Losing the military’s past & with it, the lessons of war

ProPublica is working to bring national attention to the story of missing war records:

The U.S. military began relying on computer records during the Gulf War, introducing major gaps in recordkeeping as the old paper-style system fell apart. The Army then introduced a centralized system for collecting electronic field reports, but units have failed to submit records there…The loss of field reports – after-action write-ups, intelligence reports and other day-to-day accounts from the war zones – has far reaching implications. It has complicated efforts by soldiers like DeLara to claim benefits. And it makes it harder for military strategists to learn the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the nation’s most protracted wars.

Issues related to digital preservation impact us all. The systemic failure to preserve war records from Iraq and Afghanistan not only means veterans will encounter difficulties obtaining diagnoses and benefits; it also means historians and military strategists will simply not be able to reconstruct the day-to-day wartime experiences of American soldiers with anything resembling the level of detail, complexity, and scope of wars past.

Historians had complained about lax recordkeeping for years with little result. ‘We were just on our knees begging for the Army to do something about it,’ said Dr. Reina Pennington, a Professor at Norwich University in Vermont who chaired the Army’s Historical Advisory Committee. ‘It’s the kind of thing that everyone nods about and agrees it’s a problem but doesn’t do anything about it.’

Could academics have done more to raise the alarm? Although details are still emerging, I’m personally leaning toward “yes.” When academics recognize a problem with such far-reaching implications not only for themselves and their work but for real people and public life, it’s high time to step down from the ivory tower – advisory committees and all – and engage in “on the ground” work in our communities to draw attention to critical issues of social importance.

You can read ProPublica’s full investigative article here. The PBS NewsHour also covered the story in a segment last night.