Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

War Crimes

In his New York Times column last week, “Forgive and Forget?”, Paul Krugman contends that the Obama administration should pursue an investigation into “possible crimes” by the Bush administration. “Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here,” Krugman writes. “It’s not just torture and illegal wiretapping, whose perpetrators claim, however implausibly, that they were patriots acting to defend the nation’s security. The fact is that the Bush administration’s abuses extended from environmental policy to voting rights. And most of the abuses involved using the power of government to reward political friends and punish political enemies.” This may be difficult because this administration worked hard to make the records and information documenting its activities inaccessible, as we are now finding out about with its management (apparently deliberate) with its electronic mail.

But this is not a posting about the Bush administration. Deborah Nelson, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes (New York: Basic Books, 2008) is a study drawing on a secret war crimes archives maintained by the U.S. Army, where, for five years, “men culled investigation files, surveillance reports, press accounts, court-martial records, and congressional correspondence. Each month they summarized what they’d found and sent a memo up the chain of command” (p. 1). Nine thousand pages of documents were accumulated, and most of them are now declassified and at the National Archives. As Nelson writes, the “archive collection contained hundreds of sworn statements from soldiers and veterans who committed or witnessed rapes, torture, murders, massacres, and other illegal acts. There were letters from soldiers, statistical reports, and case summaries” (p. 3). Using these files, Nelson tracks down and interviews many of the participants in and witnesses to these events, demonstrating the power of records, even decades after the events they document.

The importance of managing and opening such records is very clear, and you can sense the frustration of the author as she presents to the survivors of these events the reports and other documents, only sometimes to be told that they do not remember any of what happened. At one point she states, the “Army Staff’s office had marshaled an unparalleled body of evidence on the commission of war crimes in Vietnam, clearly devoting hundreds of man hours and reams of paper to the task. Yet we were having a hard time finding anyone who remembered it with any clarity” (p. 170). The tie to the outgoing administration should be clear, as it has worked very hard to close down its records and information and to eliminate any accountability to the citizens of this nation. Nelson does not mince any words in making this assessment, writing early in her book, “The war ended without an accounting or acknowledgment of the war crimes they witnessed. Their retelling comes at an equally important time when, having failed to address the past, we’re destined to repeat it” (p. 5). This is one reason archives and archivists are so important.


At 9:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...The fact is that the Bush administration’s abuses extended from environmental policy to voting rights. And most of the abuses involved using the power of government to reward political friends and punish political enemies.” ...

of related reading today,

Chronicle Review : the magazine of ideas

Brainstorm: Morning in America January 20, 2009

Stan Katz

[some excerpts - please see full link above to Chronicle Review today blogged by Stan Katz]

..."They share our excitement in this new beginning for our democracy, and seem almost more optimistic than we are, perhaps because our real problems are distant for them. They want us to recover our stride and to resume a positive role on the world’s stage. Oddly, or perhaps poignantly, these e-mails remind me forcefully of the many, many messages I received from abroad in the days following September 11, 2001. Those expressed sympathy, shared our pain, and encouraged us to move forward. But we did not, quite the contrary." ...

..."We need to understand what went wrong if we are to get it right. That will mean, among other things, ensuring that the records of the Bush administration are fully turned over to the National Archives, and made available to the public just as quickly as the statutes permit. Yesterday’s ruling by a federal District Court judge in Washington that several historians and historical groups had no basis on which to ask the courts to ensure that Vice President Cheney’s records be transferred in their entirety to the Archives is a reminder of what is at stake." ...

..."The Great Society was an America I believed in, and still believe in, and the pre-war LBJ was a leader I deeply respected. Not so much since then, however, for progressives like me. But today we start again..."

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