Sunday, April 15, 2007

Staff Ride: the tradition continues

Today it was my great privilege to lead a staff ride at Antietam National Battlefield for a group of thirteen M.P.s (military police) from the Army Reserve center in Hagerstown Maryland.

A "staff ride", by the way, is an educational field trip to a battlefield by members of the military. There is a long tradition of staff rides at Antietam. The original five Civil War battlefield parks were established by the War Department specifically to serve as open air classrooms for military NCOs, cadets, and officers to learn the art leadership in battle. This is a tradition that I was fortunate to participate in today.

Yesterday I received a telephone call from the lieutenant of this Hagerstown MP unit, requesting a staff ride for today. Talk about short notice! usually these things are scheduled months in advance. Sometimes, however, real-world circumstances intervene, this was one of those occasions. Recent and somewhat unexpected deployments of members of this unit to various faraway hot spots forced them to accelerate their schedule; hence the short notice.

As I was speaking to the Lieutenant on the telephone yesterday I scanned the Sunday schedule to find a spot where I could fit them in...ten to noon. Outstanding! thank you very much, see you tomorrow, etc. Now, if the weather will only cooperate (it didn't).

The group showed up twenty minutes early and the Lt. and I introduced ourselves to each other. I chatted him up and got some of his background including the fact that he'd started out as an enlisted man five years ago and had recently become a commissioned officer in charge of 45 Military Policemen. His group of 13 male and female MPs were all in their camouflage uniforms and looking, I must admit, VERY cool. I informed him that we'd meet in the observation room at ten a.m. and get started. I was grateful that his group was dressed for the weather (which was very wet and ragged today).

At 10:00 sharp I bounded up the stairs to the observation room, introduced myself, and made this opening remark:

"One hundred years from today, my young friends, people will look at photographs of you and exclaim; ' Why did they fight that way? We're they stupid?'" Then I launched in to the way soldiers fought in the 1860s.

Thus began one of my best park experiences yet.

This group contained no smug experts, no armchair generals, no monday morning quarterbacks, no buffs. It was a group of bright-eyed, intelligent, young (very young) professional soldiers who seemed to intuitively understand the trap of the "provincialism of the present" (as someone termed it) i.e. judging the actions of armies on what is known today rather than that which was known then.

There were no questions starting with: "Why didn't McClellan just...", "Why didn't Lee simply...". "Why was Burnside so...".
No judgments, no second guessing, no generalization or oversimplification, only their firsthand experiences with that old adage that even the best plan turns into a soup sandwich once the battle is joined.

What a delightful change of pace. We had a ball together on this very cold and rainy day.

Today I taught thirteen soldiers the stories of those who left them their proud legacy.

Today they taught me to finally understand how one can be against a war but in support of the troops who are fighting it.

Everyday is a good one here, just north of Sharpsburg.

Ranger Mannie

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