Reviving the SAIS Staff Rides

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Mary Hopkins

With the upcoming Chancellorsville trip, the SAIS Staff Ride program kicks off another year in a long tradition of battlefield analyses and research trips. 

Last year’s International Staff Ride marked the initial return to in-person travel, which SAIS graduate Carmela Irato spoke to us about in an interview this May. During the 2021-2022 school year, she and eleven colleagues “organized, planned, and executed a trip for [41] SAIS students and professors during spring break to create an immersive, experiential study of Pearl Harbor.” Though the trip to Hawaii was a bit closer to home than prior International Staff Rides, it still offered students the chance to analyze a major campaign in World War II history. The four-day trip also featured a jam-packed, high-profile itinerary that included “lunch on the U.S.S. Missouri, a private tour of the harbor by retired Navy Captain Brian Bennett, briefings at PACAF, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, a tour of the U.S.S. Bowfin Submarine, Punchbowl Cemetery,” and more, according to Irato. 

The return to in-person travel was a major win for the Staff Ride program, which has struggled to maintain a major presence at SAIS as a result of the pandemic combined with short student terms and the arguably ill-timed overhaul of the old academic system. At the time of her interview, Irato’s own program, the strategic studies concentration–which was closely tied to the staff ride program–had been phased out for first years alongside many other departments and requirements. Now, it’s all but obsolete, replaced instead with the Security, Strategy and Statecraft concentration. But the tradition of the staff rides remains–which, to Irato, was one of the most important parts of the entire project. 

“This year was the first year that it came to life after a two-year hiatus,” Irato said. “We’re building back that institutional memory, that institutional knowledge at SAIS–for good, hopefully.” 

Hosted by the Philip Merrill Center of Strategic Studies, the Staff Ride program is composed of three student trips (two domestic trips in the fall and spring, one international trip over Spring Break) that take place over the course of an academic year. The purpose of each trip is to analyze a significant battle in history by visiting the original site and simulating the conflict via role-playing exercises, tours of relevant locations, lectures and discussions with experts, and more. 

In the recent staff ride to Honolulu, “students gave presentations throughout the trip…playing the roles of prominent players in the war planning and the attack,” such as “FDR, Secretary Hull, Prime Minister Konoe, [and] Admiral Yamamoto.” According to Irato, as a rule, “each student is given a character at a certain moment in time, and they have to give a five-minute presentation as that character at that point in time.” On this trip, they had around 35 characters including leaders, military officials, and even civilians, all played by students who were required to engage in Q&A sessions following their presentations. 

Staff rides have a long history at SAIS. A recent press release stated that “for over 20 years, students have traveled to Vietnam, Scotland, South Korea, and many more locations” for International Staff Rides (Irato also mentioned France as a recent destination). In addition to the educational benefits, the program is also said to “help students bond with their cohort and form long-standing connections,” qualities which may have contributed to the program becoming a longstanding “tradition” for strategic studies, in Irato’s words.  

Staff rides are used as a training mechanism by the U.S. Army, and their history in the country stretches back to the aftermath of the American Civil War, when senior army officials and the War Department began to preserve battlefields for both remembrance and military education. Their origins can be traced back even further to 19th century Prussia, where General Helmuth von Moltke used post-battle onsite analysis to “train General Staff officers on key military and strategic concepts.” In 1906, the practice was officially implemented by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and has since become a staple of military and strategic studies education.

SAIS staff rides look a little different than those of the Army. For one, no background in military strategy is necessary–students of any degree and any concentration are welcome to participate in and/or plan the rides. For another, the program is “entirely student-led.” Twelve quartermasters are selected from a pool of student applicants for each trip, after which they spend months on end planning the destination, logistics, curriculum, narrative and scripts for each of the staff rides almost entirely on their own, with the Merrill Center supplying little more than an advisor, faculty connections, and a budget. 

The domestic staff rides are less high-profile than the international ones, with the latter receiving significantly more funding, logistical support, and attention than the smaller-scale national trips. As might be expected, the domestic rides are largely focused on Civil War battles, and they generally last just one-to-two days, in contrast to the three-to-four-day ISRs. 

This October, the program is kicking things off with the fall domestic staff ride to Chancellorsville to study one of the major battles of the American Civil War, which took place just south of Fredericksburg, VA. It’s too soon to say where the next staff ride will go, but with a roster of 42 attendees headed to Virginia this fall, it looks like the tradition is here to stay.

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