Vet­er­ans fear sto­ries of mod­ern con­flict will be lost to his­tory

Iraq vet­eran John Spencer laments the purge of field records from his tours

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Twit­ter: @spencer­guard Maj. John Spencer is an Army in­fantry­man and deputy di­rec­tor of the Mod­ern War In­sti­tute at the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy in West Point, N.Y.

Ioften won­der what peo­ple will say about the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan decades from now. What I will tell my chil­dren when they are able to un­der­stand the an­swers to ques­tions about what hap­pened “over there.” I am afraid I will for­get. As ev­ery day passes, I strug­gle more and more to re­mem­ber all the names of the sol­diers in my pla­toon, the hard-to-pro­nounce places we fought, the day-to-day things we did dur­ing my two year-long com­bat tours in Iraq.

But what wor­ries me most is that we, as a na­tion, will for­get.

On Vet­er­ans Day we pay trib­ute to all Amer­i­can vet­er­ans, liv­ing and dead. We show our thanks in many ways. We at­tend Vet­er­ans Day pa­rades, visit vet­er­ans hos­pi­tals or ask vet­er­ans about their service. But most im­por­tant, we re­mem­ber.

Even for those wars with no liv­ing vet­er­ans — whether the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion or World War I — we can re­mem­ber. We can ac­cess dig­i­tal archives of bat­tle­field maps. We can ex­am­ine lists on­line of per­son­nel who fought in each bat­tle. We can read writ­ten or­ders from com­man­ders, or per­sonal di­aries,

jour­nals and let­ters sent by sol­diers to their loved ones.

Un­for­tu­nately, our re­cent con­flicts will be dif­fi­cult to re­mem­ber this way. That is be­cause for the first 10-plus years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mil­i­tary lost or deleted a ma­jor­ity of its field records. And, although the mil­i­tary has since made a greater com­mit­ment to pre­serve records, an out­dated archival sys­tem lim­its their use­ful­ness.

It may seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive that records and bat­tle re­ports were saved more re­li­ably be­fore the dig­i­tal age. But as a 2009 Army re­port found, “The in­creas­ing use of elec­tronic records — easy to cre­ate and move but also dif­fi­cult to or­ga­nize and easy to erase — made the sit­u­a­tion more com­pli­cated.”

In Iraq, in part be­cause of con­cerns over trans­port­ing clas­si­fied ma­te­rial, sol­diers head­ing home were forced to turn in com­puter hard drives to be wiped clean and “reim­aged.” My own com­puter held hun­dreds of re­ports writ­ten af­ter daily pa­trols. I would note ev­ery sol­dier who went on the pa­trol, sum­ma­rize our ev­ery ac­tion, list ev­ery per­son we talked to and of­ten in­clude pho­tos. I recorded de­tails and filed pho­tos of the night in 2003 when an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice wounded three of my sol­diers so badly that they needed to be evac­u­ated back to the United States. I doc­u­mented the night in 2008 when a grenade was thrown at my sol­diers, missed and killed a nearby Iraqi child.

My unit an­a­lyzed pat­terns in our dig­i­tal data and used it to in­form our op­er­a­tions. At the end of my ro­ta­tions, I handed off files for a few spe­cific projects to the re­lief units. But ev­ery­thing on my com­puter was deleted. Hand-writ­ten logs were sim­i­larly shred­ded and burned when we ro­tated out.

Army units’ fail­ure to keep field records at­tracted the at­ten­tion of Congress af­ter an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by ProPublica and the Seat­tle Times in late 2012. Some of the most press­ing con­cerns were about whether vet­er­ans could re­ceive proper care with no records of their wartime ex­pe­ri­ences. Med­i­cal records in the mil­i­tary are well kept and rarely lost. But if a sol­dier who served in Iraq or Afghanistan needs to be as­sessed for service-re­lated in­juries or re­quires ther­apy for com­bat-re­lated stress, there are of­ten no records of the in­ci­dents that may have caused their in­juries. There are of­ten no doc­u­ments to help a sol­dier re­mem­ber and un­pack what hap­pened.

The lack of records also has op­er­a­tional con­se­quences. An abun­dance of in­valu­able knowl­edge, of­ten earned at great cost, wasn’t avail­able for new units that ro­tated into con­flict zones on a yearly ba­sis. Newly ar­rived troops typ­i­cally would re­ceive in­tel­li­gence from Army or­ga­ni­za­tions about the area, en­emy forces and local pop­u­la­tions, but they were for the most part de­prived of first­hand ac­counts from the sol­diers who pre­ceeded them. So Amer­i­can units that were sent to Mo­sul in 2014 weren’t able to learn from the con­tex­tual lessons or ground tac­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion col­lected by sol­diers de­ployed to Mo­sul in 2004.

Mil­i­tary records have ma­jor pub­lic uses, too. Once de­clas­si­fied, pri­mary source doc­u­ments down to the sol­dier level help movie and doc­u­men­tary mak­ers, his­to­ri­ans, au­thors, teach­ers, stu­dents and other in­ter­ested cit­i­zens cre­ate the sto­ries that shape our col­lec­tive mem­o­ries and nar­ra­tive of a par­tic­u­lar war. They are how we re­search the mil­i­tary service of rel­a­tives we’ve never met. My wartime mem­o­ries are our wartime mem­o­ries.

One of the many of­fi­cial so­lu­tions to the prob­lem of lost records was a call in 2013 to all Army units to turn in any records that had not been deleted. But be­cause servers and hard drives from 2003 to 2013 had been erased, much of that data was sim­ply gone. The files sent in af­ter the call, com­bined with what had been pre­vi­ously col­lected by Army his­to­ri­ans, re­sulted in 150 ter­abytes of data now held by a small or­ga­ni­za­tion within the mil­i­tary re­spon­si­ble for cat­a­logu­ing its his­tory. That might sound like a lot, but in­di­vid­ual Army units can pro­duce 4 to 5 ter­abytes dur­ing a 12-month ro­ta­tion. There have been hun­dreds of Army unit de­ploy­ments in the past 15 years.

For those years when there are large gaps in the ac­count of our mil­i­tary his­tory, the Pen­tagon could en­hance the of­fi­cial record with doc­u­men­ta­tion from in­di­vid­ual sol­diers and em­bed­ded jour­nal­ists. Many sol­diers have per­sonal jour­nals, pho­tos, emails and let­ters home they may be will­ing to share. And already in the pub­lic do­main are re­ports and film footage from hun­dreds of war jour­nal­ists — Se­bas­tian Junger, Mike Boettcher and The Wash­ing­ton Post’s David Ig­natius prom­i­nent among them — who lived with mil­i­tary units for weeks and months at a time. Of course, re­porters weren’t al­lowed to pub­lish clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion. And let­ters from sol­diers to their fam­i­lies and friends may of­fer a some­what dif­fer­ent view of the wars than did the of­fi­cial re­ports that were lost. Still, those doc­u­ments could prove use­ful.

For the years since 2013, the mil­i­tary faces a dif­fer­ent prob­lem: a mas­sive amount of data that is largely un­us­able.

Mil­i­tary units have stopped or­der­ing field records to be deleted. But in many cases, when sol­diers end their de­ploy­ments, their files are just left on the com­put­ers handed over to their re­place­ments, who can choose to delete them or leave them un­touched, along with years of past pro­files.

And even when data is col­lected and stored more cen­trally, it of­ten lacks metatags, key­words or de­scrip­tions from file cre­ators, mak­ing it prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble to search, sort or an­a­lyze.

The mil­i­tary should up­date its record-keep­ing. It should be un­law­ful to ever delete an­other com­bat record. Daily com­bat records should be tagged, stored in a search­able cloud data­base and at­tached to in­di­vid­ual sol­diers’ files — as their med­i­cal records are. That way sol­diers could leave the service with com­plete his­to­ries of their com­bat ex­pe­ri­ences.

This is not a mil­i­tary is­sue. It is an Amer­i­can is­sue. Records and sto­ries of the mil­i­tary and in­di­vid­ual sol­diers are an im­por­tant part of how we re­mem­ber. We should act be­fore the “for­ever wars” be­come the for­got­ten wars.


U.S. Marines this week in An­bar prov­ince, Iraq. Be­cause the mil­i­tary lost or deleted records from the first decade of the con­flicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are large gaps in the mil­i­tary his­tory of those wars.

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