Civil Affairs and the Widening Spectrum of Conflict

Updated: Feb 9, 2020


Wars are fought by the lessons of previous wars framed in the perceptions of contemporary thought and to the limits of available technology. War, widely accepted as an extension of politics, creates a contest of wills used to identify, and in most cases interject, a resolution. The military has gone even further, defining war as a situation that arises when two or more entities of unknown resolve enter into armed conflict to impose their will upon one another. This definition provides a suitable and concise explanation of war; however, what happens when the resolve is known beforehand and the will of those in conflict is immeasurable? What happens when restrictions are imposed and the ability to wage war is limited? What happens when this proxy battle is fought through everyday people from the dark recesses of culture and ideology? This paper will discuss the necessity of Civil Affairs to secure the victory across the spectrum of conflict in what has become our country’s misunderstood competition for authorship and influence in the modern world.

Spectrum of Conflict

The Dilemma

There is a debate as to the existence of a new generation of warfare. The past 14 years have introduced new doctrine and military equipment in search of both a strategic and tactical boost to gain the dominant position in the limited wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. The emergence and reemergence of superpower nations have also created gray zone wars and ambiguous wars in Europe and the Pacific. These conflicts have blurred the lines between peace and war and redefined victory. The military's strategic focus must now lend bandwidth to peacetime conflicts where the battle is fought through economic, media, and political channels. Great emphasis has been placed on defining the conflict in question, generating tactics and strategy that address the current symptoms while the ill-structured problem remains undefined and consequently unsolved. MRAPS and up-armored vehicles emerged to try to defeat IEDs. Roads, bridges, buildings, and institutions are constructed to lend legitimacy to the stable governance. After years of warfare and trillions of dollars spent, wide area security and combined armed maneuver are the two buzzwords that dominate the conversation of today’s leaders. But do wide area security and combined arms maneuver move the actors in the irregular wars, gray zone wars, conventional wars, and everything in between to the decisive point necessary to impose our will on the enemy or legitimize stable leadership in contested regions? The answer is no; the dynamic of will and the civilian component remain misunderstood, and the enemy as a whole can maneuver to sanctuaries immune to our technology and military might. Warfare has not changed; what has changed is our respect for the civil domain.

Types of Wars

Gray Zone and Ambiguous Wars – These are informal wars that occur in the spectrum between peace and total war. These conflicts involve aggression and usually represent multiple objectives on strategic, operational, and tactical levels. They provide countries with the opportunity to test systems on a tactical and operational level. They test propaganda and media capability both internally and externally to inform and influence behavior domestically and internationally.

Irregular Wars – Irregular wars are asymmetrical wars that usually enable smaller forces to contest larger forces in a more protracted war to test the will and resolve of a state and its allies. Irregular warfare has the potential to extend across the full spectrum of conflict with an ultimate goal of delegitimizing the objectives of a state within the relevant populations. Insurgencies and counterinsurgencies fall under irregular wars.

Limited Wars – These are wars that don’t utilize all available resources such as agriculture, industry, weaponry, or military. The goal is to keep the conflict contained and avoid provocation into a larger war. Cyberwar can be placed in this category.

Total War – The American English Dictionary defines total war as "war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded."

The variations in warfare can be overwhelming and misleading. The objectives and principles of warfare are the most important element to any analysis. Through this understanding, the underlying motivations of war become clearer, and so does the solution to the ill-structured problem. War is a competition for authority to write the definitive narrative of the culture, race, and/or creed of the relevant people. Modern warfare results when two or more entities compete through force or other means to define a people or situation through a perspective in alignment with national or cultural goals and interests. The United States military must not depend so much on technology that the focus on the human element is lost. This competition to author enduring legacies cannot be written through drone strikes or other blunt instruments of war. The United States military must compete for legitimacy among other state actors and super power nations for the trust and authority to protect old and co-author new legacies valued within the relevant populace.

Military Civic Action in Limited Wars

Warfare and the livelihoods of civilians have been intertwined since the first man threw a rock at another man. Warfare has continued to evolve since that time, and the devastating effects of the advances in warfare have always been in the public eye. Less well known is the deliberate interaction between military forces and the civilian population—or military civic action—for the purposes of achieving a military objective. The United States military civic action has been in use since the Revolutionary War; however, Civil Affairs can trace its official roots back to World War II with the creation of the Civil Affairs Division in 1943. It is important to note that the WWII application of military civic action is fundamentally different than its application during a limited war. “At the time…the term ‘civil affairs’ was used interchangeably with ‘military government’ which was, in fact, the primary component of all CA operations” (Oehrig, 2009, p.1). The use of military civic action has evolved beyond the purview of governance since that time. Other uses have included recruiting indigenous forces, denying local resources to the enemy, and preventing further hostilities. The Vietnam War provides a good foundational understanding of these types of operations in a limited war. The contemporary example of the Vietnam civic action programs is the village stability operations (VSO) program in Afghanistan. The causal factors to the success or failure of these programs, despite the fact that they are separated by several decades, can be distilled down to similar reasons. It is first necessary to examine the price of success and the cost of failure for military civic action in a limited war.

The Price of Success

Decentralizing Operations

Historically, the hierarchal nature of military operations has not lent itself well to the acceptance of decentralized operations. However, running a military civic action program requires forces to be disconnected from their higher headquarters. The following quote describes the civic action program run by the 4th ID in Vietnam from 1967–68: “The civic action teams operated alone in areas in which the enemy could easily assemble forces adequate to annihilate them. Most villages included some members of the Viet Cong” (Kirkland, 2000, p. 550). These teams were geographically disconnected; however, the 4th ID reorganized their command structure to provide security and operational control of their teams. “Each brigade had an officer—the S-5—to coordinate and protect the civic action teams formed by the battalions in the brigade” (Kirkland, 2000, p. 551). Decades later in Afghanistan, Army special operations forces followed the same decentralized model in the execution of the village stability operations (VSO) program. “VSO called for the CATs [Civil Affairs Teams] and Special Forces operational detachment-alphas, or ODAs, to move from their forward operating bases, or FOBs, into safe houses among the populace” (Young, 2011, p. 18). Reports from both the civic action programs in Vietnam and the VSO programs in Afghanistan speak to tactical success as a result of decentralized operations and a leader’s ability to make meaningful decisions in real time.

Photo of Military Civil Action Program in Vietnam

Assuming and Managing Risk

The fear of the unknown has always been a stimulus for fierce debate amongst the various subcultures in the U.S. military. The Marine Corps’ Combined Action Program (CAP) in Vietnam ran counter to the Army’s strategy of “search and destroy”: “The Marines' emphasis on positional warfare was anathema to conventional U.S. military doctrine, and Westmoreland argued vehemently against it” (Peterson, 1989, p. 22). Despite this disagreement, the Marines were able to execute operations with some latitude in Vietnam, and the combined action platoons were born. At their height in 1969, the Marine Corps had 114 operational combined action platoons living and operating in villages all over the Marines Corps’ tactical area of responsibility (TAOR). The birth of this program had much humbler beginnings in 1965, when a few teams went into the villages only during daylight hours. However, it did not take long for the Marine Corps to realize that a certain amount of risk had to be assumed in order to gain access to the local population. “After the first week, the platoons ran both day and night activities, spending several nights a week in the villages” (Peterson, 1989, p. 25). The VSO program in Afghanistan also came with an inherent amount of risk, not only to the soldiers who ran these programs but also to the overall U.S. objective of transitioning civil authority to Afghans. However, this risk was weighed against the potential effects. “While reliance on local security forces entailed large risks of inflaming local conflicts, it also had the potential to yield large rewards. For Afghans, defending their village was often a matter of family honor, one to be assumed more willingly than the defense of the Afghan nation” (Moyar, 2014, p. 23).