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The issue of the ability of veterans to recall post battle information has continued to be a serious question in veteran oral history.
Vietnam Case Study
A case study preformed with a Vietnam War Veteran uses oral history preformed almost directly after the fight and compares it to an oral history preformed almost forty years later. The author states that the more recent recollection of the story, which contains a more colorful storytelling, is not necessarily wrong. Rather, the interview is taken in a different context; the soldier is not retelling the story to a Marine oral historian and the context has changed since he is no longer in Vietnam. The author concludes that these later interviews are still valuable. However, “The weakness of later interviews is that one’s memory naturally works to either forget the horrific experience or make sense of it.” Therefore, the interviews that Ryan had received on the Normandy beaches may have been the best information he was going to get. It made sense that the men were not paying close attention to the temperature of the water. Their minds were set in military thought. They had a mission to complete and they had to worry about their lives 1
In Archives of Memory, Alice interviewed her husband concerning his experience in the war and four years later repeated the interview. By this process, and cross checking with historical sources, Alice was able to determine that her husband’s long-term memory was capable of remembering his experiences. Part of her reasoning for doing this work was to take up John A. Neuenschwander’s argument that oral historians needed to examine the validity of “theories of long-term memory among psychologists." 2
The work is key in the study of World War II oral histories. The conclusion of the book quotes the head of the Oral History Program of the U.S. Marines, Bemis Frank. When Alice asked for his advice, when she began conducting her interviews, he told her that she should have Howard start from the beginning of his war experience and proceed from that point. Alice conducted her interviews chronologically and recorded the swell of information. Later she noticed when Howard went to a World War II reunion, that his conversations were not as detailed as those she had heard when conducting her interviews. When the men conversed, they did not start from the beginning. Alice noted one case when she shifted out of chronological order, this caused Howard’s story to become less detailed. She notes “Certainly when Howard was forced out of chronological sequence, he found it difficult to provide any narrative at all and created a recall document with significant deletions that he was able to reintegrate only after the first recall document had been used to cue other associations and storage categories.” Her reasoning is that the human mind is has a way of remembering things in chronological order3.
Stephen Ambrose had also encountered this problem. When he was writing Pegasus Bridge, Ambrose encounters the issue of veteran's memories not necessarily being cohesive. He noted that most of the men he interviewed often contradicted each other on points some big while others small. As a historian he “felt it was my task to make my best judgment on what was true, what had been misremembered, what had been exaggerated by the old soldiers telling their war stories, what acts of heroism had been played down by a man too modest to brag on himself.” Ambrose’s use of oral history interviews is the basis for his work; however, he understood that the stories may not always mesh correctly, or that memory may lapse 4.
(1) Fred H. Allison, “Remembering a Vietnam War Firefight; Changing Perspectives Over Time,” in The Oral History Reader, 2nd ed. ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomas (London, New York: Routledge, 2006), 221-229.
(2) Arthur A. Hansen, “Archives of Memory Review,” Journal of American History, December 1991, http://www.ebscoehost.com (accessed May 24, 2009).
(3) Alice M. Hoffman, and Howard S. Hoffman, Archives of Memory: A Soldier Recalls World War II (Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 150-154.
(4) Steven Ambrose, Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 311.