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Operationalizing History: Lessons from the past guide the Air Force future

The Air Force Materiel Command History and Heritage Program team supports the command mission by “operationalizing history” for leaders. These historians, archivists and curators work to analyze history so that mistakes are not repeated while augmenting decisions for the future. (Air Force photo by Darrius Parker)

The Air Force Materiel Command History and Heritage Program team supports the command mission by “operationalizing history” for leaders. These historians, archivists and curators work to analyze history so that mistakes are not repeated while augmenting decisions for the future. (Air Force photo by Darrius Parker)

Jack Waid, Air Force Materiel Command Historian, sets up one of the information screens on the history display at the AFMC Headquarters, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (Air Force photo by Darrius Parker)

Jack Waid, Air Force Materiel Command Historian, sets up one of the information screens on the history display at the AFMC Headquarters, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (Air Force photo by Darrius Parker)

Stanley Gohl, Air Force Materiel Command Historian, researches how to best support the commander and the mission of AFMC at the AFMC Headquarters, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (Air Force photo by Darrius Parker)

Stanley Gohl, Air Force Materiel Command Historian, researches how to best support the commander and the mission of AFMC at the AFMC Headquarters, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (Air Force photo by Darrius Parker)

Tony Landis, Air Force Materiel Command Historian, checks for an archive within the History and Heritage Program office at the AFMC Headquarters, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (Air Force photo by Darrius Parker)

Tony Landis, Air Force Materiel Command Historian, checks for an archive within the History and Heritage Program office at the AFMC Headquarters, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (Air Force photo by Darrius Parker)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio --

Edmund Burke, a 1700s philosopher, once said, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” It is Burke’s tenet that underlies the activities of the AFMC History and Heritage Program office, which plays a vital role in guiding leaders as they work towards the future.

The AFMC program is comprised of historians, archivists and curators. These individuals gather critical documents to preserve in the command’s archive and write the command’s annual history, along with classified and unclassified special studies, books, and briefings.

Yancy Mailes, Functional Manager, AFMC History and Heritage Program, manages 14 historians, eight museum specialists and two archivists. He also provides oversight for four museums and 21 historical property accounts, which include 10,000 artifacts and 278 aircraft.

“Most people believe we work in a museum, when in fact that is a totally different job. A historian focuses on living current history and making sure those efforts and lessons learned are stored in a central archive. Museum personnel build interpretative displays and focus on the distant past,” said Mailes. “However, our two disciplines are connected. I like to say that if a historian does not write history today, we will not have heritage or lessons learned 25 years from now. If the historian fails to do their job, we will not be able to work with museum personnel to inspire and educate Airmen.”

Just as history has played a role in guiding leaders from the past, history continues to influence the decisions of our leaders today.

“One of the big lessons we have learned is that leadership does not want to know what happened, but rather what did not happen,” said Mailes. “On a regular basis, they ask us for the courses of action that leaders did not choose when bedding down a new weapons system or how the Air Force handled a particular personnel issue.”

Not only can historians influence the decision process as well as inspire and educate Airmen, but they can also become the “voice of reason” for leaders.

“During my five years at Eglin Air Force Base I was able to document many fascinating technology leaps, including the Joint Direct Attack Munition and the Small Diameter Bomb,” said Mailes. “At this time, the Air Force really wanted to shorten the time it took to identify a threat, send a fighter or bomber to destroy the threat, and then send intelligence assets to survey the area for bomb damage assessment. I was a witness to history as I watched several joint exercises where testers and warfighters came together and shortened that chain.” 

The history and heritage program played a key role when the AFMC We Need initiative launched in 2019. The AFMC historians brought wisdom from the study of leadership decisions of the past and helped guide field teams as they gathered data to coordinate the roadmap for the future.

“We found that personnel and the commander was more interested in reading special studies rather than annual history,” said Mailes. “Since Gen. Bunch was highly interested in housing privatization, we decided to write a special study on that subject. That study went all the way up to Headquarters Air Force.”

The history office took it upon themselves to find new ways to teach the personnel of AFMC while bridging the gap between generations. They accomplished this by creating the AFMC History Display, which resides in the headquarters building.

“We need to understand that we have to appeal to a different demographic, which is younger people. We came up with this exhibit so that personnel can both read on one side, and watch videos with a touch screen on the other,” said Mailes. “We want to bridge the gap between the older generation and the younger generation, and be able to educate them all at once.”

Not only is the history office able to reach personnel within AFMC and the Air Force, they have also found a way to reach people outside the organization as well.

“We revived a book program that had to be closed. I wanted to come up with a way to create an agreement between civilian book writers that would have them write for us, and in return they would have access to archives at public affairs level as well as our assistance as researchers,” said Mailes. “Although the writers wouldn’t get paid, we had about 10 authors that loved the idea.”

By taking an innovative, forward-leaning approach to historical activity, the AFMC History and Heritage Program has proven that they are integral to the mission success of AFMC and the Air Force of the future.

“AFMC wants and needs historians, and the reason for that is because we have proven that we can be neutral, have great research skills and that we can take large amounts of information and distill it down into a workable course of action,” said Mailes. “Our leaders can look to us for guidance.”