Historian Captures Evolving Story in Iraq

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.

Army Lt. Col. Les' Melnyk, official historian for U.S. Forces Iraq, is capturing details about U.S. military operations under way in Iraq to support a comprehensive history about Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. Courtesy photo
Army Lt. Col. Les’ Mel­nyk, offi­cial his­to­ri­an for U.S. Forces Iraq, is cap­tur­ing details about U.S. mil­i­tary oper­a­tions under way in Iraq to sup­port a com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry about Oper­a­tion Iraqi Free­dom and Oper­a­tion New Dawn.
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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)

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