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 si