Friday, December 5, 2008

West Point Launches Center for Oral History

"Every soldier has a story."

Although countless works of fiction and journalism have examined the soldier’s life in wartime, there has never been an archive of soldiers’ experiences, spanning historic conflicts and other missions, told in the soldiers’ own words.

Now there is. The United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, has established the Center for Oral History, an online research center gathering the personal stories of American service men and women of all ranks – beginning with those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and going back to veterans of Vietnam, Korea, World War II and other campaigns.

Housed by the History department at West Point, the new Center – which will officially launch in 2009 – is advised by a board that includes documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and 1947 West Point graduate and former Presidential advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft, among many other eminent historians, journalists, and educators.

Gen. David Petraeus, who recently became head of U.S. Central Command, welcomed the new Center: “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. This is an exciting prospect,” General Petraeus said. The Center was conceived to help educate West Point cadets, through the stories of soldiers who preceded them into conflict; but also to create a trove of personal testimony that will assist the work of scholars and historians; and to help build a bridge of greater understanding and empathy between the military and the civilian population it serves. The Center’s web site will be open to all users.

“Oral history delivers a spontaneity and intimacy that you can’t draw from any other research sources,” said the Center’s director, Todd Brewster, a journalist and co-author of two best-selling books with the late Peter Jennings of ABC News. “In the best West Point tradition, we hope our recorded interviews will speak directly to the soldiers of tomorrow while contributing to the policy dialogue going on right now.” The choice of Brewster, who has served as senior producer at ABC News and has written for Time and Vanity Fair, underscores the Academy’s intention to make its new oral history center a resource for the general public as well as the military community.

Among the early projects undertaken by the COH: an oral history of the Iraqi conflict as well as a look back at the West Point Class of ’67, most of whose graduates were immediately sent to Vietnam. The Center will also interview former U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense whose decisions have been so pivotal to the fate of American soldiers.

The Center’s ambition is captured in its motto: “Every soldier has a story. Here is where the story is told.”

Here is a link to additional material about the Center – including a 12-minute video that includes some early interviews of soldiers featured in the news announcement below:

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