Dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, armies have been using the “modern” staff ride, developed by the chief of staff of the Prussian Army, Helmuth von Moltke, to educate their officers. The appeal and utility of these exercises transcend time. Staff rides are more than guided battlefield tours; they are tools that provide an unparalleled immersive learning experience, as they allow participants to research characters, discuss the various options or leadership quandaries commanders confronted, and orient themselves to the importance of complex terrain and topography. Through participant observation, discussion, and reflection using the actual terrain where the battles were fought, participants are able to learn more than they could in a classroom. Traditionally, staff rides bring participants to walk the hallowed grounds of critical battles like the American Revolutionary War’s Battle of Saratoga or the American Civil War’s Battles of Gettysburg and Antietam. Abroad, staff rides tend to entail seminal battles of World War I or II, such as the Somme, Verdun, or Normandy, or from the Napoleonic Wars, such as Austerlitz or Waterloo.
But there is some debate as to how operationally relevant staff rides are on battlefields of the nineteenth or early to mid-twentieth century, given the complexity of the contemporary battlefield, the advent of new technologies and doctrines, and the changing character of warfare. In today’s threat environment, there are few historical staff rides that can prepare future officers for, say, a vehicle-detonated car bomb or a cyberattack that wipes out a country’s electronic infrastructure during wartime. While they may hold valuable lessons in leadership or principles of war, which are timeless, most historical staff rides have little to say about information warfare or autonomous weapons.
To keep staff rides operationally relevant to modern war, we recommend staff rides of what we call contemporary battlefields, sometimes referred to as warm conflict zones. These include interstate, intrastate, or extraterritorial conflicts whose hostilities have recently ceased. These can also include staff rides of major events like a cyberattack, terrorist attack, or campaign of ethnic cleansing in a country nominally not at war. Regardless, such a staff ride allows participants to safely traverse the terrain, interview field commanders, discuss key battles with actual combatants, and discuss lessons for the current character of warfare. Examples include the Lebanese civil war (1975–90), the Rwandan genocide (1994), the Bosnian War (1992–1995), the Northern Ireland Troubles (1968–98), the Sri Lankan civil war (1983–2009), and the Colombian civil war (1964–2016).
As an educational tool, staff rides of warm conflict zones are not unique to this era. Prussian officers are credited with inventing the staff ride in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1919, West Point cadets traveled to the battlefields of World War I to understand the complexity of trench warfare less than a year after the war’s end.
A contemporary battlefield assessment is a dynamic way to bridge the theory students learn about war in the classroom—from Clausewitz to counterinsurgency—with presentations, vignettes, and lessons from the contemporary battlefield. It serves as a pedagogical tool to improve students’ understanding of important issues related to strategic studies and military science, like urban or siege warfare (Sarajevo), civil war termination (Sri Lanka, Colombia), hybrid warfare (Republic of Georgia, Ukraine), terrorism (Mumbai, London, Madrid), or humanitarian interventions (Rwanda).
As professors, we have led dozens of staff rides and contemporary battlefield assessments to a wide range of conflicts. We have led staff rides for cadets and officers for the Revolutionary War (Saratoga) and the Civil War (Gettysburg and Antietam) and have participated in staff rides for the Napoleonic Wars (Austerlitz), World War I (Somme, Cambrai, Liege, Ypres), and World War II (DDay). Additionally, we have led contemporary battlefield assessments to Sri Lanka, Colombia, the Republic of Georgia, the Baltics and Ukraine, and India.
While traditional staff rides are useful for driving home lessons on leadership, principles of war, decision-making, strategy, and tactics, they are far less useful for learning about current tactics, capabilities, and how technological advances impact leadership, decision-making, and principles of war. Based on course feedback and assignments, we find that traditional staff rides improve student learning better than classroom instruction alone, but the learning experience from a contemporary battlefield assessment is even greater. What we term a contemporary battlefield assessment is not solely a battlefield reenactment but rather a dynamic and immersive experience that uses a staff ride—a visit to the location of a historical event that includes systematic preliminary study of the event, extensive visit to the sites associated with the event, and the integration of the lessons that result from the study—to produce new knowledge or understanding.
We make the case for strategic studies programs, not just military colleges or professional military education programs, to incorporate research staff rides into their curricula, during spring or fall breaks, or during the summer. We also feel that the research staff ride approach can be applied to gain greater learning for just about any historical event: the American civil rights movement; the Cold War; the Chernobyl disaster; the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks; or the Ferguson, Missouri, protests. Thus, it offers great potential beyond traditional military audiences.
This leader’s guide provides a template and list for carrying out a successful research staff ride. First, we outline the logic and value of studying contemporary battlefields. Next, we compare and contrast the research staff ride from other pedagogical approaches that use terrain to enhance learning and leverage learning theory to explain why the research staff ride is such an effective learning tool. We then examine each phase of the research staff ride, providing best practices for each phase: design, preliminary study, field study, and integration. One final comment: with modern technology, virtual staff rides now offer greater learning potential than ever. However, this guide is aimed at research staff rides conducted in the field, so virtual staff rides will not be addressed in this guide.
Liam Collins, PhD, was the founding director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and served as a defense advisor to Ukraine from 2016 to 2018. He is a retired Special Forces colonel with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and South America. He is coauthor of Understanding Urban Warfare.
Lionel Beehner is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and formerly an assistant professor at the US Military Academy at West Point and research director of West Point’s Modern War Institute. He holds a PhD in political science from Yale University.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Solomon Abanda