It’s rare that a historical study from the Army’s Combat Studies Institute ever gets this amount of attention. However, the Army’s official history on the Battle of Wanat can’t stay out of the headlines, putting historians in the rare position as interview subjects for journalists.
It started when an initial draft was leaked to Army Times and other media outlets in July 2009. Most recently, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., issued a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh to “voice his concern” over the finished product that he found “flawed and biased.”
The Army published the study in November. Army’s Combat Studies Institute Director William Robertson said the intention was never to assign blame. However, retired Col. David Brostrom, whose son was the platoon leader that died in the battle, joined the Virginia senator in ripping the historical study.
The report “was really focused more on the mistakes the platoon made rather than the company and battalion and brigade planning. The problem with Wanat was really not the platoon. The problem was the lack of planning and situational awareness that went on above the platoon,” Brostrom said.
The print story in this week’s Army Times focuses more on the back and forth over what Brostrom and Webb feel was left out and less so on the process of writing it. However, I wanted to include more of the discussion I had with the historians at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., who worked on it.
The leaked initial draft gives a rare glimpse inside the process Army historians undertake to try and capture battles and events that happened just two or three years ago. It’s a task made more difficult without the benefit of perspective and context, the historians at the Combat Studies Institute said.
“You’re writing about living people making critical decisions, life and death decisions, and you have to be very careful how you treat that,” Robertson said.
The initial draft didn’t meet the Combat Studies Institute’s standards, Robertson said . Even though the draft could be read by the public, Roberts felt it needed more work and told Cubbison to continue researching the battle and providing evidence to back up some of his conclusions.
“The first working paper had some serious methodological problems and it made some bold judgments that I didn’t think had been proven. It was so incomplete and so poorly sourced and so judgmental without evidentiary foundation that I was really troubled that a document with that many flaws would be put out for the world.”
Cubbison’s contract, though, ended in September 2009, which complicating the process. In some cases Cubbison did more interviews, but in others his response to Robertson was “nope, I can’t find anything else.”
“At that point we deemed it still needed work, which is when Army historian Jon McGrath took over the project,” Robertson said.
The Army did not make Cubbison available for comment and calls to his listed number near Fort Leavenworth were not returned.
Critics such as Brostrom have accused the Army’s Combat Studies Institute of trying to protect the reputations of Army leaders by subtracting conclusions found in the initial draft absent in the final copy. Webb said in a radio interview he felt the Army was not critical enough of its leaders’ decisions, which could compromise how the battle is taught.
Robertson and Brig. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, the Combined Army Center deputy commanding general, both denied that Big Army tried to alter the history in any way or protect anyone’s reputation.
“The Army is not in the business of covering up anything. We’re in the business of learning from … what we do and we are already using the study for that purpose,” MacFarland said.
The one-star added that teaching lessons learned is not the role of the Combat Studies Institute. That falls to the Center for Army Lessons Learned based at Fort Leavenworth.
“I want to state categorically that nobody at the [Combined Arms Center] or anywhere else in the Army told us what to write. We were not told what the truth was to be,” Robertson said.