Sunday, November 08, 2009

Afstan: The CF's history... being recorded professionally along with the mission:
The log of war

Sean Maloney has been to Afghanistan eight times, experienced two attacks by improvised explosive device and survived at least five attempts on his life.

"I've been shot at, rocketed, mortared, all of it. My view always was that I needed to understand these things so I could do the job properly," he says.

Maloney is not a soldier, but he is on a mission. When he ventures outside the relative safety of Kandahar Airfield, there is a Canadian flag on one arm of his military-issued shirt and a patch on the other arm identifying him as a military historian.

He's one of a small group employed by the Canadian Forces who are gathering the facts and details of today that will make up the official record of the country's involvement in Afghanistan for generations to come [more on Mr Maloney here, here, here, and here]....

At its safest, Canada's military historians are in constant contact with the bomb-strewn front lines in Kandahar, demanding precise, detailed, written accounts of soldiers' experiences which are recorded in war diaries. From the weather to operational plans and results, to casualties and nuances of the fight, the war diary is the traditional treasure trove for historians.

Each month the diaries arrive from the various units deployed to Kandahar. They come to a drab brown warehouse stuck between a furniture store and an insurance firm in an industrial area of Ottawa that most soldiers have never seen and few know even exists.

But if the military was a human body, the directorate of history and heritage would be its hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for storing memories...

Steve Harris was researching his doctorate thesis on the creation of a professional Canadian army at the building in 1979 when a rare position opened up at the directorate...


Chief military historian Stephen Harris holds up a folder containing war documents from 1945 at the Department of National Defence's directorate of history and heritage in Ottawa.


Harris, now the military's chief historian, and a team of four reservists still keep meticulous watch over the information streaming in from Afghanistan – the most significant campaign for the Canadian military since WWII – even though it will be many years before the official account of this war is written.

To ensure that this is done right, Harris visited Kandahar in 2002. His intent was partly to impress upon soldiers the importance of keeping detailed war diaries, partly to take a first-hand recording of history in the making.

He met with small groups of soldiers over three weeks. Putting aside his tape recorder, camera, pen or notebook, he started the conversations with a simple question: "What surprised you?"

"I didn't know it at the time, but it was the best question," he recalled.

The anecdotes spilled out and he later jotted down in his notebook what he calls an "impressionistic" account of what he was told. The book sits on his shelf, unopened for now. But it will go into the official war records along with all the documents and emails from soldiers he receives.

Where the war diaries once arrived neatly typed on legal-size sheets of paper a generation ago, they now arrive in all formats, including DVD movies, compact disks and computer memory sticks. That poses a logistical problem for staff at the directorate – how and when to transcribe millions of pages of information and where to put it all. It may also be putting the historical record in jeopardy, Maloney says. His contention that military historians must become more aggressive in documenting today's wars is controversial and stretches back to the early 1990s when he was writing about and studying Canadian operations in the Balkans.

Cellular telephones made priority conversations about life and death decisions hard to trace, and thermal fax paper, the standard then for instant paper communication, would be lucky to last a decade before disintegrating.

Even in 2002, the early days of the Afghan war, militaries were still relying on floppy disks to store their computer data. Maloney recalled being passed a floppy disk for his research and being unable to access the information on his computer.

"The systems we've got keep getting better and better and better," he says. "Our issue is going to be 20 and 30 and 40 years from now. Will we have machines that can read it?"

Other things just get missed in the fog of war. For example, Maloney says there will be no official record of the night in 2006 when the vehicle he was travelling in was struck by a suicide bomber in Kandahar.

"There were 17 other attacks that took place at the same time ... We just had two vehicles destroyed, two of our guys seriously injured. There were at least nine Afghans that were either killed or wounded in this attack and I went and looked and it wasn't even recorded on the system," he says. "It's not an attempt to deceive, it's just an inability to collect everything."

The threat posed by these gaps, plus a nagging quest for perfection, are what leads Maloney to repeatedly put himself in personal and professional danger. He recounts on his personal website being labelled "extreme" by an unnamed official in the Department of Foreign Affairs for the opinions he often expresses. His public writings criticize other government departments for being ineffective, and compare the Afghan insurgency's assassination campaigns to the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis.

But he revels in being cast as a renegade, and readily admits that the urgency of his information-gathering is driven as much for his own understanding as to protect Canadian soldiers new to the conflict or at risk of making the same mistakes previous rotations have encountered. In that, there is a distinct absence of the professorial disinterest that defines academia...


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