Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The value of eyewitness accounts for history

John Hornfischer, author of such books as The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors offers an excellent argument in favour of interviews in the art of historiography.
For those of us who have never served in uniform, it's easy to see World War II as a grand, sweeping drama, featuring actors large and small driven by a sense of overriding mission, all sins and failings vindicated by victory. Yet for the veterans I meet, the war is often about something else entirely. Any talk of it brings them back to a single, pervasive memory sequence: a moment of impossible decision or helplessness when, through their action or inaction, they believe, a comrade paid the eternal price. They can't talk about the war without reliving their powerlessness to influence its predations, without revealing how it changed them.
Otto Schwarz served on the USS Houston in the early days of World War II. The heavy cruiser was sunk off Java on February 28, 1942, and Schwarz spent more than three years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. When he returned to New Jersey in 1945 he was a different man than the one who had enlisted in January 1941 to escape an abusive home life. . . . "It was the loneliest moment of my life. I absolutely didn't know what to do. Even though I was going home to my family, I had just left my family that had kept each other alive for so long." . . .
Historians have long been vexed by the problem of eyewitness testimony, so enticing but also so fraught. Any recollection of a traumatic event will have emotional and psychological complexities that can destroy its value as a measure of historical fact. Yet evaluating an eyewitness source boils down to simple common sense. What did the observer say and what was his basis for saying it? Did he directly witness the events he describes? Was he equipped to understand what he saw? Did his memory accurately preserve his perceptions when it was finally tapped, years down the road? Can his memories be corroborated by others who were there?
Though some historians are more comfortable with the reliability of documents produced contemporaneously with events, it is just as healthy to be suspicious of the agendas that can underlie them. Is an after-action report written by an ambitious officer looking to justify a mistake inherently more reliable than the recollection of an event, a trauma or a grudge many years later by a man for whom that one thing is among the most consequential of his life?
I've been confronted many times before with the question of the balance between documented & verbal history.  (Allow me the conceit that I am a trained historian.)  Sir John Keegan falls on the side of documentation when he has written how naval ship logs are a treasure of information for the historian since even in the midst of battle there are logkeepers writing moment-by-moment details.  I brought this up during a conversation with the head curator of the USS Texas (BB-35), which saw action at Vera Cruz & in World Wars I & II, & is now a state park adjacent to the battlefield at San Jacinto.  The curator (a retired Commander, USN) said that he did not share Keegan's enthusiasm & pointed out, amongst other examples, how an inbound kamikaze attack at Okinawa was shot down, all the while escaping the attention of the numerous logkeepers, apparently distracted by the necessity of fighting a major naval engagement.

Though always cautioned to consider how one "remembers with advantages" (to use the phrase of Henry V), it is difficult to dismiss the value that men such as these, eyewitnesses & participants to stunning events that have quieted their accounts for decades, can give to us beyond mere words.

Hornfischer's article is well-written & well worth the time.

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