In hindsight: Some critics have insisted that a veterans’ oral history project gives veterans free reign to misrepresent their military service. But these arguments fail to grasp the essence of oral history.
In June 2013, President Barack Obama signed into law the Stolen Valor Act of 2013.
The law came after years of lobbying and activism to deter individuals from falsely claiming military service or receipt of military honors. Introduced into the 113th Congress by Representative Joe Heck (R-NV), the legislation received bipartisan support from more than 120 Members of Congress. Today, any individual who fraudulently claims to have received a military medal and seeks to profit from that claim is subject to fine or imprisonment.
This issue came to the forefront recently when a man named John Garofalo, a glass artist, claimed to be a decorated Navy Seal who had served in Vietnam. He intended to gift President Trump a hand-carved, glass and bronze presidential seal and used his alleged military credentials to gain audience with the President. It turns out he was lying; Garofalo served in the U.S. Navy, but never in Vietnam, and he never earned any medals for his service.
I first became familiar with Stolen Valor in 2010 when I worked at the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP). VHP collects the stories of America’s war veterans and preserves them in the Library of Congress. It is the largest oral history project in the nation, with more than 100,000 stories collected by volunteers nationwide.
Some critics of the project insisted that such an initiative granted veterans free reign to misrepresent their military service. After all, a person being interviewed for an oral history can say whatever s/he wants, and the record will sit in the Library of Congress forever. Isn’t that fake history? Or, to use today’s terminology, isn’t that “fake news”? Shouldn’t any untrue statements made in such an interview be prosecuted?
The people making these arguments failed to grasp the essence of oral history, and evinced how a lack of historical literacy shapes our contemporary discourse. We often use these terms without fully knowing their meaning. “History” is not simply stuff that happened in the past. And “oral history” is not simply stuff that people say on tape or camera.
For many, the phrase “oral history” conjures associations with StoryCorps, the Brooklyn-based storytelling project featured on NPR. StoryCorps bills itself as an oral history project, and its popularity has raised public awareness of the term. In a StoryCorps interview, two people speak about their lives in a recorded 40-minute conversation. But oral history is more than simply a recorded conversation. As an academic sub-discipline, it long predates StoryCorps. It dates to 1948, and a historian at Columbia University named Allan Nevins who established the first oral history institute.
“History” is not simply stuff that happened in the past. And “oral history” is not simply stuff that people say on tape or camera.
How oral history differs from a recorded conversation is that it now has a well-tested methodology. Over time, oral historians developed standards and best practices for conducting interviews, particularly with people who have experienced episodes of trauma, such as veterans or oppressed populations. In addition, oral historians continually consider the ethics of oral history — both the collection of people’s life stories and how to best make them accessible to others in a responsible manner. Increasingly, oral historians also must tackle the management, care, long-term preservation and digitization of oral history collections, which can range from a few dozen video tapes to thousands of interviews on audio cassette, video cassette, Hi-8, Betamax, digital video and HD. There is a national Oral History Association that develops these principles and best practices, as well as dozens of regional and local oral history organizations that refine them and put them into practice. You might say there is more to oral history than meets the eye (or ear).
As oral history has grown in popularity, there are now practitioners worldwide who specialize in it. Journalists, filmmakers, artists, social workers, and even medical workers employ oral history in their work. Oral histories thus come in many flavors: historians at universities documenting the lives of immigrants; journalists documenting life histories of those serving time without parole; or retirees recording the stories of their communities. Not every word uttered in the corpus of known oral history interviews is truthful or accurate. But what unites these efforts is the practitioner’s commitment to record stories in a methodologically sound fashion and to preserve them for future generations.
The process, and not solely the content, is what makes an oral history.
Should a veteran be untruthful during an oral history interview — a rare occurrence, but one that does happen — it does not invalidate the entire exercise. Oral history (as a methodology) does not exist in disciplinary isolation. One oral history interview does not the historical record make. History — the discipline from which oral history stems — follows the same rules: one source does not constitute the entirety of the story. By following professional standards, practitioners of oral history create a primary source that subsequent historians can listen to, analyze, study, interpret, and situate within larger contexts. While memories may be flawed — and yes, on occasions people do fib or outright lie — the process, and not solely the content, is what makes an oral history.
In our era of deciphering things fake or not fake, disciplinary methodology offers us some solid ground on which to make our judgments. This was a message made loud and clear in our recent events on Fake News and Endless War. Process matters. Oral historians can help us preserve important stories by following best practices that have been worked hard to establish. Since historians never assume that any one source is sufficient to tell a story (let alone to constitute history), the myriad of sources (primary and secondary) need to be brought into conversation with each other in order for us to understand what happened in the past.