Military History: Seeing Wars Through the Eyes of the West Point Graduates Who Fought Them

The U.S. Military Academy will collect oral histories to help educate tomorrow's soldiers.

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The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is getting into the oral history business with the creation of the Center for Oral History, which aims to archive an audio-video record of the stories of academy graduates, from junior officers to generals, who have fought the nation's wars from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the center's historians will have lots of competition in their quest to create the repository of record. The popularity of oral histories is directly tied to the technology that makes it possible, from the earliest wax recordings of American Indian stories to home cassette tapes of grandma from the 1980s. The prospect of cheap, unlimited real estate in the digital world is proving too attractive to pass up. Libraries and other organizations around the world are launching their own oral history projects. Many local libraries have set up smaller efforts aimed at local vets, while the Library of Congress and a host of foundations and online networks aim to do the same.

One of the first efforts at West Point will be a chronicling of the Class of 1967, which headed almost immediately from commencement to the jungles of Vietnam. (The preceding class was the focus of the bestselling book The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966 by Rick Atkinson.) The project will also trace the often underreported experiences of soldiers during peacetime.

Opening officially next year and headed by former ABC News producer Todd Brewster, the West Point project's board of directors is an impressive cast that includes documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a West Point graduate who was national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. The center will be built and housed mostly online, and its website will be open to all users.