Abstract The U.S. Army has a long record of utilizing oral history in both internal studies and official histories to supplement the available official records and documents. In this article the author briefly surveys the origins of the modern Army oral history program, emphasizing developments in the 1980s and 1990s. The author notes the relative organizational acceptance of oral history as a practice with benefit to the Army and then offers descriptions of three representative oral history efforts---coverage of U.S. Army operations in Bosnia, the exit interview program, coverage of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon--to illustrate the goals and practices of the Army program today.
The U.S. Army has a long tradition of using oral history to preserve historical information and to bolster its official written histories with material otherwise unavailable in the documentary record. (1) In fact, the Army's oral history program actually began before the Army existed: in April 1775 the Massachusetts Provincial Congress commissioned a series of interviews with participants in the engagement at Lexington. (2)
The modern Army's oral history tradition was established during World War II. (3) Faced with documenting the actions of an organization of millions literally spread across the globe, Army historians quickly recognized the value of oral history for capturing the individual perspective and supplementing official records. Historians such as Forrest Pogue, Hugh Cole, and S.L.A. Marshall ventured overseas, and in the course of covering the war, interviewed thousands of soldiers in order to flesh out the skeleton narratives found in unit records as well as to identify and resolve evidentiary gaps and conflicts. The final product--the US. Army in World War H series, known as the "Green Books"--demonstrated and displayed the value of these historians' work. (4) The practice continued during subsequent wars and conflicts, particularly in Korea and Vietnam, where technology, in the form of the portable tape recorder, facilitated the historian's task. (5)
Perhaps more significant was the relative institutional acceptance of oral history as a necessary requirement for capturing the experiences of war and organizational history. In 1970 General William C. Westmoreland, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, directed the U.S. Army War College and the U.S. Army Military History Institute (both located in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania) to undertake a new peacetime interview program. This program, which became known as the Senior Officer Oral History Program, was expressly designed to capture the memories of selected individuals for the benefit of the Army. Students at the Army War College performed background research on the careers of important retired general officers and then interviewed them about their experiences and what had made them successful. (6) Thereafter, oral history programs and attention to oral history in the Army flourished to a degree similar to the study and practice of history in the Army, which. experienced a renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (7) As the value of history became increasingly accepted, if grudgingly at times, so did the value of oral history in gathering the raw material for histories. Parallel programs designed to record "lessons learned" have contributed to and reinforced the contemporary acceptance of oral history within the Army by tying the interview experience to a product with immediate use for soldiers and the institution. (8) General John A. Wickham, for example, began a Division Command Lessons Learned interview program during his tenure as U.S. Army Chief of Staff during the mid-1980s.
By the late 1980s, the Army had mandated an exit interview program for senior leaders and established more historians' positions throughout the Army (more specifically, throughout the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command), while the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) had created an oral history activity to conduct the interviews with senior Army officials in the Army corporate headquarters (i.e., the Pentagon) and to make policy and coordinate the overall (decentralized) program in the Army. By 1993, the Army Regulation governing the Army's military history program included a chapter on oral history, and CMH had published a "how to" guide for oral history, with a particular emphasis on conducting interviews in the field. (9) Meanwhile, oral history coverage of conflicts and contingency operations continued: Panama, Desert Shield/ Desert Storm (as well as the resultant operation in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds), then Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and most recently Afghanistan and Iraq. (10)
At the same time, the sophistication of oral history coverage in the Army increased. Not content with simply collecting basic information and establishing a time-line chronology, Army historians covering Operation Restore Hope in Somaha interviewed members of most of the units that had participated as well as a cross-section of civilian personnel and spouses back in the United States. This expanded coverage---expanded in both breadth and depth--reflected the twin realizations that the historians needed to capture multiple perspectives, and that it was impossible to know what the important questions would be when historians began writing in the future. (11)
Today the Army has a vibrant active oral history program that is institutionally entrenched and valued. Not only does the Army maintain special reserve units--three-person Military History Detachments (MHD) …