Military historians work to chronicle war in Iraq

Wichita man helps lay groundwork for future history books

Those who study the military don’t yet know how history will treat the war in Iraq.

But Staff Sgt. Troy Simpson, a Wichita man and Army reservist for 15 years, knows he’ll help make that history.

When authors write the official version of what happens during the war, they’ll rely heavily on information gathered by Simpson and a handful of other little-known military historians on the ground in Iraq.

“I had never heard of a military history detachment until I got assigned to it,” said Simpson, an Army reservist for 15 years. “Once I got into it, I began to realize this is interesting stuff.”

For a year ending in February, Simpson was one of only six U.S. military historians in Iraq who conducted interviews and gathered documents and artifacts that will lay the groundwork for the military’s official account of what happens in Iraq.

Those accounts, if the pattern set by other wars continues, will be turned into massive volumes of official military history that in turn will become fundamental building blocks for many popular history books and classroom teachings about the war, perhaps for centuries to come.

Academic historians respect these military historians’ work.

Maj. Gloria Thomas of the 322nd military history detachment, based in Birmingham, Ala., interviews a Kuwaiti colonel about his experiences in Iraq. A handful of military historians are in Iraq collecting information that will someday be used to chronicle the war.

“They are viewed as very respected scholarly histories,” said Ted Wilson, a history professor at Kansas University. “They have access to the official records. They make a good-faith effort to put the good and not-so-good into the narratives that are written.”

Institutional memory

The war accounts are organized by the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C. The center has existed in some form since 1874, though military historians have been part of the Army since the Revolutionary War.

Three military history detachments, including the Wichita-based 101st Military History Detachment, send historians to battlefields to collect information and artifacts.

The historians then send these artifacts back to the U.S. for use in military museums. Meanwhile, a team of about 25 professional historians compiles the information for military records.

The information collected from World War II, for example, was published in about 80 volumes, each more than 600 pages long.

Often, the information is condensed by Army historians and other authors into more popular and accessible books. In 1999, the University Press of Kansas published “Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War,” by William Hammond, chief historian at the Center of Military History.

The military histories are also tools for training new officers.

“We study it. We show what happened,” Hammond said. “Very often the institution (of the Army) has a very limited memory. Officers turn over every 20 or 30 years.”

‘Lessons learned’

Simpson said he spent most of his time in Iraq interviewing soldiers who had been in battles in cities such as Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi.

“Most of them want to get their story told,” he said. “It depends on the soldier. Some soldiers are real receptive to talking and some aren’t. Some are 17 or 18 years old, and they might feel they might get in trouble if they say certain things.”

Still, Simpson said he felt no pressure to portray the Army in a favorable light, though he said he couldn’t go into detail about specific problems soldiers encountered because the information was classified.

“It’s lessons learned,” he said. “Not everything moves smoothly over there. There’s a lot of mistakes that go on. You learn from your mistakes.”

Hammond said those who write histories do sometimes feel pressure from their sources to write history in a certain way.

“Of course, but we don’t do it,” he said. “Everything is very carefully weighed so it’s as unbiased and balanced as it can be. We have a mandate to tell the story as it happened, period.”

Military use

Hammond said Army officials came to the Center of Military History during the search for Saddam Hussein. They wanted to know how the military searched for top enemy leaders during the Vietnam War.

In the end, Hammond said, military leaders recycled their predecessors’ strategy – going from the bottom up, convincing low-level operatives to betray their superiors until Hussein was found.

Hammond said he thought the continued threat of global terrorism would lead to information written by his office being used by the military in other parts of the world.

“The war on terror is not going away,” Hammond said. “We need to start pulling together things people can learn from.”

Spc. Wesley Woods runs across a field at Fort Riley during a live ammunition assault on a mock village. Woods, 23 from Nashville, is in the 1st Battalion, 16th. Infantry, which is scheduled to deploy to Iraq later this year. The efforts of Woods and other troops are recorded by military history detachments, including the Wichita-based 101st Military History Detachment.

For example, Hammond said, Army historians were trying to do more to capture the daily lives of soldiers, rather than recording only battle tactics. One focus during the war in Iraq, he said, was the rap lyrics many soldiers were writing and performing there.

Uncertain impact

Only time will tell how history views the war in Iraq.

Wilson said historians used to think the best histories of a conflict were written between 30 and 50 years after it occurred. That “cooling off” period was long enough for emotions to cool but not so long that information became stale.

Now, he said, he thought that window could be between 10 and 40 years.

Hammond said he wouldn’t start speculating on how the war would be viewed until after the troops left.

“I don’t how what history will say about the war,” he said. “It’s not over. Historians don’t start their work until the … things are over.”

In any event, he said, “History’s verdict is never final.”

Simpson said he had seen enough while in Iraq to be convinced that whatever controversy might exist about the war’s inception would eventually subside over time.

“I think people are going to see that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, and no matter what your political point of view is, he was a ruthless leader,” Simpson said. “The Iraqi people needed a change, we came over there and helped these people with something they never would have had; they’re able to vote.

“To see people standing in line and potentially risking their lives just to vote, that made it worthwhile.”