And Now, A Real Military Scandal

ProPublica has a long must-read report today on the astounding number of records the US Army has lost or destroyed from its years in two wars.

“I can’t even start to describe the dimensions of the problem,” said Conrad C. Crane, director of the U.S. Army’s Military History Institute [3]. “I fear we’re never really going to know clearly what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan because we don’t have the records.”

…Recordkeeping was so poor in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007 that “very few Operation ENDURING FREEDOM records were saved anywhere, either for historians’ use, or for the services’ documentary needs for unit heritage, or for the increasing challenge with documenting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” according to an Army report from 2009 [5].

Entire brigades deployed from 2003 to 2008 could not produce any field records, documents from the U.S. Army Center of Military History show.

…By mid-2007, amid alarms from historians that combat units weren’t turning in records after their deployments, the Army launched an effort to collect and inventory what it could find.

Army historians were dispatched on a base-by-base search worldwide. A summary of their findings shows that at least 15 brigades serving in the Iraq war 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 another 62 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.

The lack of records is having immediate and tragic consequences – one serviceman interviewed by ProPublica had to fight for five years to get PTSD disability benefits because his service records didn’t show he’d ever been in Iraq at all, despite his having served with the 1st Cavalry Division in combat in 2004 and 2005. Eventually, a judge accepted the testimony of an officer in his unit. “By then he had divorced, was briefly homeless and had sought solace in drugs and alcohol.” he is far from being the only disabled veteran who can’t get the help he or she needs because these records don’t exist.

On a wider scale, we will never know how many crimes and how much corruption will escape justice because there will be no evidence they ever happened. As Sean-Paul tweeted to me today, that might be an intentional feature rather than a bug.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Things really must be winding down if the outrage du jour is incomplete paperwork. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll find that some expense claims weren’t filed properly.

    • That smacks a bit of kneejerk contrarism from you, JPD. I’m sure a few moment’s reflexion will give you several instances where a lack of records could actually matter – not least in denying veterans the help they need, per the post. You’re saying we shouldn’t be worried about that?

      (BTW, Just once, I’d love to see you comment positively on one of my posts – I live in hope. 🙂

      • The most obvious fallout I think you’d care about, JPD: how are units and the Army in general expected to learn if it has no detailled records of actions to study? That’s the institutional memory of key actions and tactics of two conflicts gone, right there.

        • If you dig into it, you’ll find that the various “lessons learned” cells in TRADOC and like entities (I have a sneaking recollection that they got renamed a while back) have already tilled that ground. Extensively.

          What hasn’t been dealt with sufficiently, MHO, is the command level / interface with NCA stuff. If anyone thinks that comes out in the official Army histories (which is what these guys were concerned with), I have some prospectuses for real estate in Florida that they might be interested in. Many of the lots are even above mean high tide!

          • I’ve had analysts in my Twitter stream today who’ve disagreed with you about the “lessons learned’ ability lost, but be that as it may – you’re surely not seriously sticking with the notion that veterans being denied benefits and having them delayed because of this is no biggie, I think I know you better than that.

          • If bad records are truly the limiting factor in lessons learned, why did the US Army have to reinvent COIN from scratch after the comparatively much better recorded Viet Nam war? Sorry, but from where I’m sitting: a) there are more important sources of information for the type of thing you’re talking about than unit records and b) there are a lot of reasons why this specific set of organizations doesn’t learn some types of lessons beyond lack of this type of records.

            I’m not impressed that they didn’t keep the appropriate records, and it does have costs, but it doesn’t have these specific costs. You could have the most richly documented records in the world and they’re still going to be obdurately dumb about the most important failures – they’re simply too threatening to the ethos of the organization.

      • I’d be a lot more positively disposed if the continual stream of pieces didn’t read like “whatever I can get the Army on today”. There’s a lot that one can criticize the green machine for – and a lot can be gained from good, thoughtful critique, but this stuff frankly ain’t it. This is not going to get anyone any closer to understanding the problems and challenges – all it’s going to do is serve as the day’s confirmation of their biases.

        As to the worry that this will negatively impact soldiers’ ability to access care, well, I’d be a lot less predisposed to raspberry if their UK brethren hadn’t previously been painted as PTSD-ridden, alcoholic, depressives with automatic weapons waiting to “go off” in London when it was handy to the storyline of the day. One of the things that you don’t do, if concerned about the welfare of folks with PTSD, is use the label like that. More than one sufferer has commented that one of the worst things about their affliction is feeling like the general public is continually watching them, waiting for them to explode.

  • A unit or two failing in record keeping might simply indicate men not wanting to put in the desk time to complete. This level of lack of documentation indicates at least that the units were not proud of what they were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps that they were ashamed of it. Otherwise, they’d want to leave a record of their service.

  • I’m with the original poster, here. Criticism of the failings of my own side is essential, because I expect better than deliberate misconduct from those to whom I lend my support. I expect them to live up to their promises and to the standards which they claimed and which serve as the reasons that earn them my support. I have no problem with human error, but corruption and deliberate misconduct must be called out. Failing to keep records is not simple error.

    I don’t bother to criticize the opposition because I expect them to be wrong. They claim standards which I do not claim as my own and do not support, and so I do not call upon them to adhere to those standards. I actually hope they do not do so.

    I think that Steve Hynd pointing out where the side he supports is not living up to the standards he expects of them is a pefectlty constructive exercise.

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