America's Disappearing War Data
The historical record of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is being lost—and with it, the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and successes.
The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns are unique in that they were the first wars to be documented electronically. The use of computers to track stabilization efforts produced enormous datasets in which important indicators were tracked, including daily electricity-production rates, georeferenced insurgent attacks, factory employment numbers, military spending on locally sourced goods and services and public opinion. These data serve not only as the foundation of the historical record of both conflicts, but offer researchers opportunities to study insurgency and terrorism in ways previously not possible.
Unfortunately, the data are at risk. Army Secretary John McHugh recently admitted to members of Congress that thousands of records from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are missing. The army’s admission of losing track of data resonates with our experiences as both Defense Department officials implementing counterinsurgency programs in Iraq and now as researchers seeking to understand which programs succeeded in reducing violence levels and which did not. The problem is that much of the existing data were collected in an ad hoc manner that reflects the lack of planning for stability operations following both invasions. While certain data types were methodically maintained, others were kept by single individuals in more arbitrary ways—in some cases, on a single computer’s hard drive, in a personal computer or within an e-mail account. As flash drives are lost, computers reformatted, files erased, and human and magnetic memory degrades, various data types have been and will continue to be destroyed.