Lift a glass to the histories that can never be written

by John MacBeath Watkins

When I was in college, a classmate used to joke that as our records were increasingly kept in electronic form, we'd eventually have someone say, "oops. I just lost the 14th century."

Well, part of the 21st century has disappeared at the push of a button.

From today's Seattle Times:

A strange thing happened when Christopher DeLara filed for disability benefits after his tour in Iraq: The U.S. Army said it had no records showing he had ever been overseas. 

DeLara had searing memories of his combat experiences. A friend bled to death before his eyes. He saw an insurgent shoot his commander in the head. And, most hauntingly, he recalled firing at an Iraqi boy who had attacked his convoy.

The Army said it could find no field records documenting any of those incidents.
Why couldn't they find those records?

Sometimes it was a simple case of "format disk." Sometimes the hard drives were physically destroyed.

In Baghdad, Centcom and the Army disagreed about which was responsible for keeping records. There was confusion about whether classified field records could be transported back to the units' headquarters in the United States. As a result, some units erased computer hard drives when they rotated home, wiping out the records stored on them.

In summer 2009, for instance, the Washington National Guard's 81st Brigade was ordered "by higher-ups" outside the Guard to erase hard drives before leaving them for replacement troops in Iraq, a Guard spokesman, Capt. Keith Kosik, said.

"It was part of their 'to-do' list before leaving the country," he said.

Through 2008, dozens of Army units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan either had no field records or lacked sufficient reports for a unit history, according to documents. Entire brigades deployed from 2003 to 2008 could not produce any field records, documents from the U.S. Army Center of Military History show.

The Pentagon was put on notice as early as 2005 that Army units weren't turning in records for storage to a central computer system created after a similar record-keeping debacle in the 1990-91 Gulf War.
 The immediate problem is for documenting disability hearings for veterans. That can be dealt with, awkwardly, by getting statements from the men who were in actions in the combat zones. But another problem, less easily solved, is that the records needed to write the history of this war simply no longer exist.
Army historians were dispatched on a base-by-base search worldwide. A summary of their findings shows that at least 15 brigades serving in Iraq at various times from 2003 to 2008 had no records on hand. The same was true for at least five brigades deployed to Afghanistan.

Records were so scarce for 62 more units that served in Iraq and 10 in Afghanistan that they were written up as "some records, but not enough to write an adequate Army history." This group included most of the units deployed during the first four years of the Afghanistan war.
We cannot write an adequate history of our nation's longest war.  I don't believe even George Orwell would have anticipated such a problem arising not from a deliberate tyranny, but from the usual military snafu.

Unless I'm being too generous, and some of those records were destroyed so that we would never know what was done in our names. In that regard, we don't even know what we don't know, and it's unlikely we ever will.

So, let's lift a glass to the files lost in the war zone, and the histories commemorating the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers that can now never be written.

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