By Staff Sgt. David OversonJune 6, 2018
HOHENFELS, Germany (June 6, 2018) - If there's one constant in the Army, it's learning from success stories and mistakes. Often referred to as 'lessons learned,' leaders study what went well and what didn't go well in various operations. 'After action reviews' are often conducted to try to constantly improve missions, and at times, morale.
Junior and senior leaders from the Joint Multinational Readiness Center took full advantage of this learning process as they participated in a battle staff ride, which retraced Operation Anvil-Dragoon, the WWII operation launched from Southern France approximately two months following Operation Overlord (commonly referred to as the Battle of Normandy) May 27 - 31.
The American philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Staff rides provide important insights into military operations, concepts of leadership and the face of battle. Furthermore, some of the same obstacles faced during WWII with a multinational coalition are still faced today regarding the U.S. Army's NATO and Allied Nation Partners.
"Battle staff rides provide opportunities to familiarize Army leaders with hard-earned lessons that their predecessors, or sometimes adversaries, gained from the past without spilling any blood or sweat," said Capt. John Naelgas, JMRC's deputy chief of training who participated in the staff ride.
"The majority of the military knowledge that I have now came from reading books and watching documentaries," Naelgas added. "The experiences, memoirs, and books that have been written about these past campaigns provide insight for all Army leaders, whether they are leading squads, companies, or brigades.
"The solution to a problem may be different, but lessons from past battles may provide the first step forward into solving one."
A significant component of a staff ride is the analysis of the terrain over which the action took place and the effect of that terrain upon the operation. By physically standing on the beaches where thousands of Higgins Boats, each filled with approximately 36 young Soldiers, Sailors or Marines landed, today's leaders are able to visualize the choices the WWII leaders were faced with.
Leaders are able to recognize the obstacles and constraints their predecessors were faced with and what, if any, different choices they might have made if they were in that position of leadership.
Ernest Roth, a military historian and retired Army command sergeant major, has been facilitating staff rides to Soldiers throughout Europe for the past seven years. He specializes in both WWI and WWII history, along with Napoleonic Wars.
"It's important Army leaders learn the tactical lessons of previous campaigns," said Roth. "Many techniques used in previous conflicts are still applicable in our current environment. The knowledge Army personnel walk away with after participating in a staff ride can directly be implemented into their leadership style."
In addition to the rugged beaches viewed during the staff ride, current leaders were able to view the terrain where an equivalent of an airborne division of paratroopers landed approximately 20 miles west of Cannes.
"There has always been a divide between theory and practice," added Naelgas. "A historian can write multiple accounts of a battle, but actually walking the ground where it was fought, and then won or lost, provides a perspective that cannot be read from books.
"Walking the terrain where Operation Anvil-Dragoon was conducted, whether it was the American landings, airborne drops, or where land battles were fought, enabled me to understand why a plan was developed in a particular way, and whether it was due to the equipment capability, or limitations, terrain constrictions, or enemy strength at that time."
Roth feels one of the most valuable lessons Army leaders can glean from a staff ride is to understand why some historical military leaders were more successful than others.
"Learning from previous campaigns allows a leader to understand why the Army is what it is today," added Roth. "It gives a leader tools to build a better future."
The staff ride culminated at a privately owned WWII Memorabilia Museum in the town of Roynac, France, where participants were greeted by WWII survivors and townsfolk, followed by a reception at Roynac City Hall.
"We love Americans here in Southern France," said Briancon Pierre, a WWII survivor and Roynac, France local. "We'll always be grateful to the U.S. Army for liberating us during WWII."