The perils of oral history

There was a quite interesting article in Good Weekend, the magazine that comes with the Saturday newspaper here in Melbourne, last week. In Afghanistan, a split-second decision separates life and death is an edited extract of a new book called No Front Line by Chris Masters, who as a journalist was ‘embedded’ with Australian Special Forces units in 2006.

The article (and I suppose the book, though I haven’t read it) looks at some of the troubling issues to rise out of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: the moral ambiguity, the culture of the Special Forces and the questions that remain over what actually happened there. It’s worth a read.

It was a little snippet contained within the article that really grabbed my attention, though. Much of the extract published in Good Weekend centres around one particular action that happened in early June 2006  in the hills around the Chora Valley, near Tarin Kowt (where one of the principle Australian bases was located). An Australian patrol made up of six men climbed up into the hills to establish a reconnaissance post overlooking the valley, which had recently been overrun by Taliban troops. “Later accounts of what occurred vary markedly,” Masters writes. Two soldiers who were involved in the incident recalled a young Afghan male, who carried nothing, approaching their position. He “looked past the OP, then walk[ed] on across their front from right to left.” Then he came back, this time carrying a bag. Sometime around here was when it was decided that the man was a danger to the soldiers at the observation post, and two of the soldiers stalked him and, in the euphemistic language of the later after-action report, “neutralised the threat.” Whether or not this shooting of an apparently unarmed man, who may or may not have been a civilian, was justified is one of the moral questions that often arises in war.

And this is where it gets interesting. One of the other soldiers involved in the incident was Lance-Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith (who would receive a  Medal for Gallantry for this action, and later a Victoria Cross for another incident). He was interviewed by an Australian War Memorial historian in 2011 about what happened on the ridgeline. “A couple of blokes just walked up, literally,” he said, “probably about two hours before dark, walked straight up to the front of the OP, got about 30 metres to the front…”

Note Roberts-Smith’s first sentence: “a couple of blokes” [my emphasis]. The presence of two potential enemies rather than just one paints the incident in a rather different light. So here we have accounts from three eyewitnesses, all soldiers who were directly involved in the action, that differ over a quite significant basic fact. Adding to the confusion, in a different, later, interview, Roberts-Smith said “an armed insurgent walked to within 30 metres” – an. A sole individual.

Which was it, really? The post-action report, written later by the patrol commander in the aftermath of the incident, identifies a single person. That, the original two soldiers’ testimony and Roberts-Smith’s later interview all agree that there was just the one Afghan who approached the observation post, so it’s likely that this is the true number. So why did Roberts-Smith apparently get it wrong when talking to the War Memorial?

I reckon that it’s most likely simply because of the way the human mind works. Roberts-Smith wrote to the AWM after the interview, setting out a few factors that could explain it: Firstly, five years had passed between the incident and recalling it in an interview. In the interim, he had been sent to Afghanistan four more times. And the interview itself was more than two hours and 40 minutes long. “It would appear,” he wrote, “I have confused my many engagements.”

And finally we get to the point. Oral history depends on memories – indeed, oral history is made up of memories. But memories are volatile things. Time can dull the stories or even remove details entirely, and experiences can, perhaps, get muddled together in retelling – even more so when, as is my experience of collecting oral histories, those doing the remembering are nonagenarians  dealing with events that took place more than seven decades ago. Memories can be manipulated, too: if you tell yourself often enough, intentionally or otherwise, that something happened, before too long you’ll believe it really did.

In short, oral histories are not particularly reliable for the bare facts of history. They remain extremely valuable sources because they are first-hand accounts of the time under study and can capture a feeling of what it was like. But make sure you check the facts against documented sources before taking them as gospel.

It’s nothing deliberate on the part of those being interviewed. It’s just the way the mind works.

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

 

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