Military History In The Digital Era

Volumes of the U.S. Army in World War II official history series published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History [Hewes Library photo]

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has released a draft strategic plan announcing that it will “no longer accept transfers of permanent or temporary records in analog formats and will accept records only in electronic format and with appropriate metadata” by the end of 2022. Given the widespread shift to so-called “paperless” offices across society, this change may not be as drastic as it may seem. Whether this will produce an improvement in record keeping is another question.

Military historians are starting to encounter the impact of electronic records on the preservation and availability of historical documentation of America’s recent conflicts. Adin Dobkin wrote an excellent overview earlier this year on the challenges the U.S Army Center for Military History faces in writing the official histories of the U.S Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. Army field historians on tight deployment timelines “hoovered up” huge amounts of electronic historical documentation during the conflicts. Now official historians have to sort through enormous amounts of material that is often poorly organized and removed from the context from which it was originally created. Despite the volume of material collected, much of it has little historical value and there are gaps in crucial documentation. Separating the useful wheat from the digital chaff can tedious and time-consuming.

Record keeping the paper age was often much better. As Chris wrote earlier this year, TDI conducted three separate studies on Army records management in the late-1990s and early 2000s. Each of these studies warned that U.S. Army documentation retention standards and practices had degraded significantly. Significant gaps existed in operational records vital to future historians. TDI found that the Army had better records for Red Cloud’s War of 1866-1868 than it did a hundred years later for Vietnam.

TDI is often asked why it tends to focus on the World War II era and earlier for its analytical studies. The answer is pretty simple: those are the most recent conflicts for which relatively complete, primary source historical data is available for the opposing combatants. Unfortunately, the Digital Age is unlikely to change that basic fact.

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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  1. Interesting and surprising! I tend to assume that modern records would be better, but from what you say that is not necessarily the case. Doesn’t that mean that forecasting outcomes in future wars may be less accurate because the database is less complete and less accurate? If so, how can that be overcome?

    • There was clearly a period from the 1960s through the 1990s when U.S. Army record keeping fell apart. The quality of the U.S. Army Vietnam records are grossly substandard when compared to past wars. In the first paragraph of Chapter 12 of War by Numbers (page 146) I provide the statistic that 86 to 87% of the U.S. Army battalion daily journals during the Gulf War were not preserved.

      We flagged the issue of substandard records keeping to the U.S. Army in the 1990s and did a general survey of the U.S. Army record keeping problems. We were given a couple of follow-up contracts, including looking that the problems that will develop with digitization. A few years later, we went back to the Army to request that we do a follow-up survey. The “suits” showed up at the meeting we had with the interested general officer, and stated that everything was fixed and there was no need a second survey. So we were well aware of what the situation was in the mid-1990s. We do not know how much of it has been corrected. I could be fine now (or it could not be).

      On the other hand, for Vietnam you often cannot find periodic strength report for units, including helicopter battalions and armored brigades. You often cannot find systematic loss reports. The quality of record keeping varies depending on the unit (82nd Airborne was one of the worse) and often depends on the staff officer (Colin Powell reported losses daily when he was at the Americal Division).

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