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SAIS Europe’s Third Annual Staff Ride to Salerno and Monte Cassino

Europe Students
Figure 1 SAIS Europe Students at the Polish Cemetery with the Abbey of Monte Cassino in the background

During the first week of April, 26 SAIS Europe students traveled to southern Italy to conduct a staff ride focusing on the Italian Campaign during World War II. Organized by the SAIS Europe Defense and Intelligence Club, the 100% student-led trip took place across the allied landing sites in Salerno and Paestum and followed the campaign through to Monte Cassino. Though the events occurred nearly 80 years ago, many of the same moral, strategic, and political questions affect world events today, and students had a unique opportunity to explore them throughout the weekend.

Figure 2 Students Presenting in front of the UNESCO Protected Paestum Temples

A Staff Ride is a study of a military event focusing on strategic decision making. It expands the scope beyond tactics and includes wider political context. They are derived from a Prussian military tradition that seeks to understand and learn from a battle or campaign by visiting the actual location where it occurred. Today, staff rides are common practice across militaries.

Staff Rides are a staple of the SAIS experience. Each participant is assigned a military, political, or civilian role and presents from their “character’s” point of view. It's a way to bring the human element into the study of key events that are often viewed through a rational or tactical lens.

Figure 3 SAIS Europe DI Club Leadership

Across southern Italy, students took on the roles of Italian, American, and German military and political leaders as they traced the events from September 1943 to May 1944. They examined strategic, domestic-political, and tactical factors that influenced decision making, and often found parallels across the WWII campaign and what they are observing in world events today including the Ukraine war. SAIS Europe Professor Mark Gilbert delivered a pre-departure lecture, and students were also joined by Kissinger Center director Professor Francis Gavin, who added additional complexity to discussions of grand strategy and decision-making processes.

Figure 4 Student Presentation in San Pietro Infine

The itinerary included: briefings at the beaches of Paestum, lunch overlooking the UNESCO protected temples of Paestum, the Museum of Operation Avalanche in Eboli, San Pietro Infine, Polish, Italian, and Commonwealth Cemeteries, a private tour of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, lunch on Albaneta Farm battlefield on Monte Cassino, and much more. Students gave presentations throughout the trip at these and other various locations, playing the roles of prominent players in the war planning and the attack, to include: President Franklin Roosevelt, Pietro Badoglio, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, General Dwight Eisenhower, General Wladislaw Anders, John Huston, and others.

Figure 5 Student Presentation to Group at the Polish Cemetery on Monte Cassino

Students were thrilled to resume this tradition after a four-year hiatus. This year’s staff ride organizing committee was comprised of two first-year MAIR “quartermasters” and nine first-year MAIR students. Planning began in late 2021, and the students liaised frequently with DC professors and previous student participants for guidance. The staff ride could take place thanks to funding from the Langdon Family Fund at SAIS Europe which was established by alumna Rachael Langdon (B’19, ’20) and her family to give SAIS Europe students the possibility to organize and participate in study trips, and in particular staff rides, leveraging the location of the Bologna campus in Europe.

Hear from some of the student participants:

Participating in the Staff Ride was one of the highlights of the year. We visited places of importance to military history and learned about the strategy and tactics employed at those locales via a series of peer presentations. Beyond being an incredible academic exercise, we saw gorgeous--and not easily accessible--parts of Italy, and we had the chance to meet new people and engage with a varied group of classmates in a small group setting.

SAIS Europe Student

The D&I club staff ride to Montecassino was the highlight of my time here in Bologna.

SAIS Europe Student

As a student of history, I thought I appreciated the taxing and complicated nature of warfare. Going to the battlefields and studying the actions of the soldiers and commanders will change your perspective, even if security studies is not your focus.

SAIS Europe Student

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