BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The complete history of any military engagement, from Gettysburg to Guadalcanal, Tonkin to Takrit, is left behind on the field of war. What remains is the stuff of textbooks, the documents and memories of living participants. And it is this material that the members of the 45th Military History Detachment are racing to preserve. Seven Army historians are now traveling throughout Iraq, risking their own lives to interview soldiers and gather documents for posterity. Whether the epic was worth the risk will be determined years from now when that material is declassified. Meanwhile, we can ask the command historian, Lieutenant Colonel John Boyd, about the work in progress. He's on the phone from Baghdad. Colonel Boyd, welcome to OTM.
LT. COL. JOHN BOYD: Well, thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I would guess that for us civilians the classic image of the Army historian would be some dusty old academic studying ancient battles from the safety of his office. But this is very clearly different from the work you do in Iraq.
LT. COL. JOHN BOYD: Absolutely. And of the historians that we have in theater right now, I'm probably the only one that qualifies as being kind of old and crusty. I'm actually a Ph.d. out of the University of Kentucky. But all soldiers, be they historians here or anybody else, are required to be fit to potentially engage in a conflict. So we consider ourselves soldiers first and historians second.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does the tradition of this kind of officially sanctioned on-the-ground compiling of history go back as far as World War II or even further than that?
LT. COL. JOHN BOYD: At least over 100 historians were actually deployed at two different theaters in World War II. By the Vietnam era, we had the creation of what we called the Military History Detachment. And the Army loves acronyms. In this case, a Military History Detachment looks at what we call WEPAID, and that basically means that we go after today web pages, electronic media, photos, artifacts, interviews and documents. And the thing that we have discovered in Iraq is the Army has become paperless. I came over here expecting to find documents, and what I found was that everything is emails and computer-generated documents. And so, we find ourselves in a new modern crisis for history collectors, and that is we don't have enough hard drive to actually get all the material right now. And that's what we discovered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that puts an even greater emphasis on the interviews that you gather. But I'm wondering, as you interview individual soldiers about the work they're doing, how do you get them first to even trust you or to open up?
LT. COL. JOHN BOYD: Unlike a reporter, I think we have some things going for us. One, they're approached by a fellow soldier, some of which have already engaged in combat. We have one Military History Detachment commander who actually earned a combat infantry badge at Fallujah while he was doing his job. There's two ways you can look at military history. And this is the Ph.d. in me that just has to come out right now. And that's history from the top down, or history from the bottom up. Military historians, of course, are all fascinated with plans and actions and the synchronized modern battlefield. And so we get that stuff. We get where the little arrows go, and what little task force did this or that. But the other thing is ultimately there are people out there that are fascinated with what is battle really like. And so, many times my sergeants or I encounter someone that will, with enough coaxing at times, open up and, you know, "What is it like to be shot at, what is it like to shoot somebody?"
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you find some soldiers reluctant to talk to you, because they lump you in with other journalists, with the bias against the larger media?
LT. COL. JOHN BOYD: [LAUGHS] It's interesting that you say that because usually when I conduct the interview, the first words out of my mouth are, "I am not the press, [LAUGHTER] and I am not a reporter. I am here to tell your story. And I'm here to get it right."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But ultimately, your mission isn't fundamentally different from the mission of journalism. Do you worry that your work will be seen not as history but as a government-sponsored version of history?
LT. COL. JOHN BOYD: We don't tell the soldier what to say, Indeed, a lot of cases I'm looking for the same thing a reporter is looking for; I'm looking for things that might actually be lessons learned for the Army. I do want to know the good, the bad and the ugly, as I sometimes put it. So I've gotten some information which is not necessarily always very pretty. I think the record should speak for itself. Any researcher ultimately will have access to the information that we preserve. And they can interpret it the way they want to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've said that World War I was a particularly literary war. What do you mean by that?
LT. COL. JOHN BOYD: I appreciate the question because I've pondered it ever since I read a wonderful book by a gentleman named Paul Fussell. And in one of his books he has a chapter about World War I called "Oh What a Literary War." And he talks about the amount of mail and ability of soldiers sitting around, between moments of terror, to write. The interesting comparison that I make is perhaps even daily entries done by soldiers in Iraq on blog sites, some of which are officially sanctioned by the United States Army at this point, since they've kind of broken out like a rash all over anyway. Now, I'm not going to say that perhaps today's soldier is as literate as say a World War I poet-like A.E. Hausmann. But having said that, I think each generation has found a way to express itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do the soldier blogs find their way into your historical documents?
LT. COL. JOHN BOYD: Sergeant 1st Class Fisk who works with me who is, I consider my computer guru, has attempted to download many of these sites because, like much information here, we consider it to be perishable. Yes, ma'am.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The thing is, is as you said, some of them are sanctioned, some of them are not. Do you also download the unsanctioned ones because of their unvarnished, if unsanctioned, view of the war?
LT, COL. JOHN BOYD: Absolutely. I, I am not here to judge information, I am not here to filter information. My mission is to try to get that information so that future generations of historians, or even ones in the present, can actually write a publishable book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you're waiting for historians to write those books so that the rest of us can have access to it. There's really no other way, except the individual discretion of some military historian in the future.
LT, COL. JOHN BOYD: Absolutely. But ultimately, under the Freedom of Information Act, once some things are declassified, and other things, by the way, are never classified, any historian or author or writer should ultimately have access. But some of this stuff may never be used. I think that primary material can be the equivalent of "One man's trash is another man's treasure."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lieutenant Colonel Boyd, thank you so much.
LT, COL. JOHN BOYD: Thank you very much, ma'am.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lieutenant Colonel John Boyd is the command historian for the U.S. Army in Iraq.