Parts of a wooden shipside and of a Danish 1864 blockhouse had been reconstructed to act as targets for the historical projectiles unleashed at them from a distance of roughly 100 meters.
The firings were performed in an atmosphere of anticipation, thrill and tech-driven adrenaline, with some fifty invited viewers (the event was closed to the public out of security concerns), most of them male, and many with military and/or media affiliation. Yells of excitement and relief were heard as the powerful guns conducted their demolition and bullets splintered wood in spectacular fashion. Eager journalists, some reporting live on radio, merged with happy heritage managers in co-producing new stories of old wars, making history in an air of scientific facticity.
In Oksbøl, ‘understanding’ the actualities of war meant producing hard scientific facts: measuring the speed, power and flight lanes of the cannonballs, and ‘witnessing’ the destruction wrought first hand. Combining the explanatory powers and fascination of experience and experiment, two terms sharing etymological roots, the live-fire event was an evident, instant, and easily sharable success. The big bang clearly worked on several levels: it produced spectacle, induced thrill, evoked certainty, carried news value. It shaped a certain kind of knowledge and truth that seems to be in high demand in era otherwise dominated by much uncertainty, widespread doubts and incomprehensible wars.