From enemy to empathy

From enemy to empathy
In-country: Foreign service officer Bill Stover in Vietnam, 1968. Photo courtesy of Bill Stover.
by Kevin Tripp |
Political scientist William Stover teaches students to understand volatile conflicts through firsthand experience. Thanks to virtual simulations, there aren't casualties. But there is a new way of seeing.

Empathy for the Vietcong was not on the top of Bill Stover’s mind when he was clutching a pistol, hunkered down in Saigon during the bloody Tet Offensive of 1968. As a young U.S. foreign service officer, the future Santa Clara political science professor wanted to help his nation. Years later, he found a way to teach conflict resolution with a pen—and then a computer—instead of a gun.

Finding goodness: Stover relates his
experience in Vietnam and what it's taught
him in this narrated slideshow.

For the past decade, undergraduates in Stover’s Introduction to International Relations class have been using an innovative Internet simulation that lets them take on the role of an actor in a conflict—such as Israel or Palestine—and make decisions to advance that side in a hypothetical or re-created showdown. The idea, says Stover, is to give the undergraduates an appreciation for a point of view with which they might not otherwise empathize.

His experience in Vietnam forged his resolve to teach younger generations the benefit of understanding every side of a conflict—especially the sides you don’t like. After the Tet Offensive, Stover toured parts of Vietnam before returning to Washington, D.C., to brief the State Department on the progress of the “pacification” program aimed at Vietnamese villagers. He says the U.S. government didn’t understand the war from both sides. “It was so sterile to them,” Stover recalls. “That’s when I started to realize that something’s wrong here.”


Stover speaks in soft, measured tones—still sounding every bit the diplomat four decades after he left the foreign service. Next to a window overlooking a bucolic campus plaza, his computer displays the fruits of his virtual diplomacy: the simulated conflicts he developed after he gave up military conflict.

While earning a Ph.D. at the State University of New York, Stover became involved in the peace movement and decided to bring his experience into the classroom. His goal was to teach students how to have empathy—and understanding—for the “other.” It’s something he wishes he’d had when he traveled to Vietnam. That’s not so much in the spirit of “make love, not war” but of pure pragmatism: Who are you dealing with? Stover cites the example of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.

“Had I a sense of empathy with Ho—not his Marxism, but his sense of determination for his people to be independent—hey, I would have realized that this [war] is a non-starter.”

Stover’s classroom simulations have evolved quite a bit since the mid-1970s, when he arrived at Santa Clara and gave his students pencils and bulletin boards to create a simulated international conflict. In the late 1990s, Stover and Mike Ballen, from SCU’s media services department, moved conflict simulations into the digital age. Now, students from Santa Clara and more than a dozen other colleges, stretching from Panama to Lebanon, are able to participate in online simulations.

When a class starts, Stover encourages—but doesn’t force—students to represent a side they wouldn’t normally pick. That isn’t always easy. One time, a Jordanian student and an Iraqi student reluctantly took on roles of hypothetical Israeli officials. Afterward, “both of them came and said, ‘Thank you for making me do this. I now understand the way Israel thinks,’” Stover says. The students achieved a sense of empathy with Israel—without “liking Israeli policy.”

Stover says conflict simulations had a similar effect on a recent Jewish student when it came to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “He claimed that now, for the first time, he could see why this was such a difficult situation. Previously, he just couldn’t understand. The student thought, ‘The Israelis have been so good to the Palestinians. And yet they’re killing us.’ By acting as a Palestinian for a 10-day period, he found his views changed. He’s still pro-Israeli, but he understands a little bit more about what the problem is.”


A typical simulation starts out with a student writing a paper about the side they’re representing, using sources drawn from academia, the media, and the real-life government they’re playing. Sometimes, actual diplomats or United Nations employees help the students craft their strategies. After completing their papers, the students from each team meet to plan moves that advance their side’s agendas. The undergrads take on roles such as head of state or foreign secretary and make “moves” that are posted on the class website. Other teams respond as in a real-life conflict. The goal is to be an advocate for your team—not your individual beliefs.

“It’s not enough just to read about them,” says Stover. “You have to read from their perspective, and then you also have to act on their behalf. And by doing that, a greater sense of empathy is achieved.”

Although Stover bases the simulations at Santa Clara, students and advisors from around the world often take part. And it amazes the professor how devoted some people are to their team. In one case, a UN worker based in the conflict-ridden Gaza section of the Palestinian territories was out past curfew so he could post a move online. “I mean, the kid could’ve gotten killed,” said Stover. “But he wanted to be part of his group. He didn’t want to let his group down.”

That dedication then carries over to students at Santa Clara, Stover says.

Recent simulations have dealt with Iraq, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and the use of nuclear weapons in World War II. A simulation re-creating the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was an eye-opener for young undergrads. “They realize the stakes are so much higher,” Stover says. “And it’s a way of having another generation sort of go back and relive some event that was profound and earthshaking in many ways.”

Even if a freshman in Stover’s class doesn’t go on to a career dealing with nuclear weapons or humanitarian crises, Stover hopes that student is able to use the experience of a simulation and apply it to everyday life. “I want them to have a willingness to listen to the other person’s story. If that’s all they get—just to be able to listen—that would be a success.”

Howard C. Anawalt, Law School professor emeritus said on Jan 29, 2012

It was refreshing to read about Bill Stover's consistent efforts to help people see from another point of view. It is hugely relevant to the United States today. Let me explain briefly:

In my entire lifetime, my nation has been at war. There was a possible hiatus from 1945 until 1950 when the United States sent forces to fight in Korea. Like other countries we justify our actions. Now we toy with adding another war (or military action) to the several we have ongoing.

What if the President and his Secretary of Defense were to insist that the discussion of Iran and its enriched uranium be considered Iran's point of view? Part of that view is that it faces two military powers that express continuous hostility. Each of these two nations has hundreds of nuclear weapons. One has actually used them. Both have a history of preemptive strikes against other nations. Each always has ready justifications for its actions. Our country is one of those two nations.

Patriotic voices like Stover's ask us to think and act. I wish to add to that patriotism. Pure pragmatism agrees with Stover. Kudos for publishing the report of his work.

Shelly said on Feb 1, 2012
When I took Mr. Stover's class in the late 90s, I remember him as so engaging. You wanted to go to class to see what story he was going to tell that day. The stimulation was fun but I really wish I could do it again now. Having more life experience, I think I would learn even more. What a great program and teacher!
Laura Thomas said on Feb 1, 2012

What a fantastic idea and use of modern technology to enhance and embrace learning those things that are most important—empathy & understanding. BRAVO!

Winter 2012

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