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Civil Affairs Characteristics – Beyond “Common Sense”


By Colonel Donald “Tony” Vacha and Lieutenant Colonel Joshua K. Henry

Two decades ago, a common mantra in Civil Affairs (CA) described the branch as simply applying “common sense.” Throughout the next two decades, CA Soldiers practiced their craft globally in contexts of combat, counterinsurgency, capacity building, and competition. CA is more complex than that simplistic motto. To borrow another cliché, common sense is not always that common.


What characteristics describe a successful CA practitioner? How does the branch model its core values and inculcate new members? How do we assess and measure the ideal attributes of CA Officers and NCOs through counseling, development, training, and education? The Army accomplishes this socialization through the Army Values. While these values provide a guidepost for all Soldiers to model throughout their careers, the Army also requires subordinate organizations and branches to define their characteristics. The Army defines characteristics as the features or qualities “that mark an organization or function as distinctive or is representative of that organization or function.”[1] Defining the characteristics of Civil Affairs provides a foundation for developing a broader branch-wide narrative and associated microculture.   


Field Manual (FM) 3-57, Civil Affairs, currently lists the characteristics of CA as –


  • Governance Oriented.

  • Civil Component Focused.

  • Civil Network Engagement Focused.

  • Civil Knowledge Integration Focused.

  • Culturally Attuned.

  • Diplomatically Astute.[2]


Adding “oriented” or “focused” to existing doctrinal constructs does not define a characteristic. It is artificial and lacks the precision necessary to define what constitutes a branch characteristic or attribute. Further, referring to CA doctrinal ideas in defining what the branch brings to the table is circular and problematic for explanation and discussion anywhere outside of an internal context.


One segment of the branch conducts an assessment and selection of potential members to measure their aptitude for a career in CA. What are the characteristics used for this evaluation? Do they reflect the characteristics described in FM 3-57? The success of the branch in current and future operating environments requires deliberate consideration and debate on what constitutes the ideal characteristics of the branch, its units, and its members.


Defining the branch characteristics will assist in integrating new members into CA, including direct commissioned Officers and basic branch Lieutenants. The characteristics should describe norms for junior leaders that often work semi- if not completely autonomously in foreign countries. Three nominative revised characteristics for CA are cognitive empathy, moral courage, and intellectual curiosity. These three characteristics should replace the civil-component focused, civil network engagement focused, and civil knowledge integration focused characteristics currently in FM 3-57.




Empathy is a difficult concept in a martial culture. For an organization designed purposefully to destroy the Nation’s enemies, empathy does not always describe a military operation. A successful CA Soldier must exercise a clearly defined version of empathy. Gary Weaver described that the goal of intercultural training should “develop realistic cultural empathy.”[3] He defines this as “simply the ability to put oneself in another’s psychological and cultural shoes” to “understand the beliefs and worldviews of others.”[4] Louise Rasmussen and Winston Sieck in their book Save Your Ammo: Working Across Cultures for National Security describe practical scenarios and techniques related to the concept of cognitive empathy. One of their maxims is to “[t]ake another’s perspective by thinking about what they know, want, and feel.”[5]


Defining empathy for junior CA practitioners requires precision in the intent of why this attribute is necessary. The goal is to advance operational understanding of civilian societies and cultures to improve the effectiveness of military operations in pursuit of National Security ends. The second requirement is ensuring CA practitioners remain objective to the mission without sympathizing with the foreign audience or as Weaver describes it “does not mean “agreement with” people in another culture.”[6] The term cognitive empathy meets both requirements and distinguishes between emotive empathy.




Personal Courage is one of the Army’s values and includes moral courage. The Army describes that the latter as “[f]acing moral fear or adversity” which “may be a long, slow process of continuing forward on the right path, especially if taking those actions is not popular with others.”[7]  While moral courage is an imperative for all Soldiers, it is unique in a CA context due to the frequent interaction with the civil populace, the high degree of self-reliance within the field, and the significant latitude with which CA Soldiers often work..


CA derives from international legal requirements. The Army created CA as a force to ensure the United States met international legal requirements, including occupation, during World War II. CA Officers and Soldiers serve down to the maneuver battalion echelon as the only capability solely focused on foreign civilian populations. Other capabilities may look at civil considerations as a secondary or tertiary requirement but in combat Army formations become hyper-focused on the enemy. It is the role of the CA Officer and NCO to understand the interaction of combat operations and foreign civilian populations and advise commanders on measures to prevent or mitigate harm to both the U.S. operations and objectives, as well as civilians themselves.


CA Officers and NCOs must balance moral courage with military necessity and basic order and discipline. For example, if a CA Officer disagrees about the employment of CA capabilities in an operation, and the order is legal and moral, he or she must comply. Conversely, if an order or action is against the law of armed conflict in dealing with civilian non-combatants, it is mandatory for the CA Officer or NCO to protest and if necessary, seek redress. This is the embodiment of moral courage in the Army’s definition of Personal Courage.





“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” Albert Einstein


In modern psychology the Big-Five factors or dimensions of personality “provides a unified, comprehensive theoretical framework for comparing and accumulating empirical findings” related to personality and leadership research.[8] The elements of the Big-Five model include: Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience.[9]  One of the sub-factors of Openness to Experience is Ideas or intellectual curiosity.[10]


 Intellectual curiosity is not a modern concept. Aristotle and Cicero in the classical world understood the characteristic as essentially “an intense intrinsically motivated appetite for information.”[11]  The great psychologist and philosopher John Dewey recognized the power of ‘why?’ questions, even in young children. Dewey described these basic questions as the “germ of intellectually curiosity.”[12] Rasmussen and Sieck describe that in a cross-cultural competency context, asking ‘why’ questions, particularly about “weird behavior and puzzling interactions” can assist in differentiating cultural norms.[13] In addition to the benefits of curiosity listed above for the individual, this openness to ideas has also been identified as a catalyst for innovation and learning in a group or organizational setting, especially as it relates to the multi-disciplinary environments in which CA practitioners routinely find themselves.[14] 


Intellectual curiosity is a prerequisite for CA professionals. It is the basis for trying to understand the broader social and political environment and what factors impact the ability to further military objectives. Understanding a foreign culture requires developing and asking questions. Starting with “why?” questions enable CA professionals to develop critical, creative, and systems thinking, and apply these skills to enhance overall effectiveness at the individual, team, and unit-level.. 




The CA branch is adapting rapidly due to direct commissioning of Functional Specialists. Further, the branch is in the nascent stages of commissioning Second Lieutenants in Civil Affairs from R.O.T.C. and O.C.S. as basic branch Civil Affairs professionals. Rather than tacking “focused” or “oriented” on top of existing doctrinal concepts to describe the characteristics that define the branch, a branch-wide dialogue needs to occur to define genuine characteristics such as those proposed above. Building a foundation of the ideal characteristics a CA professional should develop and aspire to cultivate will help build a wider branch narrative, inculcate a cogent microculture, and assist in the on-boarding of these new Officers.  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect any official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, of any other U.S. government agency.

About the Authors:

COL Donald “Tony” Vacha recently completed a tour as the CA Planning Team Chief for U.S. Army Europe and Africa. In his CA career he served at every echelon from CA Team Chief to CACOM Deputy Commander. COL Vacha is also a Force Management Officer with service at both USACAPOC (A) and USARC. He served as a Doctrine Developer at the CA Proponent at USAJFKSWCS. During his tenure at USAJFKSWCS, he served as the lead planner and researcher for the development of the 38G career field and the Institute for Military Support to Governance.

LTC Joshua K. Henry is the Deputy G-3 for the 353d Civil Affairs Command, a command of over 4000 Soldiers providing regionally aligned Civil Affairs support and expertise to U.S. European Command and their subordinate Army Service Component Commands, and Psychological Operations support and expertise to Geographic Combatant Commanders and their Army Service Component Commands across the world. Serves as the senior full-time member of the Operations Team, ensures integration of operations with the rest of the staff, and synchronizes training and readiness activities across the 33 units within the 353d Civil Affairs Command.



[1] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Army Doctrine Publication 1-01, Doctrine Primer, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2019), 4-2.

[2] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2021), 1-9.

[3] Weaver, Gary R., Intercultural Relations: Communication, Identity, and Conflict, (Boston: Person Learning Solutions, 2014), 30.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rasmussen, Louise and Winston Sieck, Save Your Ammo: Working Across Cultures for National Security, (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Global Cognition, 2019), 176.

[6] Weaver, 31

[7] “The Army Values,”, U.S. Army, accessed April 16, 2024,

[8] De Hoogh, Annebel H.B., Deanne N. Den Hartog, and Paul L. Koopman, “Linking the Big-Five Factors of Personality to Charismatic and Transactional Leadership: Perceived Dynamic Work Environment as a Moderator,” Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 26, No 7 (Nov. 2005), 842, accessed April 4, 2024,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Von Stumm, Sophie, Benedikt Hell and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 6, No. 6, (NOVEMBER 2011), 577, accessed April 4, 2024,

[11] Ibid., 583

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rasmussen, 139.

[14] Ness, Ingunn Johanne, and Hanna Riese. “Openness, curiosity and respect: underlying conditions for developing innovative knowledge and ideas between disciplines,” Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 6 (2015): 29-30.


2 Kommentare

Free vote
Free vote
17. Mai

Shahid Saleem's review on the top three assignment writing services for 2024 provides insightful comparisons that are helpful for students seeking reliable academic support. His detailed analysis covers key aspects like quality, pricing, and customer satisfaction, making it easier to choose the best service: A must-read for anyone looking to make an informed decision in the crowded market of assignment help services. Great job, Shahid!

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Ryan McCannell
Ryan McCannell
05. Mai

Thanks gentlemen… your discussion of the traits and characteristics made me think of USAID’s Foreign Service Skills Matrix:

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