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The Pentagon Has a “Lethality” Problem… Could Civil Affairs Be the Solution?

National Guardsmen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on June 2, 2020

By Ryan McCannell

In today’s troubled world, it sure didn’t take long for “lethality” to lose its luster.

Like a mantra, the January 2018 National Defense Strategy invoked the word “lethality” or “lethal” sixteen times to describe a strategic shift in the U.S. military’s posture and attitude toward a world of rising great-power competition. At the time, the term symbolized a clean break from the seemingly endless stabilization efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and the return of a muscular and straightforward focus on warfighting. However attractive as a vision, lethality’s doctrinal, strategic, and policy implications were ambiguous at best. The term stems from readiness concepts at the individual soldier and unit level -- and more recently, as a buzzword to justify the U.S. Army’s post-sequestration modernization efforts, culminating in the creation of the Army Futures Command in July 2018.

Culturally, the term expresses a uniquely military worldview: to kill (or be capable of killing) the adversary more efficiently and effectively than they can kill us. That the word “lethality” might alienate civilians may have been part of the point all along. For example, the term distinguishes the primary purpose of the U.S. Armed Forces from those of other agencies, and by doing so, provides a sense of clarity about the unique definition of the military element of national power relative to diplomacy, information, economics, and so on. While civilian control of the military remains sacrosanct, civilian coordination with a force newly fixated on killing bad guys becomes more problematic. Stabilization becomes a back-burner issue, and ideally, somebody else’s problem.

Unfortunately, the term also unintentionally reduced the strategic relevance of many valued and varied non-lethal capabilities of the U.S. military, from threat reduction to humanitarian assistance to Civil Affairs. Indeed, the fixation on lethality has been the latest in a string of strategic shifts that provokes doctrinal and operational whiplash for many CA Soldiers and Marines. These changes have included the rapid downsizing of active-duty regular Army CA forces, followed by attempts to refocus CA doctrine around readiness, then modernization, and most recently, lethality, with the concepts rolling off the assembly line faster than the community has been able to absorb them. In this most recent phase, the CA proponent made the case for CA as an essential part of the land component commander’s playbook, while implicitly acknowledging that the regiment had a “problem” in aligning MOS 38’s unique skill set to an ill-defined strategic concept of lethality.

Fast forward to June 2020. Suddenly lethality is once again in common usage in America, but not in a doctrinal or strategic sense. A lethal global pandemic is killing hundreds of thousands and wrecking the world economy. The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has returned attention to the lethal use of force against people of color. In response to the ensuing unrest in many cities, several state governors have mobilized National Guard personnel to reduce lethal encounters among peaceful protesters, criminals, and the security forces charged with protecting the former and bringing the latter to justice.

In the midst of this mayhem, during a 31 May conference call among President Trump, his key advisors, and the nation’s governors, Defense Secretary Mike Esper urged officials to “mass and dominate the battlespace,” referring by implication to the streets and downtowns of American cities experiencing unrest. On the following day, in a speech at the White House, the president stated he was prepared to mobilize active-duty troops with or without the consent of local officials. Secretary Esper requested National Guard troops from several states to travel and deploy to the nation’s capital, reportedly catching the city’s mayor by surprise.

In the following days, residents of Washington, DC have portrayed their city as being under military occupation, and the news media has captured ominous, Star Wars First Order-like photos of uniformed military police on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, under the headline: “Will They Protect Us, or Will They Shoot Us?”

Histrionics aside, with these actions and attitudes, the U.S. military suddenly finds at risk of being drawn into the acerbic politics of our time, threatening to widen the troubling military-civilian gap in U.S. society. Given the way current events seem to resemble aspects of the political upheaval of the 1960s, Pentagon leaders must choose carefully how to proceed.

One choice is obvious. In the wake of this horrible year, it’s time to ditch lethality as our strategic bumper sticker.

In this fraught historical moment, the fixation with killing bad guys faster is no longer appropriate as an encapsulation for America’s ambition in the national security realm. Instead, the Department of Defense requires a strategic outlook more closely aligned with the protection and advancement of core American values, returning combat arms to its proper place as a means to an end, rather than a vague statement of military prowess for its own sake.

The Civil Affairs community has a real opportunity to engage in this strategic conversation right here, right now, because of the soul-searching all Americans are doing about the society we want to emerge from this cascading set of challenges. Using its finesse in civil-military relations and its ties to local communities through its vast Army and Marine Reserve formations, Civil Affairs has the training and orientation required to assess the evolving domestic operational environment in ways few other capabilities can. Drawing from its strengths, it can help identify and exploit opportunities for projecting an updated vision of American power that creates a different approach to competition – one based less on lethality and more on competence, trust, and decency, grounded in morality and the rule of law.

In the remaining decades of this century, the struggle for dominance in world affairs comes down to the same question Civil Affairs teams face during deployment – the same one our National Guard colleagues face now in the smoky streets across America. When the crunch comes, will the population run toward us for protection, or away from us in fear?

It is the urgent question of our time. But now, killing our way to victory no longer seems like such an easy answer, given the immense and complex challenges we face as a nation and world.

About the Author

Ryan McCannell served as a faculty instructor at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Civil Affairs Association board of directors and resides in Arlington, Virginia.

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


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Matt Peterson
Matt Peterson
Jun 05, 2020

Great piece


Sean Acosta
Sean Acosta
Jun 05, 2020

Ryan, well done. Great article.


Arnel David
Arnel David
Jun 04, 2020

What a fantastic and timely piece. This made my day :)

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