War is one of the most common historical stories. While past historians have almost exclusively reported on the politics, battles and influential decision-makers surrounding war, a new digital history project at CSUSM seeks to share a different story: the voices of U.S. veterans, especially those who have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Spearheaded by history professors Jill Watts, Ibrahim Al-Marashi and Kimber Quinney and inspired by the foundational input of Associate Dean Patricia Seleski, the War at Home and Abroad (WAHA) digital archive explores the impact of war through the memories told by veterans, their families and the nation’s home front community members.

The multi-year project will kick off on Thursday, Nov. 8 at 5 p.m. in Markstein Hall room 125 with a special student-veteran panel presentation, moderated by Professors Al-Marashi and Quinney, and held in honor of Veterans Day.

“As historians, we want to build a repository to document and share this historical collection so that future historians and generations can study and better understand the lived, personal experiences and impact of these wars on veterans and their communities,” said Quinney, who specializes in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

WAHA will be anchored by an online library of video interviews of veterans recounting experiences from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Photographs, videos, written letters, memoirs and other personal artifacts will also be featured in the collection.

“We want to allow veterans the opportunity to tell their story the way they want to tell it, and be the author of their own narrative,” explained Watts. “Every service member has a different story and a different experience, and we hope to capture their unique perspective.”

Rather than an interviewer asking predetermined questions that direct the conversation, veterans are invited to record their memories in a story lab, a sound booth with a video camera connected to a computer recording their stories. Interviews are then transcribed and cataloged by digital history graduate students. The WAHA team plans to collect over 1,000 interviews, working first with student veterans and alumni to give every CSUSM veteran the opportunity to tell their his or her story. The project hopes to eventually expand to include military families and community members in the CSUSM service area. 

“We’re at a juncture now where we can collect a lot of lessons learned from a new kind of warfare of the 21st century,” said Al-Marashi, who specializes in modern Middle Eastern history. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not your conventional wars that characterized much of the 20th century. These wars are insurgencies where cultural expertise is needed in urban/rural warfare. And the impact on the soldier, both psychological and cultural, is unlike any previous war in U.S. history.”

Unlike other conflicts, the current wars have dramatically redefined and blurred the boundaries between the frontlines and the home front, changing the experience of war. In previous wars service members were cut off from family and friends for weeks and even months at a time. Today, it can be commonplace for a soldier to be exchanging fire and then hours later reading his or her child a bedtime story via Skype.

Geographically, San Diego County is home to the largest concentration of military personnel in the nation. For over a century the region’s history has had strong roots in the defense industry. Demographically, CSUSM has the highest percent of student veterans per capita than any other CSU campus, making the University, both because of its location and its student population, the ideal home for such a large-scale project.

Armed with a modest seed grant from the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Socials Sciences Dean’s Council, the WAHA team is exploring grant opportunities and philanthropic support to fund scholarships for the project’s graduate student workers, as well as cover expenses related to the implementation and maintenance of the online WAHA archive and collect more in-depth interviews.

“There are so many voices that need to be heard,” said Al-Marashi. “Previously untold stories will change the landscape of knowledge for future generations and help bridge the gap between high politics and the ‘boots on the ground’ experience.”

For more information or for veterans interested in participating, email waha@csusm.edu.

The multi-year project will kick off on Thursday, Nov. 8 at 5 p.m. in Markstein Hall room 125 with a special student-veteran panel presentation, moderated by professors Al-Marashi and Quinney, and held in honor of Veterans Day.