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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).

Photo of Civil Affairs conducting Village Stability Operations in Afghanistan

Forming Legitimate Relationships

The military has always relied on transactional management. These “if-then” scenarios drive promotions, assignments, and ultimately operations. However, an ostensibly transactional military civic action program does not lend itself to success. The Army learned this in Vietnam and changed its approach. “In late 1967 personnel changes on the G-5 staff permitted adoption of a new policy that eliminated the quid pro quo—the Americans would no longer demand information about the enemy in return for assistance they gave the Montagnards” (Kirkland, 2000, p. 550). Ironically, this shift in approach led to greater returns on investments, as illustrated by the following. “No one had expected that Montagnards would switch from neutrality to participation in the war on the American side” (Kirkland, 2000, p. 556). The benefits of legitimacy were also noticed in the VSO programs. “With those feelings of trust and confidence, VSP [Village Stability Platform] objectives became more palatable to local citizens…the VSP began receiving daily reports of insurgent activities by the locals…identification of IEDs by local citizens increased by 20 percent” (Young, 2011, p. 20).

The Cost of Failure

The tactical successes of military civic action in Vietnam and Afghanistan speak to the dichotomy of success and failure, the failure being largely strategic. Despite changes to the formerly quid pro quo execution of civic action programs in Vietnam, the strategic policy behind these programs was always one of a means to an end. When the Army directed its efforts elsewhere in Vietnam, the reversal of any gains made in the central highlands by the 4th ID was immediate. By 1972, the former 4th ID area of operations was a large concentration camp for the Montagnards, run by the South Vietnamese. Over time, this pattern leads to increased difficulties for similar programs in the future. Difficulties with the VSO programs could often be distilled down to deep-seated distrust. “The residents would remind us of their suspicions that the Americans would abandon them after the coalition forces grew weary of the war. According to the elders, the mujahedeen were betrayed by the Americans after the Soviet War in Afghanistan” (Young, 2000, p. 19). The vicious cycle of tactical success not supported by strategic policy, which leads to the decreased probability of the success of future military civic action, is kept running by institutional barriers to real effectiveness.

Misuse and Miscalculations

The difficulties with military civic action overseas stem from larger military and cultural political issues back home. The gap between the military and the civilian population of the United States has grown wider. “A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are much more of them that serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty…)” (Ebenhack, 2015, p. 74). Reverence towards the military has always been a part of American culture; however, it has also served as a shroud placed over systemic military and political leadership issues. This is in sharp contrast to Eisenhower’s parting words as president regarding the dangers associated with the military becoming an unchecked political power. The military has also failed in its responsibility to be the honest broker with politicians, a departure from General Marshall’s tenuous albeit straightforward relationship with President Roosevelt. Senior military officers view dissent while in uniform as career suicide. The phrase “revolt of the generals” is liberally applied to describe a group of retired generals that publically disagreed with then Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s Iraq policy. A reasonable person could argue that the word revolt would be more appropriate if these generals had assumed this risk while still in uniform. The breakdown of the civil-military discourse has lent itself to a “results now” approach to military operations, which has removed the incentive for military leaders to assume and manage risk associated with military civic action.

Officer Management

The political nature of limited warfare has contributed to the politicization of how the military manages its officers. Relief for cause was a common practice in WWII. General Marshall removed over 600 officers for ineffectiveness prior to the onset of WWII. This number spanned the entire breadth of the officer corps. Conversely, just five years after the end of WWII, General Ridgway met political resistance to his decision to remove senior leaders in the Korean War. “Ridgway’s first firing of a general set off alarms at the Pentagon. Soon a senior general was cabling him that ‘what has the appearance of wholesale relief of senior commanders…may well result in congressional investigation’” (Ricks, 2012, p. 96). The acceptance of officer mediocrity has compounded in the modern age. It is a part of the system, and the phrase “too big to fail” is a common justification given to explain an uninspired army. “The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps. Defeat in Vietnam bred a generation of military reformers…Today, the landscape is barren. Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive change. Just more money, please” (Fallows, 2015, p. 78). The link between officer stagnation and the strategic failure of military civic action is undeniable. Senior leaders in Vietnam were unwilling to think adaptively, and this only grew as the war drew on. The transition from a WWII strategy of “the road home goes through Berlin” to the perimeter defense of Vietnam and later wars is the tactical result of unimaginative and unmotivated leadership. “The U.S. Army in 1967 had evolved into an authoritarian and anti-intellectual culture. It focused on appearances rather than substance and was ill-prepared to engage in adaptive or creative behavior” (Kirkland, 2000, p. 549).

Dichotomy between Tactical Success and Strategic Patience

The disparity between the tactical success of military civic action in Vietnam and the strategic impatience over the program eventually led to its demise. “Commanders did not welcome the civic action mission…While commanders were exasperated by the additional mission, the soldiers had a different perspective” (Kirkland, 2000, p. 550). It is hard to quantify the denial of territory and resources to the enemy; it is easier to quantify the number of bombs dropped or enemies killed. The drive towards quantifiable and observable results does not align with a “by, with, and through” approach common to military civic action. The VSO program was observed to have the same unpredictable and ambiguous measures of success, which made senior military leaders uncomfortable. “VSO do not lend themselves to a template. Every location is unique, and the phases cannot be pinned to a calendar” (Young, 2011, p. 21). Similar to the 4th ID in Vietnam, the localized successes of the VSO programs eventually gave way to the changing nature of the conventional fight. “The closure of conventional-force bases that had provided medical evacuation, fire support, and other critical combat enablers to SOF had led U.S. policymakers to withdraw SOF from neighboring areas to limit risk” (Moyar, 2014, p. 57).

The nature of warfare will continue to change rapidly, despite the military’s best efforts to standardize its approach to conflict. An unwillingness to work in ambiguity, compounded by the degradation of civil-military discourse, will continue to sap vital resources from an institution that is competing for influence in the twenty-first century. The narrative through which modern conflict is ultimately interpreted is already being written. It remains to be seen whether the United States will be the author of, or a footnote to, the annals of twenty-first century military history. The contest of wills now extends across the spectrum of conflict between peace and total war to present unique challenges and obstacles. Civil Affairs Operations and effective engagement must become the primary weapon system to win these Gray Wars that threaten to drain our nation's resources and legitimacy across the world.


References (Cited)

Fallows, J. (2015). The Tragedy of the American Military. Atlantic, 315(1), 72.

Kirkland, F. R. (2000, Summer2000). Cultural Dynamics of Civic Action in the Central

Highlands of Vietnam, 1967-1968. Armed Forces & Society (0095327X). pp. 547-560.

Moyar, Mark. (2014). Village Stability Operations and the Afghan Local Police. Joint

Special Operations University, Report 14-7, p. 1-94.

Oehrig, Cristen. (2009). Civil Affairs in World War II. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1-12.

Peterson, M. E. (1989). The Combined Action Platoons : The U.S. Marines' Other War in Vietnam. New York: Praeger.

Ricks, T. E. (2012). What Ever Happened to Accountability?. Harvard Business Review, 90(10), 93-100.

Young, Neiman. (2011). 4th and Long: The Role of Civil Affairs in VSO. Special Warfare Magazine, July-September 2011, 17-21.

References (Not Cited)

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About the Authors:

CPT Erik H. Bernard has 13 years of military service to include deployments as a Ranger Qualified Paratrooper and Apache Helicopter Pilot with over 1500hrs combat hours of aviation support to special operations and conventional forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has spent the last three years in Civil Affairs and recently led successful Civil Affairs Operations in support of Pacific Partnership 2015 and the Washington State Partnership Program. He has a B.A. in Business Administration from Colorado Technical University and a M.A. in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University.

Captain Michael Karlson has served in the Army for over 12 years, as an enlisted Infantryman, and a Comissioned Logistics Officer in the 82nd Airborne Division, prior to Civil Affairs. He graduated from the CA Qualification Course in 2014, and served in the 84th Civil Affairs Battalion as a Deputy CMOC Chief and most recently as a CA Team Leader. He holds a BA in Psychology from Virginia Military Institute, and an MA in Organizational Leadership from Brandman University.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government or the Civil Affairs Association.

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