The era of big data has arrived on the battlefield and we need to find new ways to deal with it.
When I took over the responsibilities as chief of records management for US Central Command in May 2009, one of my primary responsibilities was to oversee the records for the Joint Task Force Headquarters, US Forces-Iraq and US Forces-Afghanistan. For the next four years, my life became devoted to capturing, preserving, and then organizing what I believe is one of the most important document collections from the early twenty-first century, the Operation Iraqi Freedom Collection.
In the days following the end of combat operations in Iraq in September 2010, the media focused on a variety of important topics: What will Iraq look like in the post-war? How will we handle the troops coming home? Determining the costs of the war both in human and economic terms.
Little attention was paid, though, to the documents that will be crucial to future historians and others who will debate the conduct of the conflict, looking through an historical lens rather than media's present-day view on current events. Military analysts and historians require primary source material, from communiques (which are often emails), to reports drafted in the field, to the orders issued to units to accomplish a given task. Without these records a true history of Second Iraq War, a conflict lasting longer than the Second World War, would not be possible.
Since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, modern historians have struggled to write about that conflict. In fact, a review of historical texts available on Amazon turned up only a few first-hand accounts and other oral histories of this conflict, and the question is "why?" The answer lies into what occurred shortly after the war ended.
In a rush to get home, our troops and their leadership orchestrated what was possibly the single largest destruction of records in our nation's history. Millions of records were either burned or simply left in the desert to literally be buried by the sands of time. This action (which is a matter of public record) is little known or spoken about outside of the National Archives and the Department of Defense (DoD).
It was never covered by the news media and if it weren't for post-war efforts to deal with Gulf-War Syndrome by the Veterans Administration, even more records may well have been destroyed. As tragic as this was, the lessons learned from this shortsightedness allowed us to press leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan into action to avoiding making the same mistake.
The continuity and preservation of our modern democracy in large part relies on records, with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence serving as examples of the ultimate primary source documents. Without preserving records, the elements of our historical memory are lost.
The loss of a primary source record is especially alarming. A primary source record has no bias. It is not an opinion, but is an artifact of what has taken place. The document that orders a unit to take a hill, a piece of the desert or a town, or even how to treat wounded prisoners may prove to be more valuable than 5 to 10 oral histories on the same topic because verbal testimony can be construed as hearsay, while a record can be a smoking-gun.
The Second Iraq War (or the "Second Gulf War" or "Bush's War" -- whichever name future historians will choose) may also be known as the first Digital War in our nation's history. More than 99% of all the records created during the conflict were born digitally and resided only in digital form, thus no paper copies were available.
This was a dramatic paradigm shift from our last major conflict where the vast majority of the records were created in paper form. This shift has made records far more vulnerable than they were in the past as the destruction of paper is far more difficult than simply hitting the delete key.
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