How to predict the future

One of the most heartening facts about the U.S. military is that it actually, institutionally, structurally pays attention to history. In fact, the Army operates a large unit at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (itself a historic post), deliberately named the Center for Army Lessons Learned (or CALL). It is one branch of the Combined Arms Center, and its stated mission is straightforward: collect and disseminate information about tactics and techniques so that soldiers need not “reinvent the wheel each time they do a mission.” That is good common sense, and there is a reason our language is rife with phrases about learning from experience with an eye toward future improvements, from “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me,” to George Santayana’s archetypal one-liner: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

To know history is to know frustration, however, because if you understand that history can repeat itself, you also understand that it doesn’t have to. Unless of course, leaders are ignorant of history’s harsh lessons and are blithely unaware they are committing essentially the same blunders that led to catastrophe at Cannae or Gallipoli or Little Bighorn. That is a major concept behind this magazine. One of the subjects we track is attitudes toward history and its lessons. Some hopeful signs:

The Army and the Marine Corps have collaborated on writing a new manual on counterinsurgency that draws on lessons from history, citing Napoleon’s Peninsular campaign, T.E. Lawrence in Arabia, Che Guevara and the Irish Republican Army, as well as recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. The timing of the manual is fortuitous, considering the national dialogue on what kind of war we’ve got in Iraq and what we can do about it. It may also be a hopeful sign that Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who has just taken command of U.S. forces in Iraq, was until recently in charge of the Center for Army Lessons Learned and oversaw production of the new counterinsurgency manual. Petraeus is a trained historian who as a major in 1987 researched and wrote a dissertation titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.”

In this issue you will find many editorial and structural changes that place a sharper focus on the lessons of history—reflecting our belief that knowing what happened in the past is the only way we can predict the future.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.