Each branch of the U.S. military has a department tasked with researching and writing the official histories of its parent service’s organization and operations. The U.S. Army Center of Military History, on the grounds of historic Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., collects the history for the nation’s largest branch. Perhaps best known for its massive, 78-volume series The United States Army in World War II—widely known by scholars and amateur military historians as the “Green Books”—CMH has also produced histories and special studies pertaining to each of the nation’s armed conflicts. Chief of Military History Robert J. Dalessandro, a retired Army colonel who in 2011 became CMH’s civilian director, recently spoke with Military History about his organization and the challenges of writing military history in the 21st century.
‘We tell both the good and the bad. That’s one of CMH’s strengths, and that’s why many of our volumes are timeless’
How and when was CMH organized?
The Center of Military History was created in 1942, by the decree of Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. He wanted CMH to produce a series of histories that would be “lessons learned” pieces for senior leaders and would also show soldiers their contribution to an obviously globe-spanning conflict. These first documents were known as the Army in Action series.
The most important thing that grew out of that series was the deployment of historians to the various theaters of conflict. Among them was S.L.A. Marshall, who helped promote using interviews with leaders and soldiers as a way to supplement the gathering and archiving of official reports. The tradition of deploying military historians continues today.
What tasks does CMH undertake?
In broad strokes, we write the official histories of the Army’s operations; we record the lineage and honors of units at every level; we manage extensive archives and our own library; we provide staff support to the Army’s leaders; and we oversee the Army Museum Program.
To accomplish those functions, CMH is organized into the Histories Division, which looks to all things historical; the Field Programs Division, which handles things like lineage and honors and the military history detachments; and the Museums Division, which handles museums Army-wide. About 200 people at Fort McNair take on all these tasks.
Additionally, independent Army history organizations outside Washington fall under CMH’s oversight umbrella, including the Training and Doctrine Command Military History Office at Fort Eustis, Va., which manages the history operations at the services schools; the Forces Command Military History Office at Fort Bragg, N.C., which handles the unit-level history programs; the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; and the Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.
How objectively does CMH approach Army history?
We produce academically rigorous volumes that are balanced in their treatment of actions and individuals. It would be easy for us to say, “Everyone served, all served well, and all served honorably,” but we tell both the good and the bad. That’s one of CMH’s strengths, and that’s why many of our volumes are timeless.
Why do you think it’s important for the Army to have a history program?
We are an Army at war and have been for one of the longest continuous periods in American history. We ask our men and women to put their lives on the line every day, and our history program helps them put their contribution in context. They are the most recent in a long line of soldiers, one that stretches back 236 years. It’s important they know and understand the history and accomplishments of those who came before them.
Are you already writing about Operations Enduring Freedom (in Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom?
We’ve already done several interim histories on specific, narrowly focused aspects of those operations that the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command can use as teaching aids. The Combat Studies Institute publishes what we call “occasional papers.” They just finished one in partnership with CMH and our military history detachments titled “Vanguard of Valor,” similar to our “Seven Firefights in Vietnam.” These interim studies look at the lower echelons of command and provide teaching vignettes for sergeants and lieutenants.
Will CMH ultimately publish a comprehensive, multivolume history of those conflicts?
We will. While we’re still too close to the events to tell the larger, more complete story, we’ve already started planning what the structure of those volumes will be and are building the foundation. We’re gathering and archiving data we’ll need to accurately write those histories. So far our military history detachments have gathered some 100 terabytes of information.
What is the greatest challenge you face in doing that?
Even though Operation Desert Storm took place in the computer age, operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn [the American involvement in Iraq after 2010] are this nation’s first major “digital age” conflicts. While there are still paper documents, most key command decisions are made and transmitted via e-mail. Documents are electronically updated daily, and older versions—those that would allow us to track evolving situations and understand the thinking of senior officers as they react to changing conditions—are often overwritten. We don’t have the sort of hard-copy trail to follow we had for operations in World War II, Korea or Vietnam.
Here’s another issue: Because the Army has done away with the long-standard morning report—the daily document that units produced about each soldier’s status—it’s actually harder for us to find information about the daily activities of an individual soldier in OEF, OIF or OND than it is to find the same data for a soldier in the American Revolution or the Civil War. While it is fairly easy for us to verify the locations and activities of units—we maintain a massive order-of-battle list—it’s much, much harder to discern the names and actions of individual soldiers in the unit.
How is CMH adjusting to the new digital world of military history?
Because the massive volumes of information now exist only in the cyber world, the most important thing we can do for scholars, who will eventually write the comprehensive histories of our recent conflicts, is to lay the foundation for a federated network that will combine the digital holdings of a variety of institutions, allowing researchers to comb the entire system with one keystroke.
You mentioned Army museums—how many are there?
Since we classify different types of collections by different names, there are between 52 and 64. Some of the museums—such as West Point and Fort DeRussy in Hawaii—are major tourist attractions, but the principle reason for their existence is to educate soldiers about the Army’s history and heritage.
The idea of a National Museum of the U.S. Army has been around for a long time. What is its status?
The project has recently been reinvigorated. A location has been chosen at Fort Belvoir, Va., and a design has been approved. It’s important to remember however, that the museum is a public-private partnership. This means the government is providing all the artifacts and consults on the museum’s design, but the Army Historical Foundation, a private organization, is doing the lion’s share of the fundraising. While we’re planning on a 2017 or 2018 opening, it is entirely possible that some of today’s financial constraints, including sequestration, could adversely affect progress toward that goal.
How is CMH’s future shaping up?
When I came into this job three years ago, I had three major goals: to move CMH into the digital age; enhance our combat collection efforts; and maintain our high standards in history, while bringing our museum standards up to the world-class level. We’re doing those things. We have excellent people and a strong program, and enough diversity to cover the entire Army, while telling the smaller stories. There will be challenges, of course, but in general I would say the future looks very bright.