Thomson, Alistair: Personal testimonies

Thomson, Alistair

Anzac stories: using personal testimony in war history‘, War & Society, 25, 2, October 2006, pp. 1-21

Discusses the value of personal testimony, suggesting that some authors select testimony that supports their theme, whether this is pathos, ‘cock-up’  or glory. He is critical of this uncritical use of such sources and describes how they can be used in a more nuanced way.

Remembering and relating a life story is a dynamic, creative process, a constant interplay between experience and identity, language and event, past and present, and personal and public sense. In these terms, a soldier or veteran’s personal narrative cannot be understood simply as an “artless” representation of “reality”, but must be considered as a complex construction of experience, shaped by a range of factors and forces. (pp. 4-5)

The author discusses common features of personal testimony from war theatres. ‘Euphemism and good cheer’, he notes, ‘are the almost universal conventions of wartime letter writers, who are constrained by official censorship and by a self-censoring concern about what can and cannot be said to family and friends back home.’ (p. 6)

But diaries still served a range of purposes for those who kept them, as did post-war memoirs. Transcribers, donors and even historian annotators may influence the ultimate content of personal testimony. There are many ways in which the meaning of the past can change. Used with care, personal testimony is valuable.

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