SAIS strategic studies students head to foreign soil to 'relive' historic conflicts

Image credit: ILLUSTRATION BY GREG STANLEY

In the Vietnam War, Thomas Keaney served as a forward air controller from 1969 to 1970.

Already a veteran pilot, Keaney flew small Cessna airplanes to direct air attacks and mark targets for U.S. bombing missions. Keaney, now executive director of the Philip Merrill Center of Strategic Studies at SAIS, admits he felt vulnerable in the weaponless craft that flew low level over enemy lines. "But you get used to it," he deadpans. Keaney considered himself lucky to depart the theater of war in one piece.

This spring, Keaney returned to Vietnam for the first time in 43 years to take part in SAIS' international staff ride focused on the Tet Offensive, a coordinated surge of surprise attacks launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese on Jan. 31, 1968, during the Tet Lunar New Year holiday.

The annual international staff rides send SAIS students—mostly those with a concentration in strategic studies—and faculty to historic battlefields to steep participants in strategy and the mindset of key military and civilian persons associated with the conflict.

During the student-organized trips, participants role-play and assume the personas of famous and not-so-famous characters, from the likes of a Gen. William C. Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to a common foot solider.

On the Vietnam trip, Keaney portrayed himself and gave his presentation at a military museum in Hanoi. Not wanting just to recount war stories, he focused instead on characterizing his role and daily life during wartime. Keaney told one story of a day he spent more than an hour locked in traffic traveling from his residence in Quy Nhon to the air base where he would later launch a fighter strike. "It just struck me, the irony of fighting traffic and dodging motor scooters on the way to a battle," he says. Keaney also talked about the friends he lost in the war, and what it was like to return home to a country divided.

Eliot Cohen, the Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at SAIS and founder of the school's staff ride program, says that listening to Keaney and fellow SAIS colleague John McLaughlin, a distinguished practitioner-in-residence at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, talk about their time in Vietnam gave him chills.

"Hearing our Vietnam vets talk about their experience really touched me. These are people for whom I have deep affection and respect," Cohen said in his office at SAIS. "I told the students at the wrap-up dinner just how lucky they were to be exposed to these men."

From Cohen's point of view, the staff rides are all about such exposure to the human element of war: the fears, hopes, convictions, and uncertainties of combatants and those on the periphery.

Military staff rides are an old educational training technique, invented by the Germans in the 19th century. Commanders would take troops to a battlefield for a case study in decision making.

When Cohen joined SAIS in 1990, he wanted to find a way to build up student morale and do something interesting outside of the classroom. A student of his suggested a Civil War staff ride. Cohen says he knew about the educational exercise but had never been on one, so he obtained a manual from the Army. "They have a manual for everything you know, even how to mop the floor," Cohen says.

The first SAIS staff ride was a one-day visit to Manassas, Va., to explore the Battle of Bull Run. Soon Cohen and students were doing two domestic rides a year, two-day trips in the spring and fall.

In 1998, a student who had just returned from a trip to Iraq proposed an overseas staff ride during spring break. "I was like, Oh boy, that would be one heck of a production," Cohen says. "But another student, a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Army, said that he would be willing to organize one to Israel if I could help secure the funding. I said, Deal."

For the first international staff ride, SAIS focused on the 1947 Jerusalem fighting, the violence that broke out after the United Nations' General Assembly voted in favor of the partition plan that would in effect create independent Arab and Jewish states. Cohen says that since then, the international staff rides have gotten increasingly sophisticated.

A few years ago, a Cohen-led group traveled to France to immerse themselves in the D-Day invasion and its aftermath. They silently walked Omaha Beach from the water line to the dunes, and later visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, among other stops.

Recent other trips were named The Peninsula War in Spain; The Battle for Sicily, during World War II; Waterloo; and Irregular War in Ireland, to examine the Easter Rising and Irish Civil War.

This spring, more than 50 SAIS students and faculty traveled to Vietnam to study a campaign that many historians say turned the tide of the war, although by many measures it was a military failure. The monthlong Tet Offensive resulted in massive casualties for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Communist forces also could not secure any footholds won in the opening days of the fighting and failed to achieve the overriding goal of a general uprising among the South Vietnam populace. The offensive would, however, lead to the gradual and painful withdrawal of foreign troops, as the combat convinced many Americans that battlefield victory was unachievable.

Among other locations, the SAIS group visited Hanoi and Hue City, the imperial capital of Vietnam and a key cultural center. At each stop, participants gave presentations in character, informed by months of research.

"The key technique here is role-play," Cohen says. "You don't have an expert telling you this is what happened here and why, but instead you're trying to figure things out collectively. It's rarely black and white."

The staff rides are completely student-run. Led by two quartermasters who pick the destination and focus of the trip, the participants are broken into research, logistics, and communications teams, and assigned characters to portray. The students choose which locations to visit, secure accommodations, create travel plans, design a website specific to the trip, and even create large detailed canvas maps of the area that they can unfold at any point to orient the group.

The trips are funded by a combination of student/participant contributions, alumni gifts, philanthropic sponsorship, and revenue from executive education programs.

Cohen says that SAIS' version of a staff ride features a wide array of characters and is not narrowly focused on military decision making. For the Vietnam trip, students portrayed Martin Luther King (a vocal opponent of the war), conservative American author William F. Buckley, and other civilians. They also portrayed enemy combatants, including Viet Cong and North Vietnamese leaders and soldiers.

Kelly Johnson, a member of the Tet Offensive research team, who received her master's degree in May, says she was particularly struck by Meredith Hollowell's presentation of a People's Army of Vietnam private soldier.

"I was fascinated in learning more about the nuances of the North Vietnamese perspective: the hard life of a People's Army of Vietnam soldier, the tension between PAVN soldiers and political officers, and the divisions within the Communist party leadership on the conduct and direction of the war," says Johnson, who has now been on six rides. "Like many Americans, prior to studying the conflict, I had a monolithic concept of the North Vietnamese."

Cohen, for his part, relished his role as President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"The trick is to start with attitude. I am naturally a ham, so I walked out and said, 'Does anyone want to see where my gallbladder used to be?'" says Cohen, referring to Johnson's showing his surgical scar to the press. "There is opportunity for some humor, but the discussions are serious. The idea behind the role-play is that you are not allowed to lie. You give the problem as that person saw it and understood it, and give the best possible case for them, whoever they are. Even the really bad guys."

Last year, a group traveled to England to dissect the Battle of Britain. Some of the destinations included a London Underground station where people lived during the Blitz, and the headquarters of the RAF's 11th Fighter Group that was responsible for the defense of London and the southeast of England.

The international staff rides are typically four to five days long, with grueling itineraries. The group starts each day at 7 a.m. and has activities planned to 11 p.m. A "gunny" is assigned to keep the quasi-military experience humming along.

Many of the staff rides feature VIPs, including three- and four-star generals and other high-ranking military officials. "They often tell me our staff rides are better than anything they've ever done in the military," Cohen says.

Some of the settings for the presentations are mundane, like a hotel, while many can be evocative, such as the site of the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace in Saigon, the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a combat base in Khe Sanh, and the tunnels of Cu Chi, the immense network of interconnected underground tunnels located just outside Ho Chi Minh City. Today the tunnels are a tourist destination that display images of the mantraps the Viet Cong used, including murals of American soldiers impaled on punji sticks and spouting blood.

Cohen says that such locations bring the topics to life.

"During the course of four days you can get deeply into that world with some very emotionally powerful presentations," he says. Cohen recalls a particularly stirring moment on the 2005 trip to Italy to study the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino. On a rocky hill just southeast of Rome, St. Benedict of Nursia had established in 529 a monastery that would later serve as the source of the Benedictine Order. During the battle, the fortresslike building was destroyed by Allied bombing.

Cohen says that although the Allied High Command didn't believe that high-level Germans occupied the monastery, the building looked like a massive fortification, and the troops down below called for its destruction.

"Look at it from their point of view. They were enduring constant artillery bombardments and were completely exposed," Cohen says. "Nearly all of the New Zealand Army was deployed there, so the upper echelon of command had the added moral pressure of preserving the army of an entire nation."

Later that night after the SAIS group visited the now restored monastery, Cohen led an Italian wine–fueled discussion about whether bombing the monastery was the right course of action. He says the debate got emotional on both sides, but the group, by a slim majority, voted in favor of bombing the building.

"I asked the group to throw themselves into the position of that New Zealand division and what they were up against," Cohen says. "I tell people the point is not sympathy; the point is empathy. Imagine what it's like to be in another's shoes." Matt Williams, one of the quartermasters for the Vietnam trip, says that he and Jon Welch, who served as a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer before joining SAIS, chose the Tet Offensive because they wanted to explore the Vietnam War's similarities to contemporary conflicts, and the battle provided a coherent window to what was a sprawling, complicated conflict.

One goal was for the SAIS group to get inside the heads of the Communist Force leaders, who were not unified in their desire for such a bold offensive. "Many senior generals were not keen on the idea and felt it would waste a lot of lives," Williams says. "It was the party's hard-liners that were pushing for this approach."

Welch, who graduated in May, says that the staff rides were the highlight of his time at SAIS. He vividly recalls the powerful presentations of McLaughlin and Keaney and the tears of some in attendance. "It was just hard-hitting how matter-of-fact they were about their time there," he says.

Williams says that the end of staff rides often gets emotional. "I remember we were all speechless. We didn't know what to say about what we just experienced. I think we realized it would take us some time to process what we just did. Dr. Cohen says that is to be expected. You walk out with more questions than answers as war is often very complicated."

For the 2014 International Staff Ride, SAIS will examine Europe in 1918, going over the final battles of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles.

"We have two whip-smart quartermasters already plotting and scheming," Cohen says.

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