The power of history

History is a tool to be wielded. We can neither afford to ignore it or be handcuffed by it

Police1 recently undertook a project to help capture some of the “institutional knowledge” that walks out the doors each time a veteran officer retires. With so many experienced officers on the verge of retirement or separation, it’s more important than ever for agencies to document vital lessons and winning ideas before they’re lost to time.

Along these lines, I previously discussed some leadership lessons from my military experience that I thought would be valuable for law enforcement leaders. One of those lessons was “know your history” and since this is one of the key concepts embraced by Police1’s Institutional Knowledge Project, it seems both timely and appropriate to put some emphasis on the point.

Short Memories

U.S. soldiers on guard over 7th corps enemy prisoners of war holding area, Feb. 12, 1991, in central Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm.
U.S. soldiers on guard over 7th corps enemy prisoners of war holding area, Feb. 12, 1991, in central Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. (AP Photo/Jordan)

Philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There's an undeniable truth in Santayana’s words, and I saw it play out in my own military career many times.

My fellow vets know that the military doesn't normally keep people in the same places or units for very long. In peacetime, they want personnel to rotate every few years to force them into new jobs for “development,” reduce logjams in promotion opportunities and prevent unit stagnation. In the wartime military, personnel are rotated to give them rest or allow them to be retrained, re-equipped and regenerated for another campaign or theater.

This constant cycle of arrivals and departures has benefits, but it also creates many problems. One of those problems is that organizations can struggle to retain “corporate” or “institutional knowledge” – that long-term memory of important information and lessons that often comes at great cost and sacrifice.

A constant rotation means that personnel who were there for an important event are soon replaced by people who weren't, and with each turn of the wheel, the knowledge and lessons generated by the event start to morph or fade away. The “been there, done that” crowd is replaced by the “heard about it” crowd, and before you know it, the unit is firmly in the grip of the “don't know what you're talking about” crowd.

This can happen surprisingly fast. By the time that the U.S. Air Force invaded Iraq for the second time in Operation Iraqi Freedom, operational units found themselves rediscovering forgotten lessons from Operation Desert Storm, just 13 years before. Heck, the cycle even repeated itself within the course of the same campaign, with lessons learned, forgotten and learned again inside of the eight-year span of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to my fellow Airmen. Our ground forces in Iraq, for example, had to rediscover a path that had grown over since Vietnam. In that war, Special Forces A-Teams and Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons perfected counterinsurgency tactics in the highlands and jungles of Southeast Asia that a later generation of soldiers and marines had to rediscover in the deserts of Southwest Asia.

That Santayana guy was obviously onto something. How soon we forget.

True, but . . .

Santayana only got it half right, though.

While it's true that we forget our history too quickly, and wind up making the same mistakes again later, we humans have also made a habit of allowing our history to exert too much pressure on the present.

This slavish devotion to the past can take many forms. We resist changes in technology, practices, protocols and beliefs even when the evidence mounts that there are better, newer, more effective ways to do business. If you’ve ever worked in an organization where the answer to a “why” question was met with, “because that's the way we’ve always done it,” then you’ve seen the power of the past to ruin the present or future.

Regretfully, my military career provides examples from this side of the fence as well. For example, early in Desert Storm, coalition air forces sustained losses when the low-level tactics of the Cold War subjected aircraft to heavy doses of anti-aircraft fire as they attacked key targets in Iraq. A switch to higher altitude attack profiles pulled those aircraft out of reach and saved lives and equipment, but only after repeat losses demonstrated the folly of sticking with “the way we’ve always done it.”

The other branches are no different, which is why my Army brothers and sisters sometimes gripe that "the Army represents 243 years of tradition, uninterrupted by progress."

Sound familiar to any of you?

The lesson for cops

The lesson that cops can learn from their military friends is that history is a tool to be wielded. We can neither afford to ignore it, or be handcuffed by it.

Your profession’s or agency’s history will provide important clues about things that worked and things that didn't. It will provide you useful guidance and warnings if you're paying attention.

However, it's not a prescription. Time and circumstances change. Needs change. Society changes. Our method of policing that society needs adapts and changes as well, based on conditions. It's never good enough to stick with a policy, tactic, or piece of gear just because, "it's always been that way."

Moving forward

The military isn't perfect of course, but it does a good job of preserving its history and teaching it to its people. Details about campaigns and wars are preserved so that future leaders can study and learn from them. Personnel are taught to appreciate the accomplishments and sacrifices of those who wore the uniform before them. Entire schools have been created so that future leaders can be shaped with the knowledge and lessons of the past.

I think the law enforcement profession could use a little more of this. Most cops and agencies are too busy trying to keep up with calls for service to reflect back on the past, but it's important to think about where we’ve been and what we’ve done. The law enforcement profession has a distinguished past, and it's important that officers feel a connection to it. This is important for morale, perspective and education.

There's a lot of important clues and lessons for law enforcement in their own past. It's good to be focused on what you are doing right now, but it's also important to check the rearview mirror from time to time.

Sometimes it can help you figure out where you're going.

NEXT: Military methodologies: Organizational & leadership lessons for LE

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