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.