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One historian's perspective

  • Published
  • By Douglas Beckstead
  • 438th Air Expeditionary Wing Historian
Thirty years ago, when I was in graduate school, if anyone had told me at some point in my career I would be writing history in Afghanistan, my response would have simply: "You're crazy."

Now, here I am -- in Afghanistan; not once, but for my second time (plus one deployment to Iraq), surrounded by the ghosts of countless military persons that have come before me. I have a hard time going outside and looking at the mountains surrounding Kabul and Bagram without pondering the fact that the view is the same as that through which Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamirlane led their armies.

Historians have referred to Afghanistan as "The Land of Bones," and the "Graveyard of Empires." It is a country with a history that extends back more than 50,000 years. At one point, it was quite literally the cross-roads of the known world when untold treasures of textiles, spices, precious stones, gold, silver, furs, exotic animals and even people were transported between China, the Middle East and Europe along what has come to be called the Silk Road by caravans of literally thousands of camels.

The role of a military historian has changed very little over time. We record the achievements (and yes, the failures) of the actions of our forces shortly after they transpire. In short, I see my role as an Air Force historian to be very much like that of the chroniclers that accompanied the Spartans, the Romans and Alexander the Great.

In the performance of our duties, we develop a vast network of relationships between commanders at all levels as well as the rank and file within the military structure. My job involves collecting a vast array of documents, extracting pertinent information from them and writing an overall history that captures the ebb and flow of the mission of the U.S. Air Force here in Afghanistan.

One significant difference between the armies that came before us is that they had a single goal, to conquer and control the land and its people. In the case of the coalition that is here today, we made it very clear from the outset that we will be leaving. It is not our intent to conquer Afghanistan. Instead, the various nations that comprise the coalition are working to help the Afghan military and security forces to acquire the tools, the equipment and the training that will enable them to take over when we leave.

I, for one, am both proud and excited about being part of this grand affair in which we are the actors upon the international stage helping to raise Afghanistan up from the ashes of the last forty years, much like the mythical phoenix and to enable the Afghan people to realize a future of their own. Someday my grandchildren will look back and read what I have written and say with pride, "My Grandpa was part the war in Afghanistan," much like I say about my grandfather's service in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

We're all in this together. We're all doing great things. It's my job to capture them for the future.