Military and Oral History Conference:
Between Memory and History
The Added Value of Oral History Sources in a Military Context: Experiences from the Dutch Veterans Oral History Project
Stef Scagliola, Dutch Veterans Interview Project, Netherlands Institute for Veterans
In January 2007, the Dutch Oral History Project on the Experiences of Veterans was initiated by the research department of the Dutch Veterans Institute in Doorn, the Netherlands. Its aim is to record the experiences of a wide range of Dutch military veterans. Over a period of four years 1,000 interviews will be held with a representative sample of veterans of all wars and military missions in which the Netherlands were involved. The oldest conflict covered is the Second World War, followed by the decolonization war with Indonesia in 1945-1949, the war in Korea between 1950-1953 and the one in New Guinea between 1960 and 1962. From the 1980s onwards, the Netherlands were also involved in several international peace-keeping/enforcing operations. Two of them were especially controversial: the fall of the enclave of Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995 which led to the mass murder of 7.000 Bosnian Muslim men and the deployment of military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All the interviews open with a sociological background sketch of the veteran’s family and education. Subsequently the focus is on the transition from civilian to military-life, experience with war and conflict and, finally, reintegration into civilian society. At present the collection contains 700 interviews, mostly with the elder generation veterans. Our finding up to now is that the added value of individual accounts on war and conflict by veterans lies in the following elements.
Firstly the combination of historical knowledge about facts that are not normally preserved in official documents with psychological and anthropological information about how people ascribe meaning to the world around them. Instead of explaining history in abstract terms of cause and consequence, the interviews add the personal dimension of context and function. They provide us with de-nationalized and de-institutionalized insights into the experience of war and the way this is represented in hindsight. Telling about the war is a mediation process between past and present, between official history and personal experience, between military and civilian values and between circumstances of war and of peace. By analyzing this process we can understand how people manage to deal with experiences of war and conflict.
A second specific kind of information are the descriptions of ‘transitions’ from one world to another. In order to function adequately the military have to adjust their norms and values when they pass from civilian to military life, when they are transferred from a peaceful Western society to a non-Western theatre of war and when they finally integrate in civilian society after leaving service.
A third category of knowledge is that of the ‘inconvenient truth’. Specifically within a zero error organization like the Armed Forces, where there is an unreasonable expectation on the part of the public that no mistakes are made, and were strict rules, secrecy and control of violence are key-elements, oral testimonies often reveal inconvenient truths that are left out of written records. In the Dutch context war crimes committed during the guerrilla-war with Indonesia between 1945 and 1949 are a case in point. But also with regard to peace-missions the tension between declaratory policy, media-coverage and the (perceived) need to transgress rules to be able to survive or to be able to intervene, comes to the foreground again and again in the personal accounts.
In the presentation all three elements will be illustrated with case studies.