An Uncommon Learning Experience: A 'Staff Ride' in Vietnam

Duke faculty lead students, alumni on a inside tour of history

Part of the Duke for America Series

For 10 days in early January, nearly 40 Duke undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members and alumni traced the path of the 1968 Tet Offensive through Vietnam.

Their trip was an academic adaptation of the “staff ride” format the U.S. military uses to educate leaders about a specific historical campaign or conflict, examining the event and its effects from historical, strategic and political perspectives.

But the Duke travelers weren’t just along for the ride: each was responsible for conducting advance research on an individual who played a role in the Tet Offensive, and for presenting a first-person briefing from the perspective of the person they studied.

Duke political science professor Eddy Malesky meets a survivor of the My Lai massacre in My Lai. Photo by Matthew King.

Duke undergraduate Sarah Sibley offered this reflection on the group’s visit to My Lai: 

"Today, Team Tet paid our respects to fallen civilians at the village to Song My, site of the 1968 My Lai massacre. After a tour of the site, where memorials and mass graves jut into working rice paddy fields and tourists stream past family homes, we met a 91-year-old resident who survived the massacre. In the most poignant moment of the day, the woman pointed to one of the Vietnam vets among us, Ret. Colonel Paul Wharton, who fought in the region the year after My Lai. The two spoke of their families, and when Paul remarked that she was his mother's age, she quipped that he looked far too young for that to be true.

"Afterwards, the group discussed the series of personal and institutional failures that led to My Lai, and the institutional mechanisms that are needed to ensure that something similar would never happen again. With help from Colonels Black and Howell, the group dove into questions like: How do you analyze individual moral culpability in the context of war and can responsibility be isolated in a single soldier? Where does the buck stop, and how can an officer be best empowered to uphold his oath to defend the Constitution? Officers are legally required to disobey unlawful orders, but not unethical ones- how do soldiers navigate this gray area? After today, the answers seem more important than ever before."

Duke’s program in American Grand Strategy organizes one staff ride trip each year, open to all undergraduate and graduate students.

For more information: Duke University’s Program in American Grand Strategy