AUSTIN, Texas – In an organization as large, long-standing and storied as the U.S. Army, lessons conveyed by the past have proven time and time again to be essential in informing the direction of the future.
“Being able to explain how we got here and why things look the way they do is an integral part of seeing yourself and your organization clearly,” explained Robert Mages, Command Historian at U.S. Army Futures Command (AFC).
“History has a significant role in that,” Mages continued, adding that “it’s the historian’s job not only to know the material, but to be able to express it in a way that’s accessible and actionable to current policymakers and leaders.”
Responsible for managing and archiving the command’s history and heraldry information, including AFC’s oral history program, Mages is passionate about ensuring that history plays a prominent role in current and future decision-making.
“While history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme,” Mages said, drawing from a quote made famous by Mark Twain.
In addition to acting as the primary historical advisor to the commanding general of AFC and a guardian of command heritage, Mages produces annual historical summaries of command activities, which are sent to the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the U.S. Army War College for preservation.
According to Mages, the detailed reports “are used as a piece for the larger mosaic of the annual history of the Army” and serve the informational needs of Army personnel as well as scholars and the broader public
When senior leaders are scheduled to depart AFC, Mages also conducts interviews that “give them an opportunity to leave behind a record of their service and their impressions of issues and events that both shaped their tour here and the command itself.”
He further serves as the AFC archivist, creating, maintaining and making available for study numerous documents of historical relevance, which are stored in digital and physical formats. His work also includes informing staff studies and preparing information papers on modernization policies that incorporate historical insights.
“I’m sort of a combination consultant, analyst, historian,” Mages said, clarifying that his role is technically categorized as a “special staff officer with the commander.”
Mages and other Army historians help to “build the institutional memory of an organization,” so that as people come and go, they understand why things are the way they are, and what thoughts and considerations went into forming plans and systems.
As for his motivations for fulfilling the unique role? “I’ve always been interested in history, since I was a young boy,” Mages explained.
“I think I got my interest in history by looking at maps, and just looking at the lines across maps and noticing how none of them were straight,” he elaborated. “I always wondered, well, why does that line look like that? And what is the difference between Romania and Bulgaria?”
That inquisitiveness led to an interest in history and eventually military history, particularly after Mages discovered that many of the borders he observed on maps were influenced by the outcomes of various battles and wars.
While Mages has been with AFC since its beginnings, back when it was a task force and had yet to morph into a four-star command, he first started working for the Army in 1985.
At the time, Mages had just graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island, where he participated in Army ROTC, and commissioned as an Infantry Officer. While his father, uncles and grandfather had all served in the Army or the Air Force as Citizen Soldiers, Mages was the first in his family to pursue Army service as a full-time career.
He attended Airborne School and served in Europe, residing for a period of time in Warner Barracks in Bamberg, Germany – the same location that his father had deployed to in the 1950s.
Mages was then stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, and deployed to Operation Desert Storm with the 1st Infantry Division. Afterward, he completed a tour as the Reserve Component Advisor with the 181st Separate Infantry Brigade in Washington state.
His passion for history still intact, Mages decided to enroll at Washington State University, where he completed a master’s degree in European History. He considered transitioning to a career in teaching but opted for IT consulting instead, working for a company that provided strategic analysis and modeling to the Air Force Research Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
After working as a strategic weapons consultant for a time, Mages realized he wanted to return to focusing his attention on history. He accepted an offer from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, to work as a historian archivist. His roles at the center progressed, and he in time became Chief of the Oral History Branch at the U.S. Army Military History Institute.
Mages then served as staff historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., reporting to Headquarters, Department of the Army and the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army. During that time, he additionally volunteered to serve as a staff historian at the Pentagon.
“I walked the halls of the Pentagon, sticking my head into offices, introducing myself and explaining what the Army history program was and what we could do for them and offering my services,” Mages said. His efforts were noticed, and he was eventually invited to help establish an archive for the Pentagon.
An opportunity then arose for Mages to serve in Iraq as the Command Historian for the XVIII Airborne Corps as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. As part of his role, Mages wrote combat narratives for the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, also contributing to after-action and doctrinal reviews.
The tour was followed by an Army developmental assignment with the Office of the Chief of Legislative Liaison. When the assignment ended, Mages returned to the Center of Military History and learned that a request had come in for a seasoned historian to support the Army Futures Command Task Force, which later stood up AFC.
His experience serving at the new command has thus far been very rewarding. “It’s so invigorating and stimulating to work with high-performing people,” Mages said, adding that AFC is full of “very bright, very hardworking, very dedicated people.”
Mages noted that the work of the command can sometimes change “quickly and significantly,” particularly given the rapid pace at which technology continues to evolve, as well as the flexible nature of enduring questions about what modernization and the future should look like. However, the chance to witness history as it happens is something Mages appreciates greatly.
“I love history, and I particularly love military history,” Mages said. “It’s one of the most understudied, still one of the most fascinating aspects of the human story, and there’s so much to be learned from it.”
“When you have an opportunity to observe events and issues that will be talked about in 20 years firsthand, it’s just the most rewarding and amazing experience,” he said.