Lt. Col. Paul Owen, West Point Class of ’90, came back to the academy to tell his story about Iraq. Sitting before a video camera in his dress uniform, Owen described the oppressive heat, the "moon dust" sand, and a string of some 300 night raids in search of insurgents.
"We were quick," he said. "If they heard us coming, they’d flee."
Owen’s recorded recollections will be transcribed and posted on the web as part of an ambitious oral history project under way at the U.S. Military Academy’s new Center for Oral History. He is among some 150 soldiers–mostly West Point graduates–who have so far taped interviews destined for the web before year’s end.
Stories are being solicited from old soldiers and those just back from deployments. They are being asked about not only what happened on the battlefield, but what was going on under their helmets, too.
"What we’re talking about is the humanity of war and fighting," said Patrick Jennings, the center’s deputy director. "I know it sounds like an odd term, but that’s what it is."
The oral histories will be available to anyone, but a key constituency are the cadets at the history-drenched academy on the Hudson River in New York. Contemporary cadets used to YouTube will be able to call up searchable video testimonies from officers who once drilled on the same grassy fields. Cadets also will be able to hear vivid descriptions of what might await them in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The interviewees include some retired military big guns like Barry McCaffrey and Brent Scowcroft, but most so far are simply soldiers and veterans with something to say.
Center director Todd Brewster said the videos will present more than war stories. Users will be able to search not just for terms like "Operation Anaconda" and "Hamburger Hill" but "religion" or "plebe." Type in "Douglas MacArthur" and you could listen to McCaffrey talk about how as a young cadet in 1962 he witnessed the old general give his famous "duty, honor, country" speech at West Point’s mess hall.
Brewster and Jennings are stockpiling interviews with an eye toward a web debut in the latter part of the year. The center, though housed in West Point’s history department, is not funded by the academy. So, with the help of the alumni association, they are trying to raise a $15 million endowment.
Soldiers can be a tough interview. Some old war stories have been trotted out so often to buddies and grandchildren that they’ve have become buffed and immutable. More commonly, veterans will guard details of their combat experience. Old-school stoicism plays a part. Jennings, a former Marine, says many veterans also believe that by telling their stories, "they’re cheating the other guys." Then there’s a perception that non-veterans would be too quick to judge actions made under extreme duress.
Brewster, as a former journalist with Time and ABC News, is used to soliciting information from subjects. Jennings, who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a National Guard combat historian, has the authority to tell potential subjects: "No one is going to know this story unless you tell it."
Brewster said they have had no problems finding people to interview.
The pair has conducted relatively few interviews with the diminishing pool of surviving World War II veterans. Brewster noted their story has been told often and well, so the center is focusing on less traveled areas.
A top priority is interviewing soldiers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, so they can record stories while they’re still "genuine and raw."
"One of the odd things about oral histories is that they’re somewhat of a perishable object," Brewster said.
They also are focusing on the Class of ’67. This group came to West Point just months before JFK’s New Frontier was abruptly ended, served during the height of the Vietnam War and later directed the 1991 war in Iraq.
"My experience of [many] Vietnam veterans is that they waited so long to tell their stories," Jennings said, "they want to tell it now."