Blogs > Cliopatria > AWOL Epistemology

Feb 11, 2004 11:53 pm


AWOL Epistemology



The question of George W. Bush's Vietnam War era Air National Guard service has created what I think may be a"teachable moment" for historians. In response to allegations that Bush failed to fulfill his service obligations (and I'm a little intrigued by the casual nature of his tenure, even accepting the most generous interpretations offered by Bush's defenders), the administration (shouldn't the campaign be handling this?) has released his pay records for the 1972-1973 period. But, as Anne Zook Peevishly points out, "just because you're being paid doesn't mean you've done any work." And NYTimes reports that"it was possible to be paid in 1972 and 1973 without actually turning up for the service dates because of relaxed record keeping at the time."

So, how do we evaluate these sources? As historians, we frequently address questions where the sources are ambiguous, incomplete; we are selective about sources and we weigh some sources as being more reliable than others. We evaluate sources, like the pay records, in the light of other sources, like the recollections of peers. We weigh negative results, like none of his supervising officers remembering him, against the fragility and flexibility of human memory. We evaluate institutional acts, like an honorable discharge, in the context of social realities, like Bush's high standing and connections.

This goes to the heart of historical epistemology: how do we know? At what point is the dividing line between a conclusion and a fact? This is a fabulous moment for anyone teaching historiography or historical method this semester. Unfortunately, I'm deep in the middle of World Civ and Japanese Women's History, neither of which leave me a lot of time for epistemological musing, but I could bring it up with my thesis advisees or the History Club.


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Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

One means of determining if Bush full-filled his duties is to check his flight records of the period. I do not know if his flight records are available, or if they were destroyed during a fit of house-cleaning by the Guard, but I do know I retain my flight records, detailing all the flights I made from basic flight school, advanced helicopter flight school through the very last mission I flew in Viet-Nam, the one during which I was shot down and became the last time I was at the controls of an aircraft.

In addition, copies of Bush's OERs, Officer Efficiency Reports, are certainly retained in armed forces records. Those would demostatew if he full-filled his duties to the satisfaction of his commanding officers. But if he was in a unit for a very short period of time, he wouldn't have been rated by his C.O. This happened often during the very mobile armed forces of the Cold War era, when troops were frequently & on short notice transferred to other units. On a personal note, I was required to submit OERs on pilots whom I'd led in Viet-Nam subsequent to my having been WIA & then evacuated from Viet-Nam. A few I could not rate because they hadn't served under me long enough for me to judge their performances. This can be frustrating for the one to be rated, because to a large degree it is the ratings on OERs that determines whether one is qualified to be promoted, come the time a promotion board considers promotions. In other wordsm, an insufficient number of OERs would pprevent one from being promoted.


Because Bush evidently was a competent avaitor in high performace interceptors there can be little doubt he performed the basics of his duties in a satisfactory manner. Quite simply, flight instructors don't turn student pilots loose with very expensive & dangerous aircraft unless they are well qualified. It is foolish ignorance to suggest otherwise.


Jonathan Dresner - 2/14/2004

that it could be that bad, and the difficulty of maintaining readable digital records is quite troubling as well. On the other hand, multiple sources are increasingly going to be available to crosscheck things: what if we had credit card records for 1972-1973 (they weren't using them much back then, I know, this is theoretical), that would tell us *exactly* where and when George Bush was whenever he made a charge?

Actually, in some ways the increase in privacy protections and proprietary treatment of information by corporations (who handle more and more of the data necessary for daily life) are going to be at least as much trouble as the potential alterability of digital records.


Anne Zook - 2/13/2004

I don't know the answer to your question but I suggest that with the growing preference for electronic files over paper, the difficulty in finding reliable records for past events is only going to increase.

History is, indeed, going to become as mutable and transient as anything George Orwell predicted and, human nature being what it is, few of the powerful (or guilty) are going to be able to resist the temptation to do a bit of judicious editing when the occasion seems to call for it.


Richard Henry Morgan - 2/12/2004

Here's a little bit more to chew on:

http://www.washtimes.com/op-ed/20040210-082910-8424r.htm

Seems it was indeed common practice to pay pilots, for whom there were no planes, to do nothing.


Ophelia Benson - 2/12/2004

Exactly.

There's a lot of epistemology around at the moment, as a matter of fact. The whole WMD question is, of course, another. Richard Goodwin did an interesting Op-ed for the NY Times the other day on the way presidents want certain intelligence and thus find it, and how hard that is to avoid. And then the Hutton report is another huge epistemology treasure chest. Every person in it, every aspect of it, is all about How did he know, How did they know, How do we know. From the intelligence services to the goverment people to the BBC reporters and directors to Kelly.

And I heard an interview with Hans Blix on the BBC World Service over the weekend that was also very epistemology-based. I was a little surprised at how silly the reporter was about it, in fact. But maybe he was asking deliberately silly questions so that Blix could explain for the folks at home. He asked Blix 'Why didn't you say, There are no WMD, we know that for certain.' Blix explained politely that they couldn't. Which is blindingly obvious - of course they couldn't; how could they? With seven maids and seven mops? One thinks impatiently of Hume and black swans and Popper. How could they possibly know for certain that they hadn't missed something that had been hidden?

Epistemology is so basic, and...it's not taught much, is it. Pity, that.