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How to Write an Annual Command History

by Judith A. Bellafaire
From Army History, PB-20-96-2 (No.37), Washington, D.C., Spring 1996

The Annual Command History (ACM) or Annual Historical Summary (AHS) is a written account of the activities and accomplishments of your command during the year. Future historians and researchers will use these accounts to place the activities of your command into an overall Army context as they write the history of the Army. For this reason, the ACH/AHS should be a very important document to your commander and to the Army.

The current version (July 1993) of Army Regulation (AR) 870-5, Military History: Responsibilities, Policies, and Procedures, chapter four, paragraph six, holds the following organizations responsible for preparing ACHs and AHSs: MACOMs and their next subordinate commands, agencies, schools and installations, and MTOE organizations of the Regular Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard when in federal service, to include armies, commands at corps level and above, corps, combat divisions, nondivisional armored and infantry brigades, ranger and armored cavalry regiments, and Special Forces groups (See AR 870-5, p. 5).

The individual assigned to prepare the ACH/AHS may be-but is not always-a professional historian. If you are a civilian historian working for the Army or an Army officer who has been trained as a historian, you should prepare the traditional Annual Command History, which is a narrative account of the historically significant developments and events that took place in the command during the year. The narrative should function as a historical study; that is, it should include analyses of why things happen and why they were important to the command and to the Army as a whole. If you are an officer or a civil servant in another job series and are assigned to prepare this report as an extra duty, you will write an Annual Historical Summary, which is a descriptive record of historically significant developments and events which took place within the command during the year but does not include analyses or explanations of events or seek to place these events into historical context.

Ideally, the individual responsible for preparing the ACH/AHS should spend the year to be covered documenting the activities of the command. He should attend staff meetings, take notes, collect documents, and conduct formal and informal interviews, all with an eye to compiling material which will be of use when it comes time to sit down and begin organizing and writing the ACH/AHS. Unfortunately, many preparers will not be afforded a year's notice; these individuals must do the best they can to collect the necessary records by canvassing the various offices on post.

What types of documents should the preparer collect? The following list, derived from Dr. Susan Canedy's "Archives 101 for Army Historians," is by no means comprehensive, but should serve to give you an idea of the type of documents to look for: communications, letters, messages, and memorandums from higher headquarters (DA or your MACOM) directing your command to take certain actions; communications and directives from your command headquarters to subordinate elements within your command; planning and program documents; final or after-action reports on programs or projects undertaken by your command; significant decision papers; fact sheets and memorandums; decision briefing narratives and slides; memorandums for record (MFRs); minutes of meetings and conferences and after-action reports on conferences; trip reports; memorandums of understanding and agreement; significant ad hoc study group documents; after-action reports on mobilization and logistics exercises; test and evaluation documents; liaison activity reports; significant activity reports; monthly and quarterly activity reports; published bulletins and newsletters; copies of significant pamphlets, circulars, and regulations; operational concept statements; and news summaries and significant newspaper reports featuring the activities and accomplishments of the command.

Another type of document which may be used to write an ACH/AHS is a memorandum for the record written by the command historian. The historian may write memorandums of conversations he or she has had during the year with various individuals within the command. These MFRs preserve details of the conversation, such as the time and date, and authenticate the source of information.

Sometimes people have difficulty in determining if a document is "significant" enough to collect. How do you know whether a particular project, development, or event will be important to your command over the course of the coming year? Remember, you are looking for documents which describe developments and events which will have a significant impact on your command. For example, you may decide to save an after-action report on a brigade training exercise during which new equipment was fielded, but decide not to save newspaper articles which describe social events and award ceremonies. But should you save a proposal to reorganize the Public Affairs Office? When in doubt, save the document in question. If you make a wrong decision, it is much easier to dispose of a document than it is to recall one.

Before beginning a draft outline of your ACH/ AHS, look over your collection. Organize it by subject, and determine which topics have had the most impact on your command during the past year. Once you have an idea of what events were important and which ones were superfluous, you can carefully cull your collection. But the operative word is carefully. You still may not have enough perspective to be able to judge the significance of every document. For example, you may not know whether the proposal to reorganize the Public Affairs Office will be acted on or simply shelved. Remember, you do not have to use every document in the collection as a source for your ACH/AHS. However, every document cited in your report should be in your collection, and those not used should be preserved in the historical files.

In addition to your document collection, you wil1 want to use several other sources to write your ACH/ AHS: Oral History Interviews. If you are the command historian, one of your duties is to conduct oral history interview with your commander, the commanders of subordinate elements, and staff agency chiefs. These interviews should provide you with a better understanding of the mission and accomplishments of the subordinate elements within your command. You will also learn which factors had the most significant impact on various organizations on post. This will give you a better perspective on the overall operations of the entire command. Although the end-of-tour interview is the standard medium and should be done whenever possible, it is also a good idea to set up quarterly or semiannual interviews with key personnel. These interviews eventually will cover the whole tour, but each will include more detailed information, because events will still be fresh in the individual's mind. In the event the individual is rotated so quickly that he/she departs before being interviewed, there will be some record, however incomplete, of their tenure. For information on oral history techniques, refer to Stephen E. Everett's Oral History: Techniques and Procedures, published by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Submission Reports. Submission reports are feeder-type reports which summarize the activities and accomplishments of individual offices within the command. What exactly should you ask for in a submission report? Think in terms of mission-what is the mission of the individual element or organization submitting the report? Has the mission changed during the year? If so, how was it changed and why was it changed? How was the mission accomplished? Standard submission reports begin with a mission statement and continue with an executive summary. The executive summary, written by the supervisor, describes the most important accomplishments of the organization and the most significant problems it faced that year. Encourage contributors to include an organizational chart, a key personnel roster, and other key documents. The key personnel roster should include a list of officers or branch chiefs with the full dates of their incumbency. The report should also include the number of personnel authorized and assigned, both civilian and military by grade, with beginning and end strengths. Included here should be an assessment of the impact of any changes on the accomplishment of the mission. Each organization should submit a section on budget (frequently entitled "Fiscal Management") which includes the amount of money authorized and the amount spent on items such as salaries, operations, and training as well as appropriations and expenditures by major program. There should also be a section on training, which should cover how many personnel were trained and the types of training they received. One of the most important sections will describe the major accomplishments of the organization. Other items to consider including in the report are the impact of important new equipment and technological change and any planning, policy, and operational difficulties and problems which may have occurred during the year, as well as the proposed solutions to these problems.

There is an art to soliciting and receiving good submission reports. Consider asking each major staff section to appoint a historical POC (point of contact) responsible for collecting data and reports. Organize a group meeting with these people before the fiscal year starts and tell them what you want and why. It will help your contributors if you can provide them with an example. Give them a sample list of questions and answers or a survey form which has been filled out. If you have a particularly good submission from last year, use that, or borrow one from another Army historian.

The most common problem encountered when attempting to devise a good sample submission form is the fact that different subordinate elements will have differing missions, be of varying sizes, and face varying requirements on a day-to-day basis. That is, the G2 section of a division will be structured and operate very differently from the Public Affairs Office. This means that these offices and agencies will submit varying types of responses to your standard questions. Not all your standard questions will even apply to all of your contributors. The natural reaction of some contributors will be to brush off the report by filling in a minimum of information.

Anyone who uses submission reports will have to deal with the uneven quality of what is submitted. You might assume that all organizations and agencies on post are equally busy; however, the reports of some organizations will reflect very little activity. Ask yourself why this has happened. Are the standardized questions on your form unrelated to the type of work this element is doing? Does this organization assume that its activities will be of no future interest to researchers and thus do not qualify for inclusion in a historical report? This is not the organization's decision to make-it is your call.

If a substandard report comes in, don't complain up the chain of command, but don't quietly accept it either. Instead, work with your POC or the supervisor to elicit more information. Usually, a report is substandard because the contributing office simply did not understand what it is you are looking for as it applies to that office. Talk to the supervisor, and work with him to devise a submission report tailored to the work his organization does.

Discussing the submission report format with the organization chief is a good way for you the historian to learn exactly what gets done in each of these various organizations on post. Ask each chief to list the functions/missions of his section and estimate the percent of time spent on each. Then ask him to discuss in detail exactly what each of the three top functions entails.

Once you develop a good "sample" report format and response for each staff element and agency on post, they can keep these on file and use them as examples of what to do year after year. By taking the time to do it right the first time, you've already won more than half the battle for later years.

Numbers form an integral part of many submission reports-the amount of dollars allocated and spent, the number of personnel authorized and assigned, the number of missions flown per month, the number of incidents investigated, etc. If the numbers reported indicate a significant variation, the reason for the variance should be explained in the narrative of the report. If the submission report does not provide an explanation for the unusual numbers, you as the historian must determine the reason so that you can include it along with the numbers in the ACH/AHS. Otherwise, the numbers will raise more questions than they answer and will be of little help to future researchers.

Some organizations have a list of "projects" they work on throughout the year. These organizations are used to thinking of accomplishing their mission in terms of the progress they have made with their ongoing projects. In their submission reports, ask these organizations to describe each project in terms of its background (when and why it was started), the status of the project as of the end of the year, and the overall significance of the project to the command and-if appropriate-to the Army.

How To Organize Your ACH/AHS

Remember that form follows function. The structure of your ACH/AHS should follow the structure of your command. Define the mission of your command. How does your command function to accomplish that mission? What activities, assignments, training missions, projects, and other accomplishments were successfully carried out by your command during the fiscal year? Do not try to fit the story of your command into the chapter format successfully used by another organization.

Regardless of the specific way you decide to organize your ACH/AHS you should start with three essential documents: the mission statement, an organizational chart, and a key personnel roster. These are not difficult documents to obtain, but if for any reason you cannot locate them you will have to prepare them yourself for inclusion in the ACH/AHS.

1) Every command in the Army has a mission. The mission statement should define the mission clearly and succinctly in one to two paragraphs.

2) The organizational chart defines exactly how your command is structured. Most important, it illustrates the chain of command-who reports to whom. Include a narrative explanation of any organizational changes that have occurred in the command's structure during the past year. If an element or agency reports to a new boss or disappears, you must explain how and why this occurred, as well as the overall impact on the command. Be sure to include the exact date of the change. Were new elements added? Again, explain how and why this took place, including the impact on the command.

3) The key personnel roster should include the name, title, and exact dates of incumbency for the chief or commander of each staff element, subordinate element, agency, and organization within the command. This should include the G-1, -2, -3, etc., within the headquarters of the corps or division as well as the S1, S-2, S-3 of each brigade and battalion, and the civilian or military chief of every separate office or agency.

While not mandatory, the following documents are often included in ACHs and AHSs because they contain information which helps to clarify the way the command works and its priorities: 1) A mission essential task list is often defined by a new commander and circulated throughout the command. This is a valuable document because it illustrates how the commander sees the mission in terms of priorities; 2) The commander's summary, or executive summary, describes the major undertakings and accomplishments of the command from the commander's perspective. A good executive summary will do more than list the year's accomplishments in glowing terms. It will also define problem areas and discuss plans to address these in the future; 3) Chronologies are helpful because they provide exact dates and brief descriptions of significant events or highlights which occurred during the year. These can include changes of command, training exercises, deployments and returns, activations and inactivations, and other events of overall interest. You might also want to consider putting a brief history of your command, unit, or post in the appendix of the ACH/AHS.

Chapter Titles

Now that you have obtained your essential documents and selected your supporting documents, you must decide how to organize your chapters within the text. Remember, you are seeking the most logical way to tell the story of your command over the past year. There are basically two ways of doing this: you can pattern your chapter organization after the way your command is organized, unit by unit and office by office; or you can develop a thematic organization which reflects the way your command functions.

Submission reports often tempt the historian to organize the ACH/AHS office by office. It may seem like less work initially, and working on the development of submission forms and reading and analyzing submissions often encourage the historian to think in this fashion. The problem with this format is that it tends to be very repetitive. Such an organization can also hide the common overriding themes, accomplishments, and concerns of the command as a whole. Finally, unless the historian is very careful, this format can discourage thoughtful analysis and the development of "the big picture," in essence, exactly what the historian writing an ACH is supposed to be doing. While those of you writing AHSs need not concern yourself with analysis, you should still attempt to organize your AHS in a fashion which helps the reader to understand as quickly as possible what your command is all about.

Thematic organization might include such topics as training, resource management, options, intelligence, force modernization, logistics, and special projects. Look at your collection of documents. What has your command spent the preponderance of its time doing? Is your command involved in training for contingency operations, or does it teach intelligence skills to officers? Have elements of your command deployed overseas to engage in nation building? Has the command participated in disaster relief programs, or is it involved in developing battle simulation techniques? Organize your chapters around the major efforts or accomplishments of your command.

Whatever you do, do not simply break up the submission reports of various offices and agencies and reconfigure them under thematic chapter titles. For example, avoid lumping everyone's budget and personnel reports together in a chapter entitled "Resource Management," or stringing all reports on the acquisition of new communications equipment together in a chapter entitled "Information Management." Without analysis or a comprehensive narrative, this technique leads to a choppy, confusing sequence of facts and renders even the best data meaningless.

The best way to implement a thematic organization is to write a comprehensive narrative for each chapter, using statistics supplied in submission reports only as examples to illustrate points of discussion. Select the most important programs, projects, exercises, and deployments; then, discuss and describe their background, development, and significance as if you were telling a story. At the end of each chapter, provide charts with statistics derived from submission reports.

However you decide to organize your chapters, remember that you are attempting to answer one overall question, i.e., "How did the command go about accomplishing the mission?" To answer that question, be sure to include the following discussions somewhere within the body of your ACH/AHS: Emphasize those events which have had a substantial impact on the policy, organizations, and functions of the command. Routine matters should be discussed only when necessary to provide background, explanation, or context or to show patterns and changes. Describe the impact of decisions by higher authorities, including executive and congressional directives, particularly those affecting policies and missions. Discuss major policy and management decisions by providing the background and reasons for these decisions, the various courses of action considered, the final action taken, and an analysis of results wherever possible. Be sure to discuss changes in missions, operations, procedures, and organizational structure and the reasons for these changes (See John T. Greenwood, Scope of Work for an Annual Historical Review, Operational Test and Evaluation Command, Fiscal Years 1990 and 1991).

Remember to include a discussion of financial management. How did the command elect to spend its money? Did the command experience budget shortfalls? If so, what impact did these have on the accomplishment of mission and on readiness? Was the manner, pattern, and expenditure of funds as expected? Were there changes or innovations in the way money was spent, and what impact did these have on the command?

You cannot afford to neglect one of the most important topics today, force modernization-the development and fielding of new equipment, doctrine, and methods of training for combat, conduct of operations, and provision of combat support and combat service support. Publications involving the development of doctrine should be listed by author, title, and date, with a brief description included. Pay special attention to the impact of all new developments on soldier performance. This includes changes in methodology and in training as well as changes in weapons and equipment. Do not just describe the changes, explain why they were made and what impact they will have on your command's ability to accomplish its mission.

Subjects which should be discussed on both a collective and an individual unit basis include training exercises; equipment readiness (including the arrival and dispersement of new equipment, the ways in which soldiers were trained to operate new equipment, and the timely replacement of parts); budget; personnel strength (key MOS shortages); test performance; deployments; drawdowns; reorganizations (assuming these are already covered in a chapter relating to mission and organization, they need to be covered again here if they are related to a change of mission or the accomplishment of mission); and inactivations (including the process of and preparations for). The number of enlisted soldiers and officers taking courses such as basic and advanced noncommissioned officer training courses, the combat lifesaver course, technical training and leader development, and language programs should be included in a section on professional development.

When discussing training, remember to include the training philosophy. Has this shifted in emphasis over the past year? Describe the major training exercises in which the command participated, the purpose of each exercise, the extent of participation, and the experience gained.

Remember to discuss the significant problems encountered by your command and how these were handled. Problem areas might include budget and personnel shortfalls; an increase in the number of training accidents; problems in fielding new equipment; a rise in positive results from alcohol/drug testing; mechanical problems with equipment; equipment or ammunition shortages; backlogs on vehicle or weapons repairs; and problems obtaining spare parts. In addition to identifying the problem, the narrative should discuss its significance in terms of mission and describe what is being done to rectify the situation. Do not hesitate to include a discussion of problems in your report. Those anxious to avoid a negative tone might emphasize potential solutions.

Avoid giving award ceremonies and special events such as fairs, ground-breaking ceremonies, visiting dignitaries, marathons, Christmas balls, etc. too much emphasis. While boosting unit morale, these events are not significant historically. That is, they do not tell you anything new or important about the unit, its soldiers, or its mission.

As you know, "significance" changes over time. Programs and events which do not seem important to us now may be of exceptional interest to researchers in the future. The problem is, we can't give equal weight to every event. The best we can do is save as many documents as possible which relate in any way to the performance of mission. At the end of the ACH/AHS, provide a bibliography of documents used to write the report which are now in the historian's office. If the command does not have a historian, designate the office where the documents used to write the report will be stored.

Remember, you are not writing a history of your command; you are writing only about what happened within your command over a one-year period. Sometimes historians are concerned about "placing the year in context," and this leads them to spend an inordinate amount of time recounting the prior history of the command. There are several ways to avoid making this mistake. You can place the year in context in a short preface or introduction or in the executive summary, or you can include a brief overall history of the command in an appendix.

What Else To Include in Your ACH/AHS

The standard ACH/AHS often includes the following components, enabling the reader/researcher to locate the specific infommation he/she needs within the document as quickly as possible (those items which must be included in all ACHs and AHSs are noted by an asterisk):

*Table of Contents - The table of contents should be fairly detailed, including not only chapter titles but also the subtitles, sections, and headings within each chapter. In cases where an index is not included (see discussion of index below) it is especially important that the table of contents include subject headings within chapters.

Charts, Graphs, Maps, Briefing Slides - These should be listed by page number in the table of contents, even if they are part of an appendix. Otherwise, they represent "lost" information. When specific charts, graphs, etc. are referred to within the narrative of the text, be sure to include a page number in parentheses so that the reader can find the information quickly. Also, it is important to include a narrative explanation of what each chart, graph, briefing slide, etc. represents, even if the chart is not specifically referred to in the narrative and is simply placed in an appendix. A chart or document devoid of context or explanation loses much of its meaning and significance.

Biographies - Biographies of commanders, deputy commanders, and command sergeants major are often placed in the front of the ACH/AHS directly after the table of contents. Although biographies are not mandatory, they are easy for the historian to supply and extremely helpful to many researchers.

Introductions and Conclusions - These summaries of information encourage the writer to analyze the information a whole. The most significant aspects, events, decisions, and trends should be identified and discussed in introductions and conclusions by chapter and volume.

Appendix - The appendix includes the most significant documents cited in footnotes or endnotes throughout the narrative in support of information presented in the chapters as well as other documents which the preparer believes to be significant. Examples of documents often included in the appendix are memorandums, test results, after-action reports, maps, charts, and graphs. Remember never to include documents without some sort of narrative explanation of what the document represents and what it shows.

*Footnotes/endnotes - All documents used to write the ACH/AHS should be cited in footnotes or endnotes. In theory, the cited documents should reside in a file in the historian's office. Documents in historian's file should be given an ID number. If at some misty date in the future the command disappears, these files should revert to the National Archives. Documents should carry the identification tag 870Sd.FY (MARKS - Historian's Background Material Files). If the command does not have a historian, it must designate an office to be a repository of the files used to write historical summaries. These documents should be identified and filed by MARKS, just as are the historian's files described above. These files should also revert to the National Archives in the event the command disappears.

Photographs - Groups of photographs are often placed in the appendix. They can also be scattered throughout the narrative as illustrations. Each photograph should have a caption which identifies all individuals in the picture by name and rank and all weapons, equipment, and vehicles by type. Also include the date and geographical location of the event in the caption. If possible, briefly state what the individuals are doing.

Newspaper articles - Newspaper articles referring to the command can be extremely informative. Select those which reflect major or significant accomplishrnents such as deployments, retums, and training exercises rather than change of commands, awards, contests, and fairs. Group these in the appendix, and be sure to list each by tide in the table of contents.

Chronology - Many preparers like to include chronologies of significant events. These are nice to have and can give researchers a quick understanding of the activities of the command. The chronology can be placed in the front of theACH/AHS or in the appendix.

*Glossary - By a glossary, we mean a list of military acronyms and abbreviations. All acronyms and abbreviations used throughout the narrative and in all documents in the appendix should be included. Define or explain all abbreviated terms or initials. Merely spelling out the long form of an abbreviated concept or organizational title is unacceptable.

Index - Although many preparers do provide an index to their ACH/AHS, an index is not necessary. A detailed table of contents will provide a reasonable substitute. The important thing to remember is that future researchers should be able to locate the topics they are looking for quickly and efficiently. Information which is not listed in a table of contents or an index is not readily accessible and represents lost information. If the table of contents includes topical/subject headings under the chapter titles and lists each document within the appendix, an index is not necessary.

Bibliography - A bibliography should list all documents used directly or indirectly to prepare the ACH/AHS, all of which can be found in the preparer's file. The bibliography can be arranged alphabetically or topically. By the term "direct reference," we mean those documents which are cited as footnotes in the ACH/AHS. Documents used indirectly are often those which contain information mentioned or referred to in the ACH, but which are not directly quoted. Sometimes these documents contain more infommation than is provided in the ACH/AHS. Researchers interested in this information will be able to find it in the preparer's file.


The most important thing to remember as you assemble all of these components into an Annual Command History or Historical Summary is the reason why this effort is being required of you. Understand that this ACH/AHS will not vanish into limbo at the Center of Military History, the National Archives, or the Military History Institute. You can expect that it will be referred to in the future by several different types of users, including yourself. The commander and his staff may use the ACH/AHS to add historical perspective to the decision-making process. Members of your command will refer to this ACH/AHS as they prepare reports in support of your command, plan for future operations, write newspaper articles, and plan ceremonies. New members of the command may use it to orient themselves. Outside researchers and scholars writing on a specific aspect of military history will use the ACH/AHS as a secondary resource or as an aid in identyfing primary resources.

The ACH/AHS of your command is part of the year-by-year history of the United States Army on a command-by-command basis. You want future researchers to be able to find the information (topic) they are looking for in your report quickly. You want to help them understand what your command accomplished during the year in question, the forces which impacted on your command, and the significance of your command to the United States Army.

At the time this issue of Army History was printed, Dr. Judith Bellafaire was a historian in the Center's Field and International Branch. Among her manifold duties, Dr. Bellafaire was responsible for reviewing many of the Annual Command Histories and Annual Historical Summaries that are submitted each year to the Center's Field Programs and Historical Services Division.