Embrace an Iconoclastic Outlook

Updated: May 31, 2020

By John Langdon

Civil Affairs Battalion commander, assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), speaks to his Soldiers during a transfer of authority ceremony at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, July 9, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

I graduated from the Civil Affairs Qualification Course (CAQC), in late 2008, and reflected on how little I understood of the significance of my newly chosen profession. I came from the infantry that was simple to understand, yet it was also why I chose to leave. In my time in SOF Civil Affairs, I have been shaped from experiences ranging from the mountains of Afghanistan, country team meetings in an embassy, to the streets of the US capital. In every one of my several CA deployments, I faced novel challenges that required adaptive thinking, perseverance, and, most of all, humility.

The Civil Affairs profession is truly an art form, one that is grounded in a litany of scholarly research and theory. However, the greatest threat resides in the institutions and the branch itself. The nature of the threat is not due to a particular personality or mundane management policy but to the DOD's greater culture. We are asked to thrive and act in ambiguity in a complex environment with wicked problems. Yet, we are provided tools and education to solve simple problems with a dichotomous mindset defined by a clear enemy and achievable goals.

Civil Affairs practitioners are all indoctrinated by the Army from all backgrounds. This indoctrination is very valuable for Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO) with a force characterized by young and junior soldiers focused on winning on the battlefield. Rigid rank structure and tradition is tantamount to ensure a professional fighting force. However, these same strengths are a weakness to Civil Affairs Teams (CAT) working in the complexity associated with the civil environment. That rigidity associated with the DOD stifles dissenting opinions, humility, and independence. It is incumbent on tactical Civil Affairs elements to encourage professionalism free from harmful traditions. The following are some points I find effective.

Iconoclast - one who criticizes or opposes widely accepted beliefs, practices, and tradition.

First Names

A healthy Civil Affairs company is comfortable using first names. Professionals respect authority and competence without the need to designate that distinction with a symbol on a chest. I developed this philosophy as an Infantryman with back to back Iraq deployments, “If rank is required to compel action among subordinates, then you are no leader at all.” This is the first iconoclastic step to foster an environment that encourages free dialog. The customs and courtesies useful for a junior force will inevitably encourage muted voices. The most junior soldier on a SOF CAT is a SSG. The army has already instilled a respect for authority through years of rigid structure. However, as a CA team member, they must prove their competence to civil authorities or the interagency despite military rank.

Another aspect is psychological. In a CAT, all members need to contribute and understand the mission. This task is counter-culture to NCO professional development in the broader military. NCOs are taught to act more and think less, this is evident through the rote memorization in NCOES, boards, and enlisted specific training. Critical thinking, reading, and writing about strategic security matters and theory are placed squarely in the “officers lane". An image and persona develop, further propagated by their peers to worry only about “NCO business.” I liken this sociological detractor to the “Stanford Prison Experiment.”[1][2] NCOs fall victim to their subculture, and in turn are the “prisoners.” I posit that a first step to freeing unnecessary cultural baggage is to treat the junior SSG like a lieutenant. Provide the humanizing respect of the first name, and give responsibility and guidance rather than assigning tasks.


Humility is the most valued trait for any leader. When I think back on my 20-year career, the leaders that stick out in my mind were approachable, encouraged questions, admitted when they were wrong, and respected everyone in the organization equally. In Civil Affairs, arrogance will significantly stifle team dynamics and, in turn, mission success. The best teams learn together. Every deployment presents new problems and concepts. It takes humility to reveal a teammate's knowledge gap, but it is essential for growth. More important is learning from subordinates. A profession focused on achieving objectives in a complex environment requires an ever-questioning mind that necessitates breaking down barriers to free thought, typical of institutionalized caste structures.


Empathy is an attribute that grows from humility. The previous two points focused inward on team dynamics; empathy is an attribute that is inherently outward. In every situation, from combat operations to a country team meeting, empathy is required to understand the perspective of partners and foes alike. Empathy reminds CA practitioners that everyone is a rational actor. As a rational actor, what drives them? Humility, to understand there is more unknown than known, coupled with the ability to empathize with a differing viewpoint, will take a team far on deployment. Empathy does not mean agreement, just understanding. That understanding is something that can be leveraged against an adversary or used to strengthen partnerships.

Know the Basics

Military commanders will always seek quantifiable results from every action. It is the nature of the institution. With this in mind, the branch will always find new and innovative ways to display metrics. The various analytical tools and tactical concepts are useful. However, it is easy to lose track of the basics in the ocean of new and flashy objects and ideas. Commanders come and go, and so do their interpretations of Civil Affairs’ identity and utility. Stay focused on the core, in doctrine; from there, constantly seek more knowledge. Gain expertise in the field, firmly rooted in contemporary concepts and theory. The civil domain is infinitely complex, find an aspect, and specialize. Once a foundation of knowledge is gained, challenge doctrine, and develop a defense.

“The most damaging phrase in the language is 'We've always done it this way'.” –Rear Admiral Grace Hopper[3]

Take an Iconoclastic Stance

I charge those in the field to always question and challenge concepts, new and old. Ask “why.” It is one of the few professions in the military where a dissenting voice should be encouraged. Take an iconoclastic stance. Concepts and theories in the civil domain are perpetually changing. Ideas should be defended and argued to ensure the best possible course of action. Creating a culture of open discussion prepares Civil Affairs Soldiers for the inevitable debate around a table of interagency partners or in a circle of elders. Encourage competence through open dialog, and discourage those who use their rank to shield a tough discussion.


These points are brief, and they are my own. The motivation for writing this piece is derived from my many years devoted to the Civil Affairs profession. The above is the culture I want preserved for future CA practitioners. If the concepts seem foreign, then maybe time has already eroded some of those key aspects of CA culture. I found success and fulfillment in the freedom allowed to me as an NCO in civil affairs. NCOs and officers come from different subcultures; it is on the practitioners to level the field. NCOs, always endeavor to be interchangeable with your officer in operational understanding, never let yourself be relegated to “bean counting.” Officers, provide space and opportunity for your NCOs to develop and grow. Challenge tradition and dogma, be an iconoclast.

End Notes

[1] Brady, F.N., Logsdon, J.M. Zimbardo's “Stanford Prison Experiment” and the relevance of social psychology for teaching business ethics. J Bus Ethics 7, 703–710 (1988). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00382981 [2] Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P . G. (1973) A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4-17.

[3] Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper in an interview in Information Week, March 9, 1987, p. 52

The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.

About the Author

John Langdon is an active duty Civil Affairs NCO in the United States Army. He is currently an Operations Sergeant for the 97th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne). He has served 11 years in the 95th Civil Affairs BDE with 6 CA deployments, not including numerous short trips. Prior to Civil Affairs, John Langdon served as an Infantryman with 2 years deployed in Baghdad, to include participation in the 2003 Iraq invasion. John Langdon’s education includes a BA in Criminal Justice, a MA in Strategic Security Studies, and is currently enrolled in an MBA program.


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