Educating Our Future Policy Makers: What is a Staff Ride and Why is it an Important Academic Experience?

October 20, 2018 –CSPS Student Fellow Mary Frances Woods provides an overview of what a staff ride is and why it is a unique and important academic experience.

By Mary Frances Woods,  October 20th

First of all, what exactly is a staff ride?  A staff ride is best characterized as the “systematic preliminary study of a selected campaign, an extensive visit to the actual sites associated with that campaign, and an opportunity to integrate the lessons derived from each.”  Basically, a staff ride is a leadership experience that provides students participating in the staff ride with the opportunity to gain an in-depth look at the tactics, strategy, and factors that influenced leadership decisions during the battle at which the staff ride is occurring.  The use of staff rides as an educational tool emerged in 1906 at the General Services and Staff School (now the United States Command and General Staff College) when the assistant commandant, Major Eben Swift, took a group of his students to the location of the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia.  Since that time, staff rides have arguably become an essential teaching and training tool of the United States military as well as being used in non-military academic settings.

Staff rides are very engaging experiences, and afford participating students the chance to learn what factors influenced decision-making, both on a tactical and strategic level, and to extrapolate lessons from the past that are applicable in the present.  But how does a staff ride really work?  Generally speaking, a staff ride would typically be comprised of the participating students and a guide or guides, usually a subject matter expert like a military historian.  The guide will facilitate discussions and provide the historical context and other details as the students walk through the events of the battle.  However, an essential element is student involvement, which begins even before the actual staff ride itself.

The students are typically first assigned a single leader who played a crucial role in the battle at which the staff ride is taking place.  For example, if a staff ride is occurring at Antietam, students may be assigned leaders such as General George McClellan, General Ambrose Burnside, General Robert E. Lee, or General “Stonewall” Jackson.  The student will then be expected to present on that leader during the staff ride itself.   Although the presentations may vary in length and detail, arguably both the student’s experience and the overall discussions during the staff ride will be greatly enhanced through conducting thorough research and learning more information in advance of the staff ride.  In preparation for the presentation, students would likely want to research not only the leader’s military experience and education, but also their personal background, as the human factor arguably plays a key role in an individual’s decision-making process.  For example, information such as the area where the leader was raised, influential people in their lives, and their interpersonal relationships are all aspects that may have factored into a leader’s decision-making.

Additionally, the staff rides are very interactive.  The students should expect to receive questions from the guide(s) as well.  These questions could involve why the leader on which the student is presenting took the action they did, what could have influenced their decisions, and what was the ultimate result of those decisions.  Students may also consider what the outcome could have been had that leader decided on a different course of action, or had pursued a different tactical or strategic approach.  The value of actually standing in the same place as the leader and viewing the terrain arguably puts the decisions into a better perspective.  Seeing how a leader moved troops on a two-dimensional map versus looking out at the actual terrain provides a greater context for why leaders may have decided on one course of action over another.

Finally, staff rides are an exciting and academically unique experience.  It is not only academically challenging, but also enlightening.  Staff rides offer a glimpse into the past where the decisions made had life-altering consequences and in some cases altered the outcome of the battle, but also teach us that the lessons learned then, have the potential to be applied today as well.

For additional information on staff rides generally, see William G. Robertson’s “The Staff Ride.” Additionally, if you are interested in learning about the staff ride opportunities sponsored by the Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS), please visit the CSPS Staff Ride and Tours website or read about the most recent CSPS staff ride to Antietam here.

Mary Frances Woods is a CSPS Student Fellow.  She is a part-time graduate student in the International Security Master’s degree program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.  She holds a Juris Doctor from the Duquesne University School of Law and a bachelor’s degree in political science from North Carolina State University.  She currently works as an attorney with the federal government, but began her federal career as a security specialist.  She is serving as a Student Fellow in a personal capacity and her personal research interests include various legal issues pertaining to international security and intelligence matters.

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