Center for Strategic Communication

After World War I, the German military embarked on an extensive after-action review (AAR). Combat lessons from major operations to minor tactical actions were analyzed. The purpose was not to assign blame or reward. They understood that the next war could be only years away, and they needed to get a firm sense of what had happened in the one they had just lost. Though often vastly over-inflated by Teuton-obsessed military historians, German military prowess in WW2 was exceptional. This was the result of many inputs, but an accurate and wide-ranging understanding of the mechanics of modern warfare was one of the most crucial. In contrast, the French military suppressed heretical opinions and reports that did not reify their existing operational and tactical models.

In 2013 America, we are coming off two wildly controversial wars in which the US military and many other branches and levels of the US government failed to live up to an expected standard of strategic effectiveness. The future of defense is wide open, with every faction of the national security community engaged in a vicious brawl for post-sequestration dollars. It is crucial that we have sound empirical data that can be used in both official and independent analysis of military peformance in our 12 years of warfare. But it seems that the safekeeping of the volumes of data our wars generated is being handled just as haphazardly as the wars themselves:

Army Secretary John McHugh recently admitted
to members of Congress that thousands of records from the Iraq and
Afghanistan conflicts are missing. The army’s admission of losing track
of data resonates with our experiences as both Defense Department
officials implementing counterinsurgency programs in Iraq and now as
researchers seeking to understand which programs succeeded in reducing
violence levels and which did not. The problem is that much of the
existing data were collected in an ad hoc manner that reflects
the lack of planning for stability operations following both invasions.
While certain data types were methodically maintained, others were kept
by single individuals in more arbitrary ways—in some cases, on a single
computer’s hard drive, in a personal computer or within an e-mail
account. As flash drives are lost, computers reformatted, files erased,
and human and magnetic memory degrades, various data types have been and
will continue to be destroyed.

Given the size and complexity of counterinsurgency programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ad-hoc manner in which the data was collected and organized is perfectly understandable. In general, wars tend to pose problems for orderly bookkeeping. WWII historian SLA Marshall‘s numerous methodological mistakes were only discovered after researchers painstakingly retraced his research. But it may be that the same bureaucratic power disputes that frustrated COIN warfare may also prevent us from understanding it:

In one 2010 report, investigators found infighting between the Army and
CENTCOM over record keeping in Iraq and “the failure to capture
significant operational and historical” materials in theater. …..McHugh’s response to the congressmen said Army rules delegate
record-keeping responsibility to commanders at all levels, but they
weren’t always followed. “Although numerous directives have been
issued to emphasize the importance of the preservation of records,” the
response says, “these directives unfortunately were often overcome by
other operational priorities and not fully overseen by commanders.” …..Emails obtained by ProPublica show that the Center of Military History
and RMDA have long argued about which Army branch should be gathering
different records.

Knowledge of the past can only train the strategic mind, not dictate the correct choice. But without any understanding of the past the American military will endure—on a macro scale–the dreadful path of the new Army unit that arrives to an Afghan or Iraqi battlezone and pays in blood to gain the operational knowledge so painfully acquired by the men they relieve. In turn, the absence of hard data will encourage years of useless after-action debate based more on dueling military philosophies and bureaucratic and personal agendas than hard empirics.

Given that Iraq and Afghanistan themselves were the result of an earlier mass forgetting, it perhaps makes sense that the evidence of blood struggle now fades as fast as the public’s appetite for future overseas intervention. War is remembered when it fits with the uplifting narratives we would like to see ourselves guided by. When it does not, it is regarded as an affliction to be thrown off—a “syndrome” to be “kicked” into a historical dustbin.

But what politicians regard as “syndrome[s]” contain not only the evidence of the wars themselves, but the silenced voices, experiences, and lifeworlds of the men and women who gave the most valuable years of their youth and the “last full measure of devotion” to wars that their countrymen would rather forget. These are not just statistics, but records of the very kinetic and non-kinetic inputs and outputs that were literally matters of life and death for American, Iraqi, and Afghan alike.

Would that we would at least have the decency to not discard them so easily.