Oral History of War Commanders

A method for current narration of the past or responding to basic issues in the future?

Mohammad Doroudian
Translated by: M. B. Khoshnevisan


Note: Assuming that there should be a proportion between the subject and method of research, the oral history of the commanders in terms of subject requires attention to the considerations which has been noticed in this article. In my view, development and deepening of oral history method and the increase of its function in the area of historiography instead of a general and public method requires concentration on subject and through this to technical-methodical considerations in this area.


Proposing an issue

The war commanders and authorities have valuable information since they play a major role in the process of military and political-social developments. The information as historical resources is unique in explaining the events of Iran-Iraq war and its developments. In view of the above mentioned explanation, this question is posed, “What is important and matters for question and answer in talking with the commanders and with what method should it be followed? In other words, what has shaped the necessity of talking and clarifies its historical-strategic value and as a result, the method of talking is influenced by it?” In the first glance, the mentioned question is obvious, because it is imagined that the commanders talk about the war against the questions which are asked. The complexity of the discussion however, is in defining the war and method of talking about it. . Since the mental assumptions of the commanders from the war and oral history narrators shape the selection and sorting چینش of the events and narration of the war events and issues, so how the method of oral history is used and asked in talking with the commanders is of great importance, because the discussions of the was commanders have double capability. It means that it can be accompanied with the description of the events and roles, or criticism and reviewing of the basic issues of the war. The orientation and result of the talks should be chosen from inside duality, the revealing of the basic issues of the war or description of the events for shaping the war issue. The performance of the important task is up to oral historians using a proper method.

Although oral history with commander is very necessary, paying attention to considerations of methods and approaches is of paramount importance. For reaching a proper definition of oral history and more important than this, fixing its limits and framework in the area of the historiography of Iran-Iraq war through oral history with commanders, the continuation of the discussion will be followed by the question that “What is the main element and pillar of oral history with war commanders?” oral history is based on three main elements which includes oral methods, the narrator of a historic event, and oral historian. In continuation of the discussion, in addition to explaining about the elements and factors overseeing oral history, the similarity and differentiation of oral history with written historiography, memory-writing and interview will be reviewed. 


Oral method

Oral history follows “subject” and “goal” in terms of method. The subject of oral history, historical events and its results and consequences emphasize on the role and functionality of the individual. The goal of oral history is proportionate to considerations overseeing documented and written historiography. It means that clarifying the hidden angles of historical events and searching for its subjects and issues is the most important goal of historiography in general meaning and oral history in particular. As it was mentioned, the following of the mentioned goal in oral conversation with the war commanders will be carried out on the basis of historical documents, the time and place of the events’ occurrence.  Therefore, although oral history has similarities and differences with written historiography in terms of goal and subject and with interview and conversation in terms of method, the approaches and methods in historical researches follow theoretical and philosophical principles[1] to which is referred in continuation of the discussion.

Historical studies as a methodological effort for recognizing “an even happened in past” is in fact overseeing how “recognition of reality” is possible. This epistemological consideration lies at the heart of philosophical and methodological controversies, between postmodernists and positivists, within the framework of continental and analytic philosophy.[2] Using oral method in history research and memory telling as a method of qualitative research is mostly influenced by the philosophical foundations of phenomenology and the hermeneutical method based on the "lived experience."  In this way of conversation, the possibilities achieved in human being in facing with particular historical situations are examined. "Understanding" in hermeneutics (explanation and interpretation) is achieved on the basis of the common ground of the observer and observed. The similarity and distinction of oral history with written historiography is significant given the influence of philosophical thinking on the formation of historical approaches and methods. In written historiography, the describing and reviewing of an even based on written documents, dialogues and observations is carried out in narrational method. In this approach, an event had an objective form and has achieved in time and place, while asking questions from the subject and his or her experiences in relation to the event creates a new narrative of the event that has come about for the individual. In oral history, the dissection of the person's understanding and action, in relation to the event, follows the logic of the conversation.

Since documents and observations along with field studies have been noticed in written historiography, sometimes “conversation” is carried out with the aim of completing the research and removing some informational-analytical deficiencies, while “the life experience” of the subject and the event’s witness in oral history lies at the center of the history’s narration. The capacity of conversation in bilateral interaction between “subject-interviewee” in oral history causes the event to be revived while according to Gadamer, the events reduce to sentences in written writing.

Given that oral history is based on the "reconstruction of historical memory" in order to achieve better understanding of the past, it is carried out by referring to human resources instead of written documents. Thus, it leads to creation of capacity of producing documents about historical events through conversation with the subject of the event’s witness. Given that the conversation is conducted relying on the individual’s personal memory and mind, thus it is likely that some mistakes occurs at the time of the events’ occurrence or ignoring the role of other factors and characters. This alarming concern makes it possible to eliminate or at least reduce the limitations and errors generated by the minds and historical memory of individuals, by challenging conversations with an individual or by completing the dialogue with other persons involved in the event, as well as by using the explanations in the book's footnote. The mentioned method does not mean subject-oriented in oral history, but it is the necessity of a critical-research approach in conversation as well as commitment to countering distortions and exaggeration in narration of history. 

At present, two methods can be seen in the area of oral history with war commanders which are the result of two different versions from the purpose and function of oral history. In the first viewpoint, history is carried out as an event and its description and reconstruction by the actor or observer in oral method and with interview techniques. It is done in this way that the considered subjects are brought up before interview or simultaneously and the answers are reciprocally received in the form of event narration or analysis of incidents. There is also another viewpoint in which history is considered as a text and using oral method based on the concept of “challenge-sympathy” for achieving a live narrative. It seems that the first method is the product of traditional thinking by using interview, while the second one based on the philosophical theory of phenomenology and knowledge of hermeneutics is through the interpretation and a kind of dialectical encounter with the text. Assuming that every text and event has been shaped in response to a question and necessity, oral history is carried out through “challenge-sympathy” for discovering the hidden question inside an event for an individual. Therefore, question and challenge in oral history is a starting point for achieving a common horizon. With this explanation, the orientation of the question in oral history with war commanders is based on two different aspects including "historical event and individual functionality ". War from the perspective of the historical event, due to dialogue with the commanders, should be taken into account in the context of the goal and outcome, that is, why what was expected in the war as a goal was not provided? What happened, why and how was it achieved? From the perspective of the individual’s functionality, the amount of influence of the political and ideological thinking of the commanders of Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) should be taken into account in understanding and action against the event, that is, what was the interpretation of the commanders form the concept of politics, war and security and based on what analysis of the events and developments did they react?

In view of the fact that there are different aspects in oral history in terms of approach to history and method of historiography, interview in oral history has been taken into account with two different approaches. As it was mentioned, some conducts an interview within the framework of documented historiography and as completion of written documents and in other words “verbal witness” in response to the researcher’s questions and some others use interview within the framework of oral history method for new reviewing and narration based on the individual’s functionality. Given the significance of this subject, it will be referred to in continuation of the discussion. In definition of interview, it is said that it means interaction between two individuals or more through verbal means and one of the methods of gaining knowledge. Interview is meaningful with the words such as dialogue, debate, controversy, and conflict.[3] The interview is in fact a kind of bilateral and verbal showdown for discussing about specific issues that are agreed upon by the parties; in this exchange one gives information and the other plays the role of questioner. In fact, dialogue-interview is the management of a meeting that is pursued purposefully and methodically. The distinction of this type of interview with any kind of dialogue and meeting is methodology, and agreement on the goal and subject that defines and specifies the framework and scope of interaction between the parties.

Interview and its techniques for recognition is a qualitative method in terms of the technique of collecting data and is based on philosophical, interpretive-explanatory and phenomenology approach. At the same time, if interview is regarded as a tool of conversation for describing, narrating and reporting events within the framework of historical positivism approach, it will turn into a one-sided method in which one asks and the other answers. As it was mentioned, such method in using interview for recognizing the event follows the model of subject/ issue in event-oriented approach in written historiography. Questioning in an interview with the aim of dominating the issue is followed by posing questions while in oral history, conversation about an experience is followed by creation of opportunities for revealing various aspects and dimensions of truths and realities which is taken into account due to its experience by the actor and not objective determination in outer world.  In other world, the issues and events are noticed for conversation in view of the individual’s internal experience because interaction for redefinition in the core of oral history is through “challenge-sympathy”.

“Sympathy” in oral history is the product of a common attachment to an issue which is produced and revealed through conversation. The distinction of interview for dominating an issue with conversation for achieving common meanings is in the same consideration. The “challenge” method in oral history through posing questions is methodologically influenced by a critical approach. The goal in research and conversation in critical paradigm is to reveal an event and turn unawareness and inappropriate understanding to informative awareness. Also, “sympathy” in oral history is followed with this assumption that conversation is regarded as an endeavor for understanding the world in which an individual has lived. In other words, conversation is carried out in order to decode “lived world”. Sympathy and interaction intertwine the horizons of the parties, because the common meaning system that exists is discovered for the parties in this way. With this explanation, the elements of conversation in oral history dialogue reconstruct and reveal the system of meaning that forms the basis of the event of war with Iraq. Another aspect of questioning in oral history can be explained on the basis of the gap between the present and the past. According to Gadamer, what forms the present time supports a process that causes a gap with the past. Given that at the time of the event we always face a kind of prejudice, as a result, over time, the logic and the necessity of reviewing from the point of departure to the past develops. From this viewpoint, challenging in searching for the past and revealing previous prejudices and its breakup in new explanation and review play an important role. Based on the above explanations, the "structure of understanding" through sympathy-challenge is reviewed and revised with respect to the passage of time.


Event’s narrator

The second basic element in oral history is the narrator of a historic event. The event’s narrator in oral history has a role like a historian in written historiography with this difference that the historian relies on historical documents and on the basis of his or her presuppositions chooses the events and explains and interprets them, while the event’s narrator in oral history chooses and narrates the events on the basis of personal memory and the role he or she has had in occurrence of the events or their observation. Prejudice and selection of events is a common feature of the historian in historiography and narrator in oral history. Moreover, written historiography and oral history, both in terms of writing and dialogue, do not represent full compliance with reality, nor does it mean the integrity of the event. The pivotal role of the narrator in oral history has attracted attention to the distinction and similarity of oral history with memory-telling. The point of departure for talking to narrator in oral history is his or her relation with a historic event. Thus, commitment to time and place in oral history can be seen while in memory-telling, what has happened for an individual and his or her inner feelings should be tried to follow. Therefore, in memory-telling, the role of the individual and his or her inner feelings is the point of departure as it is done in writing an autobiography or a biography. Meanwhile, in addition to similarity in oral method, memory-telling with oral history are also close together in some subjects including paying attention to the fundamental changes in the person's thoughts and actions, the description and analysis of environmental changes and their impact on the individual’s intellectual- practical life and some other cases. Memory-telling is mostly individual-oriented, emphasizing on the individual’s action and mentalities, thus the logic of memory-telling shapes from inside to outside and does not have much obligation to time and place, while oral history emphasizes more on the area of social action and individual and collective historical memory. Therefore, the historical narration shapes on the axis of the event with commitment to time and place from the outer point of departure in order to determine the role of the individual in relation to the event. In other words, memory-telling is based on the individual’s inclinations and affections, while oral history is a historical narration based on an event in relation to the individual’s functionality. Memory-telling relies on mind and covers the individual’s inner states but oral history is the narration of an event which rests on the individual’s historical memory.  According to above mentioned considerations, memory-telling and biography-writing is based on a kind of exaggeration and emphasis on the positive and key role of the person due to affection to the individual’s role. So, from this viewpoint, it can be close with oral history in explaining the role of an individual in event. The significant point in oral history and memory telling is that in oral method, the considerations overseeing memory-telling in case of a challenge in searching for the individual’s role prevents from agreeing on continuation of conversation and contradicts the ruling logic on memory-telling, while in oral history, the ruling necessities over historical research needs eminence for searching deeply for historical events. Thus, the capacity of challenging in oral history for preventing from any kind of history document-making or distortion of events exists, while the method of challenging cannot be used in memory telling.    

Interaction and sympathy in oral history revolves around the events and is a necessary experience for revision, while interaction and sympathy in memory telling strengthens the key role of the individual and develops it. In view of oral history of the commanders of Iran-Iraq war, the mentioned difficulties and delicacies in challenging and sympathy double. At the same time, the issue of the commanders and Iranian society during the war was an action inside an event. Today, with the passage of time and revealing of some of the realities, the previous understanding needs revision. On the basis of the mentioned considerations, two basic issues regarding the proportion of “time in narration” and determination of “the starting point of narration” needs to be reviewed. Any explanation in this regard is based the similarity and distinction of memory telling, biography writing and oral history and the assumptions that exist:

  1. Memory telling explains about single special situations of the individuals, thus it has almost no commitment to historical time for explaining about the situation. Also, the beginning of a memory is followed by understanding of a situation which has given meaning to time and place. Therefore, in memory-telling, commitment to historical and linear continuity and sequence has been less observed.  
  2. Time in the writing of autobiography and biography is followed by the logic of birth-life-death with concentration on the mood, personality and behavior of the individual which is a key to understand one's life. The endeavor to explain about the human’s lifestyle defines time on the basis of the sequence of birth-life-death and is narrated as a result of the determination of the starting and end point.
  3. Time in oral history follows the logic of an event which creates positions for the individual as a result of connection with the individual’s functionality. Therefore, establishing a linear connection between a position with the next one defines and determines the conception of time as well as the starting point of narration. If this consideration is ignored, the individual’s functionality in the event’s historical time and as a result event-oriented in oral history will ignore the individual’s role.

At present, the selection of time of narration in oral history with the commanders has caused difference due to various approaches. Given that conversation with the commanders has emphasis on “functionality in facing with war”, this consideration on one hand distances from the historiography of event-oriented and instead of focusing on how an event happens, concentrates on the individual’s functionality (commander) and how it acts against an event, and on the other hand, focusing on “action in war” causes to distance from other incidents in the life of the individual including what has already happened to his or her life. Thus, according to the existing assumptions about the occurrence of a war within the framework of continuity of the war with the revolution, the starting point of the narration of narrator from war is better to be the time of the victory of the Islamic revolution. However, the mentioned consideration is proper just for IRGC commanders who have no military record unlike the army commanders. In this framework, posing questions from IRGC commanders on one hand focuses on the details of the events and on the other hand oversees their entrance to their subjective world. In fact, we try to reveal, what is said by a commander is based on what political, social, religious, and military considerations? Is it the same initial perception or has been revised or modified on the basis of time? To what extent have the affection to oneself been subjected to self-determination, or to ignore other people, events, and situations?


Oral historian

The second element in oral history is the “talker” person or the same oral historian. Since oral history is narrator-oriented, the selection of a proper method in management of conversation and determining a framework and the discussion’s topics should be fixed and directed by oral historian. In other words, challenging orientation in conversation or focusing on the event’s details and management of memory of oral history narrator are done by historian. Meanwhile, organization and coherence of narration of a historical event will shape under the influence of interaction, sympathy, and common capabilities of the narrator and talker. Otherwise, conversation will be diverted from the main path through burbling, exaggeration and distortion. On the basis of this consideration, the familiarity of oral historian with the narrator’s intellectual-personality dimensions of the event and more important domination on the discussed subject is necessary and unavoidable. Also familiarity and domination of oral historian with talking methods and techniques and enjoying necessary experience for talking lead to methodology in conversation and organization of a complete, fluid and coherent narration of the event. At the same time, it avoids test-error method and as a result losing some opportunities. 

There are two individual and collective methods for talking to some commanders including Brigadier General Gholam Ali Rashid. Some emphasize on the method “center group”. Such consideration is brought up with this assumption that in case of collective conversation and posing more questions and a s a result generality in the discussion, the ground for receiving data and more analyses about the role general Rashid will be provided. No doubt that collective talk with the commanders including general Rashid is of great importance, because the data will be produced tremendously. But using this method has consequences and results to which should be noticed. Collective talk needs intellectual coherence and agreement among the talkers because this method is shaped on the basis of intergroup subjects. Moreover, this method should be managed by a person at the time of talking and other persons should have just supervisory presence. Otherwise, scattered questions will distort process of talking and a result the coherence of historical narration. In fact, the necessity of a fluid and coherent narration is among the considerations that can be subjected to ambiguity and doubt. It seems that this method is more appropriate for discussing basic and challenging issues in comparison with oral history based on narration of a historical event.

In addition to determining a framework for discussion and following up the issues, an oral historian during the conversation will follow the question form the event’s context and on the way to conversation with emphasis on the narrator’s intellectual-practical role. In fact, the follow-up of the conversation in framework of the method “challenge-sympathy” demands management of conversation through observing interaction for advancing the discussion. Moreover, the shaping of a common horizon for interaction and sympathy is organizing a fluid and coherent narration of the event is necessary. In fact, the following of conversation within the framework of “challenge-sympathy” requires management of talking through observing interaction for advancing the discussion. Since the nature of talking is supervised by verbal interaction about historical subjects and issues, the keeping of trustworthiness in turning conversation into text should be taken into consideration. In the talks which for any reason there is no access to the event’s narrator and correction of text, observing trustworthiness in turning conversation into text and its edition is very difficult. Otherwise, the text should be read out and confirmed by the narrator through having access and sending the final text.  



The following sources have been used for writing this article: 

  1. Georg Iggers – 2010 – Historiography in Twentieth Century – translated by Abdolhossain Azarang – Semat Publications
  2. Kate Jikens – 2005 - History Rethinking – translated by Saghar Sadeghian – Markaz Publications
  3. Ahmad Mohammad Pour – 2010 – Method in Method – Jame’eh Shenasan Publications
  4. Ahmad Mohammad Pour – 2011 – Method of Qualitative Research of Anti-Method – Jame’eh Shenasan Publications
  5. Jeremy Black, Donald M. MacRaild,- Spring 2011 - Studying History, translated by Dr. Mohammed Taqi Imanpour, Mashhad’s Ferdowsi University 
  6.  Simon Critchley – 1999 – Continental Philosophy – translated by Khashayar Deihimi ; Mahi Publications
  7. Herrbert Spielberg – 2012 - The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction – volume one and two – translated by Masoud Olya – Minooy-e Kherad Publications
  8. Emdad Touran – 2010 - History of Understanding in Gadamer Hermeneutics- Basirat Publications
  9. Paul Ricœur, Life in the World of Text, Six Conversations, One Discussion – 1994 – translated by Babak Ahmadi, Markaz Publications
  10. Michael Stanford -  2007 – An Introduction to History Research – translated by Dr. Masoud Sadeghi – Semat Publications  
  11. Book of Month of History and Geography – Special for Oral History – May 2013 – Issue 180
  12. Book of Month of History and Geography – December 2012 – Issue 175
  13. Book of Month of History and Geography – October 2011 – Issue 161
  14.  Ettela’at Hekmat and Ma’refat Monthly – Special for Analytical Philosophy – May 2011 – Issue 62
  1. Website of Iranian Oral History  www.oral-history.ir


[1] The concept of modern history and historiography, as one of the epistemological areas, has a prominent relationship with western philosophy, which will be briefly mentioned

[2] Analytical philosophy is the academic philosophy of the Anglo-Saxon countries. Bertrand Russell and George Edward Moore are considered as the philosophers of Cambridge, the founder of analytic philosophy. Continental philosophy is limited to the continent of Europe, and has developed and expanded in the countries of Germany and France.

[3] Marjan Vala www.anthropology.ir  

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