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It is ironic that our most recent military history is at risk of being lost. Changes in decades-old recordkeeping have created gaps in the historical record of 21st century military conflicts. This poses serious problems for policy makers, veterans, and our collective memory. However, utilizing creative historical research strategies and some good detective work, we can piece together the story.
If you searched for World War II records at the National Archives today, you would find thousands of boxes of textual records, all relics of the traditional military recordkeeping system. Although not everything was saved, a surprising variety of records have survived, from operations reports, technical studies, and training manuals to cryptological cables, contract files, and allocation requests. Yet if you expected to find similar records on the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, you might be sorely disappointed.
Historical research into the first conflicts of the 21st century requires a different set of tools. The war in Afghanistan, a component of the larger Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), began in October 2001, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Following intelligence information on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) launched in March 2003. From the beginning, politicians, policy makers, journalists, historians, and the public have struggled to construct coherent narratives of these conflicts. Recent criminal investigations, the claims of veterans and other personnel, ongoing political and military repercussions of the conflicts in the Middle East, renewed public interest in contractor logistics support, and the treatment of our veterans have created a growing demand for historical research on OEF and OIF. Yet addressing this demand for answers is complicated.
The landscape of military research has changed. In 1993, the U.S. Army issued Army Regulation 25-400-2, which instituted the Modern Army Recordkeeping System (MARKS). MARKS, in part, aimed to regulate the creation and management of electronic records. Over the past 25 years, digital systems have steadily replaced paper records as the primary method of military recordkeeping. However, the difficult transition from paper to computer often resulted in inconsistent recordkeeping.
In the early days of OEF and OIF, rapid war escalation, general disorganization in the invasion’s aftermath, and a lack of clear regulation on record procedures led to gaps in the historical record. Sometimes, heightened security concerns prompted military personnel to erase computer hard drives following deployment. Recent media investigations discovered that in some cases field records, intelligence reports, and daily accounts of conditions in war zones were deleted or never even created. As conflicts in the region continue, many OEF and OIF records remain under the direct control of government and military agencies. Relevant records are often classified and out of reach to the casual researcher.
So when faced with missing records and classified documents, how do we conduct research?
For historians accustomed to textual archives, the lack of physical records could be viewed as a barrier to research. Yet, by asking the right questions, utilizing our knowledge of government regulation and military organization, and employing a targeted and systematic research strategy, we have successfully accessed and collected records that document these wars.
While some records may be missing, collecting related documents like DOD guidance and directives, media coverage, and other investigations can help fill in the gaps in the story. Publicly available congressional hearings and government investigations can provide valuable information on specific incidents, military and contractor personnel, and troop actions. With a cleverly named website called “The Wayback Machine,” researchers can pull up the State Department website from 2005 or the home page of the U.S. Army’s Operation Enduring Freedom website in 2002. The Defense Technical Information Center also maintains a useful online database of DOD scientific and technical publications and releases.
Security classification poses a unique challenge, but understanding the regulatory chain of command and the records custody and release process provides historians with insight into what classified records might tell us. Following an internal review process, government agencies send their classified and unclassified records to appropriately secure Federal Records Centers. There, researchers can review unclassified SF-135 forms, which describe the contents of different accessions of records. Researchers can use this information to guide their research and write more detailed and direct Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests targeting both classified and unclassified materials. Many government agencies also post logs of all FOIA requests in a given year. By requesting the releases of past successful FOIAs, researchers may be able to get released records more quickly. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has also made significant efforts in order to make the records of OIF and OEF more accessible to researchers. Online resources available via NARA’s Access to Archival Databases (AAD) System and Archives Library Information Center (ALIC) provide access to released electronic records and general information on both conflicts.
As historians, we need to be more creative and flexible to adapt to the ever-changing needs of our clients. Researching the conflicts of the 21st century is unique and challenging, but not impossible. So if you think you have found everything or if you think there is nothing to find, know that with 30 years of experience researching military records, History Associates may be able to uncover records where others could not.
Originally published in our HAIpoints newsletter.
 Matt Seaton, “Blast from the Past,” The Guardian, February 19, 2003, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/feb/19/iraq.artsandhumanities
 U.S. Department of the Army, The Modern Army Recordkeeping System (MARKS), Army Regulation 25-400-2, February 26, 1993.
 Peter Sleeth and Hal Bernton, “Lost to History: Missing War Records Complicate Benefit Claims by Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans,” ProPublica, November 9, 2012, http://www.propublica.org/article/lost-to-history-missing-war-records-complicate-benefit-claims-by-veterans.