The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Watch Out! History is Repeating Itself!

The repetitious nature of history is a popular theme of commentators, particularly in regards to the issue of war.  Here are some headlines from recent media:

“The Thai crisis:  History repeats itself,” The New York Times, December 1, 2008

“History repeats itself,” The Economic Times, April 28, 2010.

“History Repeats Itself In Burma,” CBS News, Sept. 26, 2007

“History repeats itself with scandal-scarred seat,” New York Post, July 30, 2010

The earliest formal recording of this idea is the quote:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana, The Life of Reason or The Phases of Human Progress: Reason in Common Sense (2nd ed., Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York 1924), 284.

Does history repeat itself, or does it only appear to repeat itself to those who don’t really know their history?  Is Santayana really talking about a cycle of history or is he talking about people and instutions who fail to appreciate and understand the experience of the past (history) and therefore make mistakes in the present which could have been avoided?


August 17, 2010 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , ,


  1. It is human nature to believe that there is a rational explanation for the successes or failures of a group, society or individual. We thrive on boxes: religion, luck, fate, and free-will. More to the point, if an individual or group can attribute their failures to a particular box, then it somehow makes more sense. Mom says, “I told you not to do that. That is exactly what Tommy did when he was 20 and now you are repeating it. When will you learn?”

    In relation to Santayana’s quote: it is not a literal interpretation of what you recall or have studied in history. And likewise, there is no way to repeat history. Even deja-vu is only an echo of what feels like the same moment in time being repeated. What is repeated are the mistakes that man makes. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Condemned is a catastrophic relegation of our inability to recognize ourselves in history. The similar: decisions, type of leader, attitudes and prejudices are manifested from generation to generation through learned behavior. The danger is not recognizing that the history provides context for the individual to understand how they interact in the world. When Santayana states “Those who cannot remember the past…”, I believe it is a direct reference to those who cannot look back on the past experiences and use those experiences as a framework for being and doing better in their lives. Those individuals make similar mistakes and never learn from them.

    Comment by Timika Wilson | August 18, 2010

  2. History cannot repeat itself because it is just a snapshot in time of events that were happening at a given moment. There are so many events and outside influences that shape history during any particular time that cannot ever be duplicated in a future scenario. Some of these include the leaders and decisions they make, socio-economic climate and cultural values of the people during a specific place in time. Humans will always have the right to free will, and if they choose to ignore the lessons to be learned from the past, it is ashamed. This however, does not simply mean that history repeats itself. For history to repeat itself, the exact same conditions, which are impossible to replicate, would have to transpire as any given time in the future. The best we can wish for humankind is to take the lessons from the past and apply them in the present to make rational choices and intelligent decisions.

    Comment by Schachle | August 19, 2010

  3. If you know your History, you won’t make the same mistakes? There is quite a bit of documented proof of this notion, but a discussion came up about knowing contemporary history and how it could be as useful, if not more, than understanding different eras of history. An example is of a Change of Command/Authority from one leader to another, providing the incoming commander with information on personalities, idiosyncrasies, experience level of the unit, and general knowledge from a contemporary perspective. I agree with this example but I began to have issues when the discussion turned to personal experience as a valid reference of history. We all learn from mistakes in different ways and process our perspective of events in either a good light or bad. The issue I have with using personal experience as a contemporary historical reference is that it may not be right or, at least, processed correctly. Each of us have a history and a story to write but not all of us understand the true lessons from that history. Too often I’ve heard “I’ve fought this war before,” or “combat is combat, no matter what country I’m in.” There is a lot of relevance to experience but there is also a need to step out of your experience and listen to different perspectives.

    Comment by James Browning | August 20, 2010

  4. History does not repeat itself. Situations may appear to look the same, but our experience changes our reactions as we learn from our past successes and failures. For example, I may neglect to notice rain clouds as I ride my bike to school on Monday resulting in a soaked uniform along the way as it begins to pour down rain. On Tuesday, however, I see the rain clouds overhead and decide to drive my car to school. Unfortunately, its against Fort Leavenworth regulations to park anywhere near L&C, so I still get wet while walking from the parking lot. On Wednesday, however, I not only notice the rain clouds, but I also ask my wife to drop me off at school. Success – I arrive at school with a dry uniform.

    I agree with Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If I fail to notice the rain clouds in a week or two, I will again condemn myself to sit through H100 with a soaking wet uniform.

    Comment by Tim Brower | August 22, 2010

  5. Whether or not history repeats itself depends largely on the detail one is viewing history. For instance, one can make broad generalizations that since two campaigns fail for the same reason, history has indeed repeated itself. Only when one takes a more detailed look can they really identify the differences in cases. So, in general terms, history can repeat itself. However, the utility of this needs to be confined to the general principles and not to the specifics.

    Comment by Todd Larsen | August 24, 2010

  6. I concur with my classmates who have observed that history does not repeat itself exactly. I also agree that historical precedents can provide a wealth of useful information in predicting or analyzing current or future events. I took at look at the example, “History Repeats Itself in Burma,” CBS News, Sept. 26, 2007:

    In the case of the Burmese protestors, it does appear that the patterns of events for the protests in 1988 bear a great deal of similarity to those of 2007. As per Wikipedia, my favorite non-academic reference source, the outcome for the protestors has been rather grim; their efforts did not result in any of the significant positive economic or political gains that the protestors desired, despite media attention.

    I believe that this pattern of failure to obtain the desired results is likely to have a severe dampening effect on future protest actions for democracy in Burma.

    Comment by Rachel Wienke | August 24, 2010

  7. Lessons learned from experiences past can help form guidelines and waypoints to good decision making. Lessons learned from others’ experiences can do much the same.

    Lesson learned applied to seemingly similar circumstances with vastly different variables can quickly get you in trouble if critical factors aren’t considered or if important details are ignored.

    History taken out of context is just as dangerous as failing to learn from one’s mistakes in the first place.

    Comment by Ryan T. Kranc, 17D | September 16, 2010

  8. History only appears to repeat when observers and actors fail to account for contextual nuances in the present.

    In the military we want to make a decision quicker than our enemy (whatever form) and we want that decision to be the right decision (effectively solve the problem at hand). When faced with a new situation I believe an individual’s awareness of similar historical situations allows them to decide and act faster than someone without that awareness. On 12AUG in the C122 lesson block we discussed intuitive and analytical decision makers. Intuitive decision makers rely on pattern recognition and recognition primed decisions. A heavily referenced model is COL Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop: Their ability to rapidly apply that understanding in present situations, consciously or unconsciously, allows them to make seemingly intuitive decisions quickly. In other words, they move through an OODA loop sequence quickly. But it matters whether the decision was the right decision- lest we fall victim to Santayana’s maxim.

    To make the right decision, the decision maker must take into account the nuances of the present problem. This requires an analytical process. Some decision makers have the critical thinking skills to identify the pertinent nuances of a given situation on their own and some cannot. If they cannot, then within the OODA context they are overcome by events and subjected to the enemy’s will. The commander’s staff serves as a check to a commander/decision maker’s intuition. One of the staff’s analytical tools is the formal military decision making process (MDMP). Executed correctly, it brings to light pertinent nuances of a present situation- it helps the commander observe and orient properly. However, there is a trade off- MDMP can be time intensive. A correct decision rendered too late is useless. Only through a balance of intuitive and analytical decision making can a decision maker avoid “repeating” history.

    Comment by William Griffith, 17B | April 1, 2011

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