The gap in record-keeping created by the absence of Williams and his team—and the difficulties they faced in demonstrating this record’s value while overseas—illustrate a common headache of 21st century historians. Though technology has made more sources than ever available to color, verify, and explore history, determining those sources’ value remains the task of a trained human eye. And in the case of the Army, support for that eye has declined as its necessity increased.
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Williams and his team were sent to Afghanistan in order to collect material for inclusion in the Army’s Tan Books, histories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan written by the Center of Military History. CMH’s official histories, which have existed in various forms since the years following World War I, trace narratives of wars using material only a massive enterprise like the Army can synthesize. They offer maps of documents flying through the Pentagon and overseas bases everyday, and examine points in which the arc of history bends ever so slightly. The sprawling nature of the histories also means that precise connections between events can be found and applied.
Jill S. Russell, a visiting professor of national security and strategy at the U.S. Army War College, recalls digging through niche volumes of CMH’s The United States Army in World War II, also known as the Green Books. “There were things that guys coming back from the Philippines were writing that are being repeated by guys coming back from Afghanistan almost literally word-for-word,” she says. Russell cited modifications made by soldiers in World War II to improve the ease of use of heating elements in mountainous terrain. Upon deploying to similar terrain in Afghanistan, some soldiers rediscovered the modifications made by their predecessors.
Modern wars have upended some of the most basic factors CMH relied upon in order to write histories in a consistent way. “Since 1991, the operations we’ve gotten into—Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo—were more complicated scenarios,” says Shane Story, a retired Army helicopter pilot who’s overseeing the creation of the 30-some eventual volumes of the Tan Books. “Even more since 9/11, both Afghanistan and Iraq, they’re not clean, neat narratives. ... [In] the best work that you write, you know what the last word is before you start. We don’t know what the last word is.”
Story and Jerry Brooks, who’s responsible for collections in the field, speak candidly of the problems CMH historians face as they work through the Tan Books creation, a process that will take decades to complete. Once, there were scores of clerks responsible for maintaining detailed records of units. With the rise of computers and software, the Army believed that “everybody would be their own records manager,” and broadened this responsibility to average soldiers, Brooks says. “Well, they failed to take into consideration that people are lazy.”