Modern Wars Are a Nightmare for the Army's Official Historians

Modern Wars Are a Nightmare for the Army's Official Historians by Adin Dobkin - The Atlantic

… Modern wars have upended some of the most basic factors CMH [Center of Military History]  relied upon in order to write histories in a consistent way. “Since 1991, the operations we’ve gotten into—Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo—were more complicated scenarios,” says Shane Story, a retired Army helicopter pilot who’s overseeing the creation of the 30-some eventual volumes of the Tan Books. “Even more since 9/11, both Afghanistan and Iraq, they’re not clean, neat narratives. ... [In] the best work that you write, you know what the last word is before you start. We don’t know what the last word is.”

Story and Jerry Brooks, who’s responsible for collections in the field, speak candidly of the problems CMH historians face as they work through the Tan Books creation, a process that will take decades to complete. Once, there were scores of clerks responsible for maintaining detailed records of units. With the rise of computers and software, the Army believed that “everybody would be their own records manager,” and broadened this responsibility to average soldiers, Brooks says. “Well, they failed to take into consideration that people are lazy.”

In theory, these individual record-keepers hand off documents and other sources of information to field historians when requested. However, in addition to the two years after Spencer Williams and his team left Afghanistan a decade ago, the country hasn’t had a field historian from the Army since 2014. Historians dealing with Iraq have avoided these same gaps, but still suffer from fewer personnel in the field than in past wars. Brooks cites Vietnam, where U.S. headquarters in Saigon alone maintained a staff of more than 20 historians. Nowadays, as a result of caps on the number of troops deployed, historians oftentimes find themselves on the first flights back home.

“We did a disservice to the American public, because we did not put enough historians downrange to collect the documents. And now we're reaping what we’ve sowed,” Brooks says.

By his estimate, more records from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been wiped or otherwise lost than remain in existence. But he admits the exact figure is difficult to determine due to the few historians in the field. A concept document that lays out the plan for the Tan Books supports this estimate, listing the amount of data lost in the wars as “incalculable.”…

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