How Reliable is Oral History and/or Memory as a Historical Source for War?

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How Reliable is Oral History and/or Memory as a Historical Source for War?

Oral history is a relatively new method of studying history and one which has the most scope to be used more frequently by modern historians. The age of technology is enabling more accurate recordings to be used as sources, rather than just a transcript of what happen which could be less likely to be regarded as a definite fact. For war specifically, it has only been very recently that historians have been able to use other reliable ways to remember wars as journalists and the media began to travel to the war zones instead of relying on stories being relayed to them from afar. However, memory itself can be an unreliable way to record history as it always become distorted by those who tell it, perhaps just over time or from personal trauma. Also, for the interviewer to be totally unbiased in their questioning of the person is near impossible due to every person having their own opinion of events which have happened.

Oral history is generally seen to have started with the ideas and writings of Allan Nevins with regard to the American Civil War. It was a new style designed to complement the traditional forms of history, such as written documents and, albeit new themselves, photographs. However, it was seen by some historians, including Avery Craven at the University of Chicago, to be too journalistic rather than historical in nature1. As a result, oral history became less popular for use amongst major events, but it began to find new strength with it being used to discover what the general populace “wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, what they now think they did2.” This is particularly exemplified by the work of George Ewart Evans, who collected vast quantities of oral records from East Anglia before publishing them into several books3. Despite this, oral history remains very low in the hierarchy of sources available to the modern historian particularly as it is often seen to be reworked so that its meaning is more relevant to modern expectations rather than being seen from the time in which the source was first taken, decreasing greatly the perceived reliability of an oral source

Technology is beginning to change this view. With new recording devices and the use of a camera as well as a microphone, oral sources can be seen to be becoming more reliable. This guarantee of technology can now attempt to give more verifiable voice to the memories of the ‘average joe’ who are seen as “living documents” by the French historian Jules Michelet4. Whereas previously the oral sources could only have been written down as the sole record for them, the camera can provide a much more vivid detail of the message which the interviewee is attempting to put across. When two people speak to each other, only 7% of their communication between each other is actually the words which are said to one another, showing how much of the interview used to be lost simply by only having a written record. With a recording device, this percentage rises to 45% but still has over half of the total communication unaccounted for5. Modern day interviews with cameras can truly cover the whole conversation, giving far more reliability to the interviewee and the source itself. The internet has also helped in this sense as it allows far greater numbers of people to be able to view and criticise the interview should it be seen as totally false. Perhaps the new age of technology there will be greater emphasis placed on oral sources due to the ability for any kind of news to spread nearly instantaneously around the world, meaning that the ‘average joe’ will have a greater idea of exactly where they stand in relation to others across the globe.

Advances in technology have greatly helped the media coverage of recent wars across the globe and have decreased the necessity to rely on oral accounts of what the wars were actually like on the front lines. Since the Vietnamese...
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