Democracy Dies in Darkness

Outlook | Perspective

How the military is making it hard to remember our wars

A veteran laments the deletion and disorganization of records from Iraq and Afghanistan.

By John Spencer

November 10, 2017 at 11:11 AM

A U.S. Marine guides a troop movement armored vehicle (TMAV) towing an M777-A2 Howitzer to a firing position in Syria last May. (Sgt. Matthew Callahan/Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve)

I often 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 And, although the military has since made a greater commitment to preserve records, an outdated archival system limits their usefulness.

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If you have trouble telling the difference between the two holidays honoring members of our military, this video will help. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

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.

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Hundreds gathered at the National World War II Memorial in D.C. on Nov. 10 to commemorate Veterans Day. (Reuters)

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.

Twitter: @spencerguard

Read more from Outlook:

Five myths about female veterans

My father doesn't talk about Vietnam. But he's grown prouder of his service.

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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

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