Are we losing the history of warfare? by Andrew Hoskins

Digital networks and databases appear to crush historical distance. The slow and careful collation of history’s evidential basis seems overridden by the immediacy and accessibility of sources and testimony online, no longer the preserve of the archival space of formal institutions. For example, a quick search of YouTube reveals a chaotic mix of the mainstream remediated, and the unofficial and unauthorized User Generated Content – ‘raw combat footage,’ ‘helmet cam footage,’ ‘sniper kill shot,’ ‘marine sniper, one shot one kill, Afghanistan’ – all awaiting their algorithmic return in a patchwork history, in which excavation and recollection is replaced by search and context is lost.

The immediacy, volume and pervasiveness of the digital data of instant history crowd out the enabling functions of reflection, hindsight, at a distance when the politics of remembering are less raw. Today’s digital mass also appears to have a horizonless future, compared with pre-Internet and undigitized media content, transforming the relations between original and copy, space, place, time and archive, and producing a world of uncertain provenance. The hyperconnectivity of databases and networks subvert the relationship between time and material decay.

The official history of warfare, however, that is dependent on sources such as those systematically collected, collated and archived by the British Army’s Historical Branch (HB(A)), is subject to different forces of time and space.

In the UK, the 1958 Public Records Act established the 30 Year Rule as the time within which all government departments have to review and release their records. This is to ensure the preservation of materials with historical value for the nation in The National Archives (TNA) with those deemed not of value being destroyed or disposed of in other ways. The 30 year buffer protects those potentially subject to embarrassment or danger from the public revelation of their decisions or acts until such a time that events and the documents that pertain to them become less sensitive. This also applies to the records of war.

However, this buffer in time between the creation of the official record and its public release is under pressure. The hyperconnectivity of post-scarcity culture over the 2000s pushed the digitally-fostered values of unbridled commentary, confessional culture, the immediacy of instant search, open access and Freedom Of Information, making anything marked ‘secret’ almost equivocally vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, then, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 paved the way for secondary legislation in the following year to reduce the 30 year rule down to 20. From 2013, this change requires the processing and releasing of two years’ of records each year until the new rule is reached in 2023.

Caught up in this accelerated publication cycle are the British Army’s Operational Records (ORK) (previously called ‘war diary’ and ‘commander’s diary’) which are compiled monthly by military units in theatre and archived and managed by HB(A). The Branch was founded in 1906 and uses ORK to provide impartial analysis to support British Army and policy makers’ military planning, decisions and accountability. The ability to quickly mobilize the Branch’s resources and expertise is critical for emergent and ongoing campaigns, as well as to the Army’s internal, political and public legitimacy, including pivotal for the growing number of inquiries into the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (most recently the Al-Sweady Public Inquiry that dismissed allegations that UK soldiers mistreated and unlawfully killed Iraqis in 2004). HB(A)’s collation of Army operational records is also fundamental to what kind of history of warfare involving UK forces can be written.

However, there is something of a perfect storm of technological, economic and policy change that is blowing over the history of warfare of this century. The implementation of the 20 year rule converges with the transition from physical to digital archives with the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns producing virtually entirely born digital operational records, being sent from the field to Historical Branch (Army). Those records declassified and merited of historical value will reach The National Archives from 2023. By 2026 there will no longer be new paper records being sent to TNA.

The very process of moving from 30 to 20 years – assuaging what Peter Hennessey (2009) claims is ‘delayed accountability’ – is perversely punching holes in the very records in demand by historians. MOD restructuring, austerity and part privatization of records management (i.e. space is at an ever increasing premium) is hardly a recipe for careful selection, collation and preservation. Instead, the acceleration of the throughput of records (two years being processed every year from 2013-23 without the doubling of resources) will result in less discrimination in what is retained and what is destroyed.

This is a double whammy in the greater potential loss of records valuable for our national history and in the risk of highly sensitive materials slipping through into the public domain. Faster history is not better history. Why not pause the throughput of the last of the paper records to afford proper time to assess, preserve and secure the basis for a full history?

Meanwhile, at all points on the official historical trajectory of warfare, from production and collection of documents in the field, to their collation and archiving by HB(A), to their assessment for declassification or destruction by Defence Business Services, through to their being made public via The National Archives, the shift from paper to digital utterly transforms the very nature of all of these organizations’ business and how the history of war will be written. Here is a brief summary:

1. The material context is gone. The digital file strips away the subliminal context that comes with the finding, filing, handling and searching through the physical file. The mental map of the archive and its contents dissolve. Paper files’ and digital databases’ different connectivities fundamentally direct their handling and reading, and determine what is found and what is hidden. For example, Nicholson Baker in his damning account of the library adoption of the microfilm as the standard means of handling newspaper collections, argues that ‘If you have a date and a page number you look that one citation up and leave; you’re rarely tempted to spend several hours splashing in the daily contextual marsh’ (2002: 41). Without the material context – literally the front and the behind of each document – the information may be found but the story can be lost. And today’s seductive immediacy and apparent precision of digital search obscures much that could have been found and understood, and which also blights entire cultures of study (see Hoskins 2013; Hoskins and Tulloch forthcoming).

2. Digital records surpass human-scale management capacities. The complexity and volume of the millions of files (including still images and video) that have flowed out of Iraq and Afghanistan make even the original records of the Great Wars look oddly out of proportion. And within a decade, this digital records avalanche will hit Digital Business Services for review for declassification or destruction. Yet what form of human assessment – by those with deep historical and security knowledge – of this digital accumulation, will ever be possible?

For example, emails are increasingly a standard component of the operational record providing a granular set of precisely-timed traces from which the actors and the moments of critical decision-making can be pinpointed. But what of this sticky web of communications will make it into the public domain? And what will be the proportion of the original official digital records that finally reach The National Archives for public consumption compared with earlier wars? Finally, assuming the throughput is in the millions, what kind of history is likely to be distilled from such a corpus compared with the writings of wars of the previous century?

3. The last of the material wars are devalued.

From 2026 there will be barely any new paper history of warfare left to emerge. Surely then, the remaining material records of wars yet to be released – the Persian Gulf War, the Balkans (and indeed all Government paper records) – are worthy of preservation, as the last of their kind?

The medium unquestionably shapes the message. The handwritten (and even the typed) tend to retain the first drafts of history, displaying the corrections that prevent the need to start afresh. The word-processed, however, militates against the survival of the original thoughts or response of the writer in the field first noted at the time, hiding their own (and their superiors’) edits, before the operational record ever reaches an archive.

However, there are no queues at the doors of TNA and the MOD demanding investment in paper. Perhaps this is because paper has long been seen as the enemy of history given its often visible display of decay. Yet assumptions of the weakness of paper as a medium of endurance are often overdone. For instance, as Baker (2002) argues, investment in new media such as microfilm would not have been so catastrophic, if the originals had been kept, given that the quality of the microfilm eroded faster than the paper it was intended to preserve! Moreover, those charged with managing archival space have sometimes aided a culture that disparaged the media which occupied more of it, as Baker (2002: 41) states: ‘librarians have lied shamelessly about the extent of paper’s fragility, and they continue to lie about it’.

In sum, a history of warfare dependent upon the official record of the British Army is at a critical juncture. The millions of digital records from Iraq and Afghanistan and other 21st century wars, in terms of the nature and extent of the resources required to make them public, have an uncertain future. This uncertainty extends to how the records can be read: the emergent archive will offer a different balance of content, from the loss of the interpretive complexity found in the material ‘contextual marsh’ to the gain of chronological granularity.

Meanwhile, what are the prospects for readings of the 1990’s wars as their official records first emerge into the digital public of the 2010s? Is this paper past already condemned to destruction/digitization? What is needed is a renewed faith in the archival imagination of space to save the last of the material wars and to ensure that their rich histories are discoverable.


Note: This blog is developed from work funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, a Research Fellowship held by the author entitled ‘Technologies of memory and archival regimes: War diaries after the connective turn’ (ref. AH/L004232/1). The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the organizations referred to or their employees. A shortened version of this blog was first published as ‘Digital records take something precious from military history’, The Conversation



  • Baker, Nicholson (2002) Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, New York: Vintage Books.
  • Hennessy, Peter (2009) Giving evidence to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 22 January, ‘Leaks and Whistleblowing in Whitehall’ Tenth Report of Session 2008-09, Stationery Office Books, EV 25.
  • Hoskins, Andrew (2013) Editorial: ‘Death of a Single Medium’, Media, War & Conflict, 7(2).
  • Hoskins, Andrew and Tulloch, John (forthcoming) Risk and Hyperconnectivity: Media, Memory and Uncertainty, Oxford University Press.