Planet Duke: A ride into the Vietnam War

In the American Grand Strategy program, students, faculty, and alumni learn history by portraying the players who made it.
Writer: 
March 6, 2017

Things got interesting early on in the Vietnam Staff Ride taken by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy (AGS) in early January. Sparks flew on the very first evening when Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan exchanged harsh words. “He pointed out that he had been part of the Vietnam independence movement before it began the purging of noncommunist members and reproached me about the use of violence,” Ho said. “I reminded him that the history of independence movements was a history that had violence at every stage.

“I quoted Thomas Jefferson.”

And no, the fact that both Le Duan and Ho Chi Minh have been dead for decades did not limit the conversation, which took place over dinner in Ho Chi Minh City. Ho, in this case, was represented by Duke President Richard H. Brodhead, whereas Le Duan was played by sophomore Hillary Song. They were participating in a traditional part of the Staff Ride program, a project of professor of political science and public policy Peter Feaver, director of the AGS program.

Staff rides, Feaver explains, are a military technique that began in the nineteenth century, when Prussian generals would take staff out on horseback to discuss possible battle strategies for specific sites—the method helped remind staff that in war things like geography counted. In subsequent years the U.S. Army began conducting staff rides, though it added a wrinkle: The staff would ride a site on which a battle had once taken place, such as Gettysburg. The members of the staff would view the battle from its own perspectives and then try to explain and better understand what had happened and why, how key people—General Lee or General Meade at Gettysburg, say—made decisions, and how things turned out.

What makes a staff ride different from a battlefield tour, though, is in staff rides the participants tell the story. On Feaver’s rides (conducted in buses and on foot rather than on horseback), each participant—student, faculty member, alumnus or alumna—is assigned a member of the action and must study the history of the event and then explain it from that person’s perspective.

Feaver quotes President John F. Kennedy, who grew angry when an errant U-2 flight nearly brought the world to nuclear war, saying, “There’s always some [S.O.B.] who doesn’t get the word.” The fun of the staff rides, says Feaver, comes “when the student presenting happens to be that S.O.B. who didn’t get the word.”

With a light pedal on tactics and operations and a stronger interest in the grand, worldwide strategy of the program’s name, Feaver’s program took around forty people to Vietnam and had them face up to all kinds of situations where people did and did not get messages that profoundly affected the war, from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Vietnamese military leader Cao Van Vien to convicted war criminal Lieutenant William Calley Jr. and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Some presentations took place where events occurred but for the sake of propriety others did not—for example, the student playing Lieutenant Calley presented his brief about My Lai on the bus, not at the massacre site.

Participants included veterans of the Vietnam War, some of whom revisited the country for the first time. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggested similarities between wars fought far away and not always supported at home but noted differences as well. Advances in reconnaissance mean that “it’s less likely that American forces would be flying as blind as they did then,” Feaver says. But communication remains essential: Feaver noted that the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam led to tactical combat wins for the Americans and South Vietnamese, but on a higher, strategic, level, “it broke the back of the American will for the war.”

On the night before departure, Feaver, as John Wayne, exchanged barbs with Jane Fonda, played by Cynthia Brodhead. “I don’t think it was thought that we would reach reconciliations,” said President Brodhead of his wife’s role. “But one of the things it teaches you is that every point of view can be inhabited with conviction.” —Scott Huler

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.