US ARMY GUIDE TO ORAL HISTORY (2)


2. PREPARING FOR THE INTERVIEW
Army historians conduct several types of interviews with names that reflect their focus and content: biographical (sometimes known as career interviews), subject, exit, end-of-tour and after-action. A biographical interview focuses on an individual's life or career. Army historians usually conduct this type of interview after an individual with lengthy and significant government service has retired. A subject interview focuses on a single event or topic, such as the Army's role in providing disaster relief in the aftermath of a hurricane or the formulation and making of a particular Army policy or decision. Exit interviews and end-of tour interviews are conducted near the end of a person's tour in a particular assignment and concentrate on the issues and decisions unique to that job. Unlike subject interviews, exit and end-of-tour interviews cover many topics because their purpose is to record the breadth of the individual's experiences in a position. After-action interviews are similar to subject interviews, but their purpose is to gather information about military operations in the field while events are still fresh in the minds of participants.
As anyone who has ever been in combat or has tried to reconstruct the events of a battle knows, official records simply cannot tell the entire story. Indeed, the idea of a single "story" itself is a problematic concept, because every individual-whether participant or bystander-has a unique perspective. The phrase, "the fog of war," evocatively describes not only the experience of participants but also the challenge that confronts historians who, after the fact, try to compile a factual narrative account of what transpired. Penetrating the fog in order to gather and preserve the history and heritage of the U.S. Army during its operations, consequently, is the crucial task for historians. One means of doing so is to conduct interviews with soldiers and participants in battles, campaigns, and operations.
The Army historians who bear the greatest responsibility for conducting interviews about U.S. Army operations are the members of military history detachments (MHOs). These three person units, usually comprised of one officer and two noncommissioned officers, seek to obtain and preserve historical materials that can be used as the basis for official histories. Firsthand accounts of soldiers' experiences during operations are the most perishable historical sources, and MHOs try to collect them as soon as possible after the event. Such wartime interviews are unique and irreplaceable. Interviews conducted months or years after the fact cannot replicate the emotion and details of those conducted within a few days of the actual event.

TIP: Combat historians also should refer to FM 1-20, Military Operations in the Field, for fuller discussion of this and related subjects and to augment the material provided in this guide.

Regardless of the type of interview to be conducted, preparation is the key to a successful oral history interview. Preparation encompasses the practice of interviewing (to include familiarization with the equipment to be used) and learning the methodology of oral history, selecting individuals to be interviewed, setting the stage for interviews, acquiring the knowledge necessary to conduct an interview with a specific person, and developing an oral history plan that provides order and direction for the historian's actions.

Topic and Interviewee Selection: What is the Plan?

As all Army historians know (or quickly learn) time and resources always are limited. While everyone has a story to tell, the historian cannot interview everyone. Consequently, before investing time and resources in an interview, the historian must consider the potential significance and usefulness of each interview to the Army and in relation to both the availability of other resources and the historian's ability to conduct the interview. The means for balancing time and resources with action is an overall oral history plan that establishes priorities and provides direction for the historian's actions. All historians should develop an oral history plan that identifies people and subjects of interest, establishes their relation to other historical projects, and sets priorities for interviewing. Having a plan and knowing why specific individuals are to be interviewed also assists in the preparations for specific interviews and can be of great utility, for example, in covering military operations in the field where interview opportunities may arise suddenly. Creating an oral history plan helps to focus background research efforts, exposes holes in coverage of events or operations (particularly important for historians in the field), and helps the historian understand why specific individuals have been chosen for interviews.
For most historians, especially those in MHOs, the development of an oral history plan will be followed by the requirement to prepare a list of prospective interview candidates and relevant discussion topics for each. Although such a list will change over time, the process of generating the list will help determine what background research the historian must conduct as well as provide coherence and direction to the historian's overall actions. Preliminary background research should begin, therefore, with the questions, "Has this person previously been interviewed?" and 'What information can I expect to obtain from this individual?" This will help avoid wasted effort and duplicating information that already exists on those persons and subjects in other interviews. After this initial survey, the historian can decide which candidates offer the best return for the effort invested in the project.
MHOs normally will be assigned to major headquarters and larger units in an operation. Although ideally the objective will be to gain as comprehensive an account as possible of the headquarters or unit during an operation, the reality is that MHOs cannot cover everything and will have to make decisions about what to study and document in detail. This is particularly true when choosing individuals to interview because there can be literally thousands of potential interviewees. In order to determine whom to interview, the MHO commander will have to exercise his or her judgment in assessing the significance of particular events and the roles of individuals along with the capabilities of the MHO. Moreover, "ordinary operations," such as routine convoy runs, in their own way are just as important as uncommon actions, such prolonged firefights, when capturing the totality of a unit's experiences. Similarly the experiences and perspectives of planners and key staff officers must be captured in order to gain a complete appreciation of events. Development of an oral history plan, therefore, is of paramount importance to ensure that priorities are established, that resources are identified and made available, and that there is sufficient coverage in depth and breadth.

Contacting Interviewees

Requesting an interview is an important step in the interview process. After selecting interview candidates, contact them to explain the mission and purpose of the interview. When possible, request an interview in writing, either by letter or memorandum or by email. The written contact should identify the interviewer, the interviewer's agency, the purpose of the interview, the potential product, and the process that will be followed. Use this opportunity to inform the prospective interviewee about the probable number and length of the sessions, as well as what is expected in terms of editing the transcript and signing an access agreement. This is also the time to request assistance from the individual's office to schedule the interview and to help the historian prepare for the interview. (See Appendix B for an example of a CMH contact.)
In many cases, especially when senior individuals with busy schedules are involved, follow-up contacts and effort will be needed to secure an interview date and to arrange access to office files for background research. Be persistent, but tactful. Do not, however, be passive. An initial contact that is followed up on half-heartedly, or not at all, is unlikely to secure an interview. The historian knows that the interview is of historical significance, and it is the historian's task to convince the prospective interviewee of that fact as well.

TIP: For MHOs and deployed historians, most contacts and interview arrangements will be made face-to-face. Historians should routinely introduce themselves to commanding officers, staff officers, and soldiers of the unit or headquarters to which the historians are assigned. Ensure that the unit understands the purpose of the historian's/MHO's presence.

The interview session should be scheduled at a mutually convenient time to avoid distractions or interruptions. As a general rule, try to schedule a two-hour session. After two hours, fatigue is likely to set in for either the interviewee or the interviewer, and the quality of the interview will suffer. The schedules of some individuals may make this impractical, and the participants may have to arrange several shorter sessions or be content with a single shorter session. If the latter proves to be the case, take what time is available: a well-conducted interview often can fuel the enthusiasm of an interviewee to sit for additional sessions.
As soon as an individual agrees to an interview, the historian should begin developing a draft topic-question list. This list can be provided to the prospective interviewee after the initial contact. This serves several purposes: it initiates a serious dialogue with the interviewee; it allows the interviewee to review and to think about the potential topics and question to be covered (and provides an opportunity for the interviewee to suggest changes or refinements); and it gives the historian a legitimate reason for subsequent contact with the prospective interviewee. The historian can use these additional contacts, if necessary, to schedule the interview as well as to request background information and documents to help the historian prepare.
At times individuals will decline to be interviewed, generally for one of two reasons. A common response is for someone to suggest that his or her experiences are not worthy of an interview. If this happens, the historian can encourage the individual to talk by explaining the purpose of the interview and telling him or her, the type of information the historian hopes to gain from the interview and why it is important. Prior development of an oral history plan will help the historian be prepared to counter this sentiment because the historian already will have thought about why this person should be interviewed. Providing the individual with a draft topic-question list can help show why his or her experiences and opinions are worth recording for the record. If the individual still refuses to be interviewed, however, be tactful and leave open the possibility of trying again at a later date.
A second reason that an individual may decline is because controversial events or people are likely to be topics and the prospective interviewee is reluctant to speak about them "on the record." Prior submission of a topic-question list generally resolves this issue by showing the interviewee that the historian does not have a hidden agenda. Also useful is emphasizing to the individual that the purpose of the interview is to record his or her views; that is, the interview is not an interrogation but an opportunity for the interviewee to get his or her opinions and experiences into the historical record.

Conducting Background Research: The Topic-Question List

Thorough preparation is the key to a successful interview that produces useful historical information, and the development of the topic-question list is the historian's central enabling tool for achieving that end. To develop a meaningful list of questions the historian must conduct as much in-depth research on the specific subjects of the interview as is possible.
The availability of time and source material often will determine the quality of the topic-question list. The potential sources for background research are innumerable and often contingent upon the individual to be interviewed. Again, the development of an oral history plan will help the historian focus his or her efforts-the historian will know why the individual is being interviewed and will be able to prepare accordingly. Has the individual recently retired or completed an important assignment? Was the soldier involved in an important event? If so, in what capacity-combatant? Planner? Observer? Will this be an interview with a World War II veteran conducted in his home or an in-theater interview with a soldier fresh from combat?

TIP: MHD members and deployed historians should attend staff meetings in order to understand events as they unfold and to observe personal interactions. Doing so will result in both better preparation for interviews and knowledge of whom to interview.

The answers to these questions will help the historian identify potential sources of information that can be mined to prepare the topic-question list. Such sources include websites, published accounts, the news media (for example, the DOD "Early Bird," a daily compilation of defense-related news available on the Army Home Page, is a useful tool for gathering information about recent events), unit or office records, and background discussions with other individuals who possess useful knowledge about the individual or his or her experiences. All of these sources can aid the historian in conducting background research. Ultimately, however, the oral history plan will determine the purpose of the interview; the purpose of the interview will determine the topics and questions to be covered, and that will help the historian focus his or her efforts.

TIP: Each historian should keep a notebook in which he or she can write notes, the names of people to contact, questions to ask (or topics about which to ask), bits of information to be remembered, and potential sources of information. Have a place to write down passing thoughts and ideas so they are not forgotten and so they are accessible in case, for example, the opportunity for a no-preparation interview suddenly arises. Additionally, information collected for one interview often can be useful to the historian in preparing for another interview.

Yet, even though the purpose of the interview will dictate some of the questions to be asked, the historian also should prepare questions that will elicit information useful for both contemporary and future historians. Avoid tunnel-vision on one topic when preparing a topic-question list. A well-prepared interviewer will be aware of gaps and inconsistencies in the available source materials and, as a result, will be able to ask questions to clarify inconsistencies and to fill in gaps. Interviewers should not shy from preparing questions even if they suspect that they already know the answers; the historian never can truly know what an interviewee will say until the question has been asked. An interviewee's response to these queries may shed new light on an issue; if not, the answers may serve as yardsticks to judge the accuracy of other information provided by the interviewee.
When preparing a topic-question list, writing down every possible question is not necessary. (It will be very important, however, during the interview to listen to what the interviewee says and to ask follow-up questions when the interviewee says something that merits elaboration. Sticking to one's question list regardless of the answers is one of the greatest and most common flaws demonstrated by inexperienced oral historians; and, in the field, it is one of the more lamentable.) Be sure that the topic-question list focuses on the individual and his or her experiences-those things about which the interviewee can speak with accuracy and firsthand knowledge.
The topic-question list is a tool: its creation forces the historian to prepare for the interview; its existence shows the interviewee that the historian has prepared. During the interview, the topic-question list helps the historian remember specific questions and topics as well as providing a safety net in case the discussion wanders and leaves the historian at a loss as to what to say next.
For some interviews, however, the historian simply may not feel prepared-perhaps there was not much (if any) available source material for the historian to use or the opportunity for an interview arose suddenly without the opportunity for research. (The latter is particularly likely to happen to historians in the field.) In such cases the historian will conduct historical reconnaissance by fire and then develop the situation as appropriate-that is, asking general open-ended questions, listening to the answers, and then following up and drawing out the interviewee. Knowing who the interviewee is and why he or she is being interviewed will be enough to get the historian started under such circumstances. Once the interview is started, the historian should focus on drawing out the story the interviewee has to tell and use his or her instincts and training to formulate questions that will ensure the story is complete.

By Stephen J. Lofgren
Center of Military History, United States Army
Washington, D.C, 2006

To be continued…



 
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