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West Point launches new Center For Oral History

The United States Military Academy at West Point has launched an ambitious Center for Oral History to serve as a living archive on the experiences of American soldiers in war and peace. 
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The United States Military Academy at West Point, whose graduates are commissioned 2nd Lieutenants in the U.S. Army, has launched an ambitious Center for Oral History to serve as a living archive on the experiences of American soldiers in war and peace. The Center aims to be a powerful learning tool for West Point cadets and an important research center for historians, as well as a destination for the public to gain greater understanding of the essential and unique calling of the U.S. soldier.

The Center for Oral History will exist largely online, with high-definition video and digital audio files, easing access for everyone from campus cadets to scholars, journalists and interested students half a world away. A preview of the site – including a 12-minute video with excerpts of soldier interviews — can be seen by linking here:

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One of the Center’s first projects has been to interview members of West Point’s Class of 1967, who, upon graduation, were sent almost immediately to the war in Vietnam. Another has been to interview soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a comprehensive, anecdotal account of those current campaigns. Researchers are also gathering material from veterans of World War II, Vietnam and the so-called “forgotten war” in Korea. By definition, the Center will be a work in perpetual progress, continuously updated as history unfolds.

The objective is to assemble an unrivaled video, audio and text record of military life — in the field, as well as in the classroom and also the “war room,” since the Center hopes to include interviews with senior Pentagon strategists and former Secretaries of Defense and State who have helped shape military and foreign policy.

But its core mission is to capture the personal narratives of those who have lived the military life. As stated on the Center’s home page: “Every solider has a story. Here is where the story is told.”

In one vivid excerpt, Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, West Point Class of 1989, recalls the explosion in Iraq that cost him both of his legs: “I saw the flash and I heard the boom and I was ejected from the vehicle. It really is almost like time slows down. I can remember being tossed around inside the vehicle and landing on the ground. That’s when time went back to normal, as I came to a rolling stop and I saw the vehicle continue forward.”

Other early video segments capture testimony of the many competing observations and feelings unique to soldiering. Marshall Carter, West Point Class of 1962, who went on to become chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, remembers being on one of 12 helicopters hit by enemy fire trying to land in a Vietnam combat zone. Lt. Col. Kevin Farrell, Class of 1986, recalls facing an insurgent on the streets of Iraq and having to seek permission from a superior officer to “kill this individual to neutralize the threat.”

At the same time, interviews dispel any knee-jerk notion of soldiers numb to the moral issues they confront. As one cadet recalls of his own tense confrontation in Iraq, “A big part of my job at that moment is not to freak out – not to emotionally fall apart.” Another admits of his time in combat: “Think about what your moral compass is – because you will be challenged with situations that are morally, ethically gray.”

Early interviews also reveal the unshakable sense of duty that West Point cadets carry into battle. Jim Kimsey, Class of 1962, who later co-founded AOL, describes the feeling: “The best lesson I learned was on the first day I arrived at the Academy. They told me immediately that there were three answers to every question – ‘Yes, sir; No, sir; No excuse, sir.’ You were responsible for your own actions. If you’re a platoon leader and you’re leading your platoon up a hill and you get half your guys killed, and you’re writing letters to their mothers about why they died, there’s no excuse. You got them killed.”

General Petraeus Comments

Among those welcoming the new Center is Gen. David Petraeus, a 1974 graduate of the Academy who recently assumed his new post as Commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) after having served as Commanding General of the Multi-National Force in Iraq.

“Our army has a proud history, one that is chronicled in innumerable books and films. This Center aims to record our army's history in a different way, through the personal oral histories of our soldiers captured by thorough, thoughtful interviews,” General Petraeus said.

“It is exciting to think what will be preserved for posterity by this endeavor. It will capture moments of introspection by our soldiers, personal recollections of the tragedies and triumphs of combat. I applaud the Center for Oral History's effort to expand our nation's repository of spoken history by recording the experiences of American soldiers from World War II to Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. This is an exciting prospect.”

Bridging the Gap between Soldier and Civilia

“In the best West Point tradition, we hope our recorded interviews will speak directly to the soldiers of tomorrow, preparing them for battlefields they might find themselves on,” said the Center’s director, Todd Brewster. “They will be a primary source archive for historians – and just as important, for the general public. Ever since the U.S. instituted a volunteer army, there has been a growing gap in perspective between soldiers and the public whom they defend and represent. An easily accessible archive of soldiers’ stories will go a long way toward reconciling the cultural and occupational divide between soldier and civilian.”

Brewster, a veteran journalist who has written for Time, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Life and The New Republic, has also taught journalism, documentary film and constitutional law at Yale and Wesleyan. He co-wrote, along with the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, the best-selling books In Search of America and The Century, the latter a look at the 20th century through oral histories of Americans both prominent and unsung. He also served as an ABC News senior producer for two award-winning documentary series based upon the books he wrote with Mr. Jennings.

“Imagine if we had had an oral history center in 1802, when West Point was founded and the first class of cadets arrived,” Brewster suggested. “Or if we had one during the Civil War, with stories from the armies of Grant and Lee; or from Pershing in World War I; or Eisenhower and MacArthur.”

“Eyewitness accounts are among the most riveting and telling parts of any history, but especially those surrounding armed conflict,” he added. “Very few non-soldiers have been through the heat of battle. Soldiers’ personal stories are a largely untapped mine of military insight and historical testimony.”

Serving as the Center’s deputy director is Dr. Patrick Jennings, a military historian and former U.S. Marine who as an Army National Guardsman was deployed as a combat historian on three separate tours to both Iraq and Afghanistan, conducting interviews with hundreds of combat soldiers and officers. Dr. Jennings also served as a field historian for the Army at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Noted Advisory Board Includes Military Scholars, Journalists

The Center has the benefit of a Board of Advisors composed of military scholars, journalists, government officials and filmmakers to help set its agenda, develop new projects and content, and assist with fund-raising.

In addition to a number of tenured and well-published military historians from around the country, board members include Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Brent Scowcroft, a 1947 West Point graduate whose long government career included serving as National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; Rick Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post and author of several major accounts of American wars, including The Long Gray Line and An Army at Dawn; Martha Raddatz, longtime correspondent for ABC News, who covered the Pentagon for National Public Radio and authored The Long Road Home (2007), the account of a surprise attack on the Army’s First Calvary Division in Iraq; and Ken Burns, whose opus The Civil War heralded a new standard for multi-part documentaries, which he followed with Baseball, Jazz and The War.

Ken Burns: “Recording Memories of Those Who Were There”

Burns offered his views on the launch of the Center as a filmmaker who frequently makes use of oral history interviews. “One of the motivations behind my most recent film, The War, was the realization that the World War II generation was passing away. I felt we needed to capture the words of those that fought in that war before it was too late. West Point’s new Center for Oral History is a venture inspired by a similar passion for recording the memories of those who were there – whether ‘there’ meant Normandy, Saigon, or the streets of Baghdad,” Burns said.

“As this important archive is built, it will stand as poetic testimony to the idea that wars are fought not only by the armies of strong nations, they are also fought by men and women whose stories are rich with the fabric of life,” he added. “Oral history is about fear and courage, tragedy and triumph, without it history itself is incomplete.”

COH Joins Centers for Terrorism and Study of the Rule of Law
Much of the credit for creating the Center goes to Col. Lance Betros, who took over as head of West Point’s history department in 2005 and marshaled resources to secure initial funding and recruited senior faculty to help develop some of the early content.

The COH joins two other Centers of Excellence on the West Point campus – the Combating Terrorism Center and the Center for the Rule of Law. Each is independently funded and was developed to expand cadets’ academic opportunities without adding to the academy’s curricular budget.

“It’s a great privilege to formally launch our new oral history initiative as part of the overall program for intellectual and professional development of cadets,” Col. Betros said. “West Point is obviously in a unique position to be able to tap into the experiences and insights of America’s military leadership, starting with 1,000 or so cadet-lieutenants who graduate from our campus every year. The archive we’re creating with our oral histories will span several generations of American soldiering, and in many instances provide the real back stories to headline events from the world’s hot spots. These interviews offer a truly rare perspective on our collective history in the making.”

Col. Betros added, “We are particularly fortunate in our choice of professionals to lead the Center, including Todd Brewster, a veteran journalist who brings a strong commitment to editorial integrity along with a feel for the individual stories that shape historical events; and Patrick Jennings, a distinguished field historian as well as a former Marine and Army Guardsman with operational experience around the world. Todd, who has managed a number of large-scale documentary projects, has also helped assemble a first-rate advisory board to help us on all aspects of our mission.”

Col. Betros noted that the Center arrives as the use of oral history plays an increasing role in mainstream teaching. For instance, Columbia University this fall launched the country’s first accredited master’s degree program in oral history – a one-year multi-disciplinary program focused on the “documentation, preservation and interpretation of historical information based on personal experiences.”

Revisiting Vietnam War with West Point Class of ’67

The Center will develop projects devoted to different aspects of soldiers’ lives – as well as different eras in soldiering. One of the highlights is that compilation of interviews with members of the West Point Class of 1967, young officers who entered active duty at a pivotal time in the Vietnam War and later returned to steer the Army’s course on behalf of a nation reeling from social unrest and political scandal.

Other subjects expected to be tackled through the Center’s oral histories:
• Wartime decisions of former Secretaries of Defense, State, and the Army, along with key members of Congress;
• The place of religious faith in soldiers’ lives;
• Case studies on insurgency, bioterrorism, the surge in Iraq and other topical subjects of warfare based on cross-section interviews with returning troops, military leaders and policy makers;
• The historic role of athletics among West Point cadets, through interviews with soldier-athletes and former coaches of the legendary Army football team and other sports teams, many of whose players went on to illustrious professional sports careers;
• Retrospective views on World War I, the Civil War and other major American conflicts offered by visiting historians and West Point’s faculty;
• Contemporary social changes as experienced at West Point itself, through oral histories with the Academy’s former superintendents, deans, commandants, cadets, and others.

Also in the works are publishing and broadcasting projects based on the rich lode of content the Center gathers. Discussions are underway with the renowned Fred Friendly Seminars, whose charged situational debates have been broadcast on PBS. Brewster is working to develop a Fred Friendly program at West Point to take on the subject of fighting insurgencies, bringing together a hypothetical cast of players ranging from the President and Secretary of Defense to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a policy maven and even a White House press officer.

Offering “Witness to History” Accounts

“There are days that are just gut-wrenchingly hard, and you say, ‘Can I make a difference? Why do I keep doing this?’ When you look at history, and at people who endured and sacrificed, you say, ‘Yes, you can: you can make a difference.’ Oral history helps us with that.” said Brig. Gen. Rebecca Halstead, West Point Class of 1981.

In hoping to draw maximum traffic and general interest users in addition to scholars, the Center will utilize universal search technology so that anyone searching the web for primary source interviews with veterans and soldiers will see links to the West Point content. Like a true archive, the site will have virtual rooms and chapters dedicated to certain subjects and periods in military history, from the Civil War to Vietnam and Iraq. Links to other web sites offering veterans’ interviews will also be provided. The oral histories will be integrated into West Point’s own curriculum, so that professors can easily draw from interviews as part of their own course materials.

“Our new Center offers so many benefits both on and off campus, allowing our cadets as well as researchers around the world quick access to the witness-to-history accounts of soldiers of all ranks and service branches, as far back as we are able to find and going forward with the march of time,” said Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, West Point’s superintendent. Gen. Hagenbeck is featured in a 12-minute video introducing the Center in which he acknowledges his own hard choices in combat: “I’ve been in situations,” he says in an interview, “that have caused me to send lots of soldiers in harm’s way.”

“Of course, we all have our wish list of hearing from soldiers who would offer fascinating insights on how they coped, how they pressed on, and perhaps where they hesitated,” Gen. Hagenbeck continued. “West Point has so had so many distinguished graduates in its 206-year history. I would like to have heard from one of my favorites, Ulysses S. Grant. In the future, our cadets will have the opportunity to hear directly from their peers and their mentors through this rich lode of oral histories.”

For more info:
West Point Center for Oral History
Department of History
United States Military Academy
West Point, NY 10996

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