WASHINGTON — With a front-row seat to the history unfolding in Iraq, Army Lt. Col. Les’ Melnyk is capturing it all for posterity, so the American public knows the full story behind what happened there, and the military can learn from its experiences.
Melnyk, a National Guardsman with a Ph.D. in history from the City University of New York, serves as official historian for U.S. Forces Iraq.
Since deploying in late May, he has chronicled several major historical developments in Iraq, including the official end of the U.S. combat mission, the transition of operations to State Department control, and the drawdown of U.S. forces to just under 50,000 troops.
Melnyk also played witness to the leadership changes at USFI, with Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno passing command to Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III as Operation Iraqi Freedom officially ended and Operation New Dawn was born.
Throughout these events, Melnyk works like a sponge, absorbing details about the USFI operations and how they fit into the broader strategic plan. Tape recorder and notebook in hand, he’s a regular at a long line of briefings, from Austin’s commanders’ updates four mornings each week, to lower-level staff sessions where the details of day-to-day operations get hammered out.
Unless specifically asked to put an issue at hand into a historical context, Melnyk is a silent observer, the proverbial fly on the wall.
“That’s the whole point,” he said. “I’m not there to influence events. I’m there as an observer. The most important thing for me is to take notes on what the [commanding general] and the other senior leaders say and what their reactions are.
“It’s not just about documenting facts, but also about what the CG says to the staff,” Melnyk continued. “What are his priorities? What are his concerns? What does he find encouraging or in some cases, discouraging, about what is going on?”
Melnyk remains in a collection mode between briefings, interviewing the USFI staff to gain insights and situational awareness, as he examines decision papers and other key documents.
Unlike journalists, always fighting the clock to meet the next deadline, Melnyk has the luxury of reflection. His focus isn’t on what happened today — just how it fits into the broader picture of what’s happening in Iraq.
“I don’t have to produce a product on a daily basis, so I have more time to digest it all,” he said. “I also have the [security] clearance and access and wear the uniform, so I have the understanding that comes with having been in uniform for 22 years that enables me to put it all into context that a reporter doesn’t have. I have a better understanding of how a large headquarters conducts operations and how the military does things.”
Melnyk consolidates the huge volume of information he gathers into a single report each quarter. His first report, which covered April, May and June, was 88 pages long and included almost 300 footnotes referring to documents and interviews he had collected.
He considers this a rough draft to support the bigger story of U.S. military operations in Iraq — one future historians will write down the road, after the mission is complete and documents related to it are declassified.
Those historians, with the advantage of 20–20 hindsight as they tell the story of the U.S. military mission in Iraq, will rely heavily on the on-the-ground accounts and documentation that Melnyk and other military historians who have preceded him in Iraq have been amassing since 2003.
They’re all contained on a massive share drive housed within USFI, and shared with Melnyk’s three customers: the Army Center for Military History, the U.S. Central Command’s historian and the Joint History Office at the Pentagon.
As he goes about his work during his first experience as a deployed historian, Melnyk said he’s impressed by the reception he has received. “Almost everywhere, you run into people here who think history is cool,” he said. “They each bring their personal, and in many cases, family history to the table, and they are fascinated by the history of the military they serve in.”
That appreciation isn’t new to the military. In a memo to his staff in November 1947, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower emphasized the importance of Army historians as they chronicled the history of World War II.
“The Army possesses no inherent right to conceal the history of its affairs behind a cloak of security, nor is such conduct conducive to a sound and healthy approach to the performance of its duties,” Eisenhower wrote.
“The historical record of the Army’s operations as well as the manner in which these were accomplished, are public property,” he continued. “Beyond this, the major achievements with which the Army is credited are, in fact, the accomplishments of the entire nation.”
Melnyk keeps Eisenhower’s memo by his desk at the USFI headquarters at Camp Victory in Baghdad to guide his work today.
“Part of the reason we care about the history is what Eisenhower said: the public has a right to know,” he said. “The public has made a big investment in lives and people and its treasury, and has a right to know about what our military forces have done.”
But tomorrow’s military stands to gain from that story as well, he said. “You want to have this history available for lessons learned, to teach what we did, what worked and what didn’t work, and about the unique complexity of Iraq,” Melnyk said.
“Future generations will want to know what we did here so that they can learn from it.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)