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Saturday's Staff Ride of the Battle of Gettysburg

A month or so ago, when we announced that we planned to take a small group of Governmental Studies students on a staff ride of the Battle of Gettysburg, there was a fair amount of confusion.  The most common question:  Do we have to reenact the Civil War??  A close second:  Will we have to dress up?  We were tempted to say yes.

But the point of a staff ride is not reenactment-- it is to help students of military strategy understand the material constraints and political considerations that inform command decisions.  We wanted to get inside the commanders' heads.  And to see how--despite 147 years and amazing changes in technology--militaries today face many of the same basic issues that confronted the leaders of 1863.

Not a reenactment... but we were still enthusiastic.

Empowered by successes in Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia began a campaign in the North, aiming to inflict enough damage to convince the Northern  population that the war to preserve the Union was not worth it.  Lee's defeat at Gettysburg is considered a turning point in the Civil War.  Instead of being in a position to invade Washington, DC from the North, Lee's army had to return to Virginia and the Confederacy's best chance to end the war in its favor passed.  As we surveyed the battlefield, we addressed a recurring theme:  was the Confederate loss inevitable?  Given what we knew about the commanders, and what we learned about the terrain, could Gettysburg have ended differently?

We examined the terrain of McPherson's Ridge from the ground and from an observation tower, and imagined how the Corps commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia converged their troops upon Gettysburg.  We discussed Ewell's (or Lee's?) failure to gain Cemetery Hill.  We hiked through Devil's Den and up Little Roundtop, seeing the stunning advantage of the Union's defensive position atop the hill.  We followed in the footsteps of Pickett's Charge, and weighed the political aims of the Confederacy's campaign in the North in order to evaluate whether or not General Lee had any other choice.

I was impressed by the level of preparation and enthusiasm our students brought to this event.  The discussion was insightful and helped everyone think about the battle from competing perspectives.  The participants were good humored and the day was gorgeous-- a 65 and sunny backdrop for walking around the wooded hills and open fields around Gettysburg.  We are looking forward to next year's trip!

Click here for pics.


Symposium: Elaine Duke, Former DHS Under Secretary of Management

On November 10th, Governmental Studies welcomed speaker Elaine Duke, the Former Under Secretary of Management at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Under Secretary Duke spoke about the challenges of managing the most recent Presidential Transition and the challenges of the highest ranking Bush administration official to remain with the Obama administration for 15 months.  She also discussed the challenges of creating "One DHS" with 22 different organizational cultures, budgets, and historic agendas.    

Elaine Duke began her career with the Department of Defense as a career Federal government procurement official.  As the Under Secretary, she was responsible for the management of the Department's $47 billion budget, appropriations, expenditure of funds, accounting and finance.  She administered control over the Department's $17 billion in acquisition and procurement and was responsible for directing human capital resources and personnel programs for the Department's 208,000 employees. 

She discussed many challenges of being a senior official including having to balance the pressures of Congress, private industry and executive branch direction.  Students had many career questions on how to become a Fed.  If anyone would like more information on this event or the job opportunities discussed by Elaine please contact Professor James Norton,



Dr. John Mueller: Nuclear terror threat is overblown

Last night's symposium presentation by Ohio State University's Dr. John Mueller was controversial, funny, and a sobering analysis of how we, the American public, understand threats to national security.

Mueller's main point:  Nuclear non-proliferation should not be a high foreign policy priority.  Why?  Because the chances of dying from a nuclear attack are miniscule.  Instead, the government should "spend more energy avoiding policies that lead to the death of tens of thousands of people."  Take a second to think about that one....

Presenting a whirlwind of quotes from public figures-- Robert Oppenheimer, John F. Kennedy, George Tenet, John Negroponte, Walter Laqueur-- and then providing solid historical evidence to refute these people's pronouncements of the severity of the nuclear threat, Mueller argued that we end up wasting prodigious amounts of government resources on security and threat prevention.

Prof. Mueller's new book is called Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda.  A recent piece on this topic in Foreign Policy is  here.  (Access the full version through the JHU library's website).  And event pics are here.



Dr. Thomas Mahnken speaks about Technology and the American Way of War

Dr. Thomas Mahnken’s talk last night was based on his book, Technology and the American Way of War, recently released in paperback by Columbia University Press.

Mahnken has taught at AAP for years and was the first director of the National Security Studies Certificate. 

In last night’s talk Mahnken argued that the distinctive cultures of each of the armed services plays a significant role in how they adapt and adopt new technologies.  In the end, Mahknen argued, that the rise of information technology is fundamentally reshaping the armed forces but not always in the most obvious of ways.

Students asked some great questions, including one who wanted to understand more about how the Air Force, traditionally dominated by pilots, was handling the rise of UAV’s… Another student asked {after the event ended} whether the Marine Corps should be disbanded given the possibility that its roles can be filled by other branches.

For the record, both Mahnken and I gave the same answer: Semper Fi!


We are excited about the staff ride!


Last week, Dr. Roth, Dr. Stout and I took a little preparatory field trip to Gettysburg to plan the upcoming staff ride.

We toured the battlefield and picked out the spots where the most important decisions were made.  We climbed very tall towers to survey the terrain and crouched in grass on our stomachs to get a first-hand feel for the cover and the dead space in an area.  And we look forward to making our students do this too :)

Event details are here.  Sign-up for the event is now closed, but if you are interested, there will be more opportunities like this in the future, so keep your ears open.

 Be prepared to climb this!