How the Army is trying to capture the lessons of war with its official historians

Historians in the News

It’s a sunbaked afternoon, and Sergeant First Class Andrew Ishmael is in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, talking with Sergeant Jeremy Lindholm, a mechanic with a South Dakota National Guard route-clearance unit, about the day he drove over an anti-tank mine. “Take me through what happened,” Ishmael says. Lindholm, still wearing an arm cast from the attack, recounts the roar and flash of the explosion, and the flames from the ruptured gas tank creeping into the cab. The driver was trapped. “I couldn’t leave him there. I was going to get him out,” Lindholm says, his voice flat, as though stating the obvious. “All I could think was to keep him calm. I could see in his eyes that he was close to panic.”

Ishmael’s questions continue for another 20 minutes. Looking more TV talk-show host than soldier, he leans forward, attentive, expectant, tapping a pen against his chin. Lindholm seems surprised that someone would be so interested in how he keeps his unit’s fleet of armored vehicles running and tows damaged trucks while under enemy fire. But Ishmael, a member of the 135th Military History Detachment of the Missouri National Guard, earns his pay by recording the everyday of war, the sinew that binds major events. “History is the story of what happens between the moments,” he tells me later. “Without context, how can we interpret the event?” Indeed, Iraq and Afghanistan are all about context. With no front lines and few decisive battles, counterinsurgency turns on successes and failures at lower levels, moments normally not celebrated in military history.

There to capture them is Ishmael’s unit, one of three history teams deployed to Afghanistan. Another four are in Iraq. All are descendants of the teams that roamed the European and Pacific theaters during World War II, collecting soldiers’ stories. Among the lessons from that trove was the combat historian S. L. A. Marshall’s finding—hugely influential, even though questioned in recent years as slightly exaggerated—that many men didn’t fire their weapons in combat, and were reluctant to kill, even when in mortal danger...

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