Small Wars Journal

Making Gettysburg relevant

I am attending the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Senior Leaders Conference in Gettysburg, PA.

Today I went on a "staff ride" of the Gettysburg battlefield with a group of about 20 generals, sergeants major, and Senior Executive Service employees of TRADOC. Leading the staff ride was an Army historian who is also a retired Army officer.

Why would the Army waste the time of the senior leaders of its training and doctrine command with a guided tour of a 19th century battlefield? What does Gettysburg have to do with Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other conflicts the Army is likely to face?

The answer is "quite a bit," if you prepare the staff ride properly. And this the TRADOC staff and the Army historians did.

First, the historian used the events of the 1863 battle to illustrate military problems common to all campaigns regardless of era or variety. These included discussions of such matters as national grand strategy; an assessment of ends, ways, and means; adaptation to unforeseen circumstances; decision-making under conditions of uncertainty; assessing the strengths and weaknesses of subordinates; command styles; collegiality among commanders and staff; and many other such universal factors.

Second, the TRADOC leaders were not passive students -- they were tasked to make presentations during the day, discussing their functional expertise as it related to the Gettysburg battle and what lessons from that experience were relevant to today's problems. While standing in the woods on the 20th Maine's position on Little Round Top, a question about the Army's transition from a small force geared to irregular warfare on the frontier in 1861 to a very large force focused on major combat operations sparked an energized discussion among the generals about how TRADOC can improve the matching of its resources to its priorities.

At the end of the day, while looking over the ground of Pickett's Charge, a lieutenant general led his commanders and staff in an after-action review that again focused on lessons for the Army's future.

History is not dead, when you can get it to work for you.


Dave Maxwell (not verified)

Thu, 08/20/2009 - 1:13pm

I am happy to see positive comments on the Gettysburg trip on Small Wars Journal. Although Gettysburg was by no means a "small war" - it was certainly a high intensity war and a major combat operation for the time period, it should not be lost on us that there are lessons to be learned from all wars (especially in terms of leadership and decision-making) that apply to all wars and will likely apply to future wars as well. While we are rightly concerned with Small Wars here on this web site what we are really studying is human conflict which is of course both small and large. But war being the true chameleon that it is we cannot limit ourselves to the study of only certain kinds of conflict from the past.

Boatspace (not verified)

Tue, 08/18/2009 - 8:46pm

Good on you Robert. I'm no stranger to this shrinking historic battlefield myself.

One anecdotal note I might offer: Morse Robert was a grand strategist, and although not at his best during this battle, his subordinate Lieutenant Generals never could do what the Stonewall could (then deceased) - and this was break down Gen. Lee's concept into the tactical and recognize the ebb and flow of a battle and react accordinly.