by Dr. Bradford A, Wineman
Director, Operational Art
So you are going on a staff ride to Chancellorsville two weeks from today. Why? What are these things and what do you need to know?
Before we go any further, we need to define exactly what a staff ride is. For starters, I would like to make a semantic distinction between “battlefield tour” and a “staff ride”. A battlefield tour is basically a roving lecture across a battlefield where one SME explains the events that happens at a given points to give details on the chronology of the battle itself. The information is all one-way traffic from the SME to the students, again, like a lecture. So, in sum, if you are on a battlefield and have an historical expert who takes you from stop to stop and bloviates about obscure tactical occurrences and romanticized combat anecdotes with no input from the audience – then you are on a tour, not a staff ride.
A staff ride is an organized program, usually involving military officers, in which the “students” use the battlefield as a classroom to better understand their profession – primarily military decision making, leadership, and the tenets of warfighting. The staff ride is an interactive process, more like a seminar vice a lecture, where the students come prepared ahead of time having done extensive reading on the battle/campaign and engage in discussions with the SME and each other in order to gain a better understanding of decisions that were made and endeavor to tie the events, choices, and circumstances to warfare in the modern day. For example, check out the US Army’s brochure on Staff Riding which is still the go-to resource on what they are and how to execute them.
Our faculty at Command and Staff are well-seasoned in executing staff rides and have built a resume of experiences over the past few years, the details of which will help provide some additional context of the extensive value of staff rides as an effective educational and professional development exercise. The civilian PhD’s of CSC frequently support staff rides for both individuals and institutions outside of Marine Corps University. These staff rides offer a chance for us to touch, influence and educate other populations in the Marine Corps and use our skill sets to help shape their skills and decision making while giving us more practical experience to make our own CSC staff rides better. We do this as a means of outreach to the broader military and academic communities which also provide mutual benefits for both parties as we are exposed to a wide variety of staff ride opportunities and learn more about our craft while exposing a wider audience to the benefit of the practice. Therefore, we shape the individual staff ride to meet the learning objectives for the particular group.
For example, since May, we’ve done Chancellorsville with The Basic School instructor staff, Fredericksburg with the instructors and students of the TBS Gunners Course, and Antietam with TBS students from Charlie Company. Since we’ve had such a variety of audiences, we’ve been able to tailor the staff rides to the skill sets and professional needs for each group. So with the TBS staff, we focused on operational decisions, with the Gunners we focused on weapons systems and their deployments, and with 2nd Lieutenants of Charlie Company, we used the decision games to sharpen the process of developing tactical COAs to reinforce what they learned at TBS.
CSC intermittently conducts staff rides for former students who had great experiences with staff rides as students at CSC and want to offer them to their commands. We also frequently sponsor contingents of staff from foreign militaries who visit CSC to show them how staff rides are executed since many Allied nations do not have the luxury of accessible battlefields like we do in Virginia. Every summer Dr. Gordon takes a contingent of British officers to examine Yorktown while intermittently we’ve escorted staffs from Australia, Sweden, and France to battlefields in the area. CSC has just recently developed a relationship with the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. They have worked with us to incorporate Civil War staff rides into their MBA program in order to teach their business students about leadership, strategy and decision making. This past summer, Dr. Gelpi and I did staff ride for the Joint Force Headquarters, National Capital Region in Washington DC in which we examined the defense of the capital during the British Invasion in 1814 and explored the same themes that the JFHQ has to deal with in force protection and homeland defense of the NCR. I’ve also participated in staff rides where individual students would take on a “role” and pretend they were a specific commander in a battle and have to speak personally how/why they made certain decisions.
Anecdotally, staff rides provide an opportunity for a supervisor to execute professional development for his subordinates in a more relaxed, social atmosphere than the office or classroom. Many use the visit to the battlefield not only for an enriched educational experience but also for a team building or social event. At the very least, it’s a chance to get “out of the office” and engage with colleagues in a different milieu. For example, after the Chancellorsville staff ride with his staff, Colonel Dale Alford of The Basic School arranged a campout and cookout as an offsite at the Wilderness Resort. When we brought the staff of the J-8 in the Pentagon to study the 2nd Manassas Campaign, I think they were just excited to see daylight.
At CSC, our staff rides fall under the Leadership Course, and we conduct two staff rides each academic year as part of the curriculum: Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. While these are historic battles, they fall under Leadership as their purpose is to serve as an exercise for our students to develop their decision making and critical thinking skills in a warfighting context. All of our curriculum focuses on critical thinking and the operational level of war as our students will graduate and eventually move onto battalion level command or positions on higher level staffs (Division, MEF, COCOM) as planners. We endeavor for them to focus on why key decisions were made on these campaigns and how they tied back into strategic aims and the intent of their higher command.
The other crucial point that I cannot emphasize enough is the function of the staff ride itself. We have recently been shaping our staff rides to reflect the model the Prussians perfected, primarily by renowned theorist Carl von Clausewitz and later adopted the Kriegsacadmie of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This concept is captured by historian Jon Sumida in his recent book Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2008). In a nutshell, it is not for students to quibble over “right” or “wrong” decisions or to “armchair quarterback” the leadership in a given battle. The purpose is to NOT argue about the history. Don’t worry about what happened. Clausewitz encouraged his readers to put themselves in the mind of the decision maker at that point in the battle and walk through WHY a decision was made, without the prejudice of the history of what actually happened. He called this process “reenactment” and asserted that this was key to developing an understanding of command and war overall. We at CSC are moving more towards using Operational Decision Games (ODGs) at our staff ride stops to facilitate this exercise (this is a means utilized by the School of Advanced Warfighting on all of their staff rides that we have replicated). We try to find key “decision points” where a commander had to make an operational level choice, rather than a simple tactical dilemma. Here is an example of one from Gettysburg:
Decision Point #4 – Cemetery Hill
You are the Commander of the Army of the Potomac and it is 1630 on 1 July 1863. While at your headquarters in Taneytown, Maryland, you have been receiving updates throughout the day from the I and XI Corps who have engaged with Lee’s advanced column north of Gettysburg. Earlier in the day, you have dispatched one of your ablest and most trusted Corps commanders, Major General Winfield S. Hancock, to take command of the field in your stead and to bring you back an assessment of the situation. You have just received a sitrep from him. Your forces have been beaten back by overwhelming Confederate forces and have retreated over three miles to positions south of the town. He asserts, however, that they have temporarily stopped the rout, are holding excellent ground for defense and their position would be ideal to engage Lee tactically. Yet, you have only received reports of two of the three Confederate corps engaging. It seems likely they are concentrating at Gettysburg, but you cannot be certain. You do not know where Longstreet is. You do not know where Stuart is. You have barely known where the Army of Northern Virginia has been for the past several weeks. Moreover, your orders from Washington are clear – stay between Lee and the capital in order to keep Baltimore and Washington protected. Your headquarters at Taneytown is at the center of probably the most ideal defensive position to accomplish your capital protection mission along Big Pipe Creek. As a former engineering officer, you would love Lee to attack you at this position.
General, what are your orders?
The idea is that each student gets the scenario, has a few minutes to devise a COA, and then has to brief it to his peers. His/her peers then critique it for positives and negatives, a process which always stimulates a professional conversation about the factors that influence the specific decision to be made. Usually one or two other students brief their solution and the conversation evolves from there. Again, the goal is not to examine a decision that was made 150 years ago as “smart” or “dumb.” The objective is to understand the variables and considerations that went into making the decision itself (as it will be in the future for them) and it’s not right or wrong – there is no such thing. It’s that each decision has CONSEQUENCES and 2nd/3rd order effects and above all, as Clausewitz endeavored to demonstrate – don’t judge decisions as right or wrong but instead appreciate that they are HARD!
Ok, wannabe generals and future decision makers – work hard on these staff rides and enjoy them. I’ll see you on the battlefield!