Complex Civil-Military Operations: A U. S. Military-Centric Perspective

By Gentry, John A. | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Complex Civil-Military Operations: A U. S. Military-Centric Perspective


Gentry, John A., Naval War College Review


U.S. military forces long have conducted operations having objectives other than, or in addition to, combat. In 1996, the Congressional Research Service counted over 250 foreign deployments of U.S. troops since 1798 but only five declared wars.1 The United States sent a significant number of military personnel to Somalia in 1992-93 to feed starving people, then in 1993-94 to help "build the nation" of Somalia. The 1994 deployment to Haiti ostensibly was undertaken to "restore democracy" by returning President Jean-Baptiste Aristide to power. Operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1995 have aimed at keeping the peace and returning Bosnia to its momentary status as a unified, multiethnic country. The 1999 deployment to Kosovo had a similarly lofty moral objective.

The military aspects of such complex national endeavors have been labeled, somewhat inadequately, as "low-intensity conflicts" or "military operations other than war."2 Such operations have significant civil-military components. That is, in these operations armed forces have objectives or employ means that directly involve local civilians and civil institutions, including governments. In such cases American military personnel typically work closely with civilian employees of other U.S. government agencies, international organizations (including foreign-aid agencies of other governments and components of the United Nations), and nongovernmental organizations. Virtually by definition, the participation of such a variety of groups makes these operations complex.

The U.S. armed forces collectively and many members of the American electorate are clearly uncomfortable with some of these roles. This discomfort stems partly from such unpleasant transformations as the descent of "nation building" in Somalia into the dragging of dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu, and of the reconstitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina into a complicated, seemingly open-ended mission with little prospect of success. Many Americans, including military personnel, are uneasy (and ignorant) about these undertakings, question whether they are indeed military missions, are insecure about the ability of the military to perform them, and worry that such apparently nonmilitary missions detract from real military tasks. There is good reason for some of the concern. U.S. military forces have not performed well in such operations in recent years. The root cause of the problem is a mismatch between the demands of such operations-U.S. national objectives and the situations themselves-and the organization, doctrine, and even culture of the U.S. units assigned to perform them. The purpose of this paper is to identify some of the strengths and limitations of U.S. forces in complex civil-military operations and to suggest ways to improve their performance.

Poor understanding of the essential elements of civil-military operations-compounded by lack of a common terminology-result in inability to relate them to overall national objectives. Even within the special-operations community, including its civil-affairs personnel, there is debate about the meaning of such basic terms as "civil affairs" and "civil-military operations." This confusion is exacerbated when concepts are communicated across institutional and cultural lines. Civilian and foreign military organizations differ from the U.S. military, and from each other, in cultural norms and in perceptions and expectations of, and goals for, relationships between military units and civil institutions-which, broadly defined, include religious, social, and labor organizations. Recent descriptions of humanitarian-relief and peacekeeping missions have inadvertently made matters worse by using different terms for similar concepts and inappropriately generalizing from specific operations.

Many commentators have argued that the American military of the Cold War era, which the United States largely retains, is not well suited to complex civil-military (or "complex contingency") operations.

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