Fall Staff Ride: A SAIS Observer perspective

By Dennis Murphy, Hannah Dennis, Alexander Kessler, Nikole Ottolia

The Fall Staff Ride (FSR) was held over the last weekend of October. Each year, the Strategic Studies department organizes fall, spring, and international staff rides. This is a practice rooted in the military orientation of the Strategic Studies department – which means it can likely be at least partially blamed on the German General Staff.

Students typically travel somewhere within driving distance of DC to camp and analyze battles connected to a particular war campaign. Participants take on the roles of historical characters — from presidents to civilians. This year, things were slightly different. Rather than study a conventional campaign and venture out to battlefields, FSR quartermasters Keel Dietz and Claire Harrison led staff ride participants on an expedition around Washington, D.C. to study the  “domestic front” of the Vietnam War here in the United States, as it was experienced by the American public, media, and policymakers. They traveled to the Library of Congress, the National Mall and the Watergate Hotel, among other key historical flashpoints.

A mixture of seriousness and levity accompanies each staff ride. The lighter side manifests itself with riders dressing up in character, adopting accents, or heckling from the background. Following a long day of presentations, students retire to their campgrounds to eat, drink and play. The unspoken aim of the staff ride is to foster community building among Strat students.

 At the same time, there’s a deadly seriously component to every staff ride. The Vietnam War may be a distant phenomenon for today’s graduate students, but it was generation-defining for many of their professors. Tens of thousands of Americans died in a war that from early on policy makers had cause to doubt in the possibility of victory. Many more Vietnamese died. Throughout the staff ride, parallels to the War on Terror were invoked, and many applicable lessons were drawn. Our roles, in many ways, were designed to look like roles we may take on in our future careers.

The SAIS Observer was fortunate to send multiple members of the TSO team on the Fall Staff Ride: Mary Leah, Kessler, Hannah, Niki, and myself (Dennis). Niki, in particular, was special as the only non-Strat concentrator to participate in the staff ride. Below, Hannah, Kessler and Niki share their perspectives on this unique SAIS experience.

Hannah Dennis:

I’m still processing the staff ride. I’m still figuring out what it meant.

In the staff ride, I played the role of Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. In preparing for my presentation, I reflected on America’s collective memory of the war. We sometimes talk about memory as an unassailable record of national history, ignoring how it is shaped, actively and passively, and thrown into new light by current events. Lin’s design provided a platform for adjudicating memories of the war. When it was built in the early 1980s, it sparked conversation on the war’s legacy. Today, it says, as the New York Times wrote, something on which everyone can agree. That those who died deserve to be honored and remembered.

Yet the memory continues to evolve in light of current events. It is difficult to think about the lessons learned from Vietnam without considering the long wars in which the U.S. is currently involved. Throughout the staff ride, students and staff drew parallels to today’s quagmires. For future decision makers, I cannot imagine a better exercise.

After an information dense, exhausting and overwhelming weekend, Monday thrust us right back into a busy schedule of classes, assignments, and internships. But while we all have more than enough on our plates, we can’t afford to leave the FSR on a shelf with its t-shirt and beer bottle memorabilia.

I think much of the real work comes after, making sense of it and incorporating all we learned into our worldviews. For all the work that went into the Fall Staff Ride, I am grateful.

Alexander Kessler:

Yes, we role play as historical characters. Some of us get in costume as well. And we do this in public knowing full well people are looking. From the outside-in it certainly seems fantastical and ludicrous: Why are we approaching the study of a war like a rendition of Shakespeare’s “Henry V?”

I thought the same on that brutally early morning in October, standing in front of the White House watching Lyndon B. Johnson give a rousing political rally on enhancing US involvement in Vietnam to defend democracy in Southeast Asia. During Q & A, things got a bit more nuanced. President Johnson admitted he has no personal desire, nor a greater strategic goal, to be in Vietnam. LBJ was handed an ever-increasing foreign conflict that he felt had no relevance to his domestic Great Society policy ambitions. And so war was perpetually revamped, repurposed, and repackaged like a white elephant gift until it consumed at least a million lives. 

We watched many more performances on the trip. Politicians, military leaders, diplomats, protesters, journalists, social activists, soldiers, and public servants spoke to their views and actions during the war. Instead of a crisper picture of the period, we found a moral quagmire of gray surrounding each decision.

How did we get into this conflict and why couldn’t we leave? If anything, this role-playing exercise served as a reality check. What wrong decision in the future might any of us make that would cost thousands of lives? What self-referential internal logic might we fall back on to justify our choices? Memories of this war are still fresh and acrid for many. Luckily, we got to hear some of their voices, both acted and authentic, on this fall staff ride.

Niki Ottolia:

My weekend on the Strategic Studies 2019 Fall Staff Ride was an eye-opening experience during which my learning came to life and my fashion for the weekend was a tie-dye t-shirt, a nod to the peace movement that swept through the United States during the years of the Vietnam War.

As the only non-Strat student on the FSR, I went in with an all-or-nothing attitude since I wanted to make the case for non-Straters to be allowed to go on staff rides. This meant throwing myself into researching the historical figure I had been assigned to research for the Staff Ride: Gloria Emerson, a journalist for the New York Times. Learning about the Vietnam War through Gloria Emerson’s life was incredibly powerful because the war was something she never got over. She never forgot the Vietnamese people she spoke with and the American soldiers she interviewed on the battlefield and back in the US.

Although I had prepared for my character presentation, I actually had no idea what to expect from the FSR itself. Since I am not in Strategic Studies, I had not met the majority of the students on the staff ride and I had never met any of the professors that accompanied us over the weekend. This made the FSR one of the most energizing experiences because I got to meet other SAIS students and faculty in the middle of the semester…at a time when I am usually running around trying not to lose my marbles during for midterms. The FSR staff also did an incredible job with the logistics in shuttling us all over D.C. and I was thrilled to visit the White House, the Pentagon, the Lincoln Memorial, the Library of Congress…places I forget I live in close vicinity to…all with copious amounts of coffee provided by the staff. All one had to do was be along for the ride!

All that being said, I came away from the weekend simultaneously exhausted but also rejuvenated. Although I barely slept and was socially stimulated all weekend, the FSR touched me deeply when we had our last stop at the Vietnam War Memorial. Having visited when I was 8 years old, I had a vague sense of déjà vu as I slowly walked next to the names written on the black granite that at the same time reflected my own likeness in the polished stone. The staff ride gave me more questions than answers about the Vietnam War, and importantly, an urge to continue studying that particular time period in the U.S. For anyone who is willing to commit and invest their time and energy in participating in a staff ride, I cannot recommend the experience enough!

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