August 4, 2012

The Civil-Military Cultural Divide

This item, Thought Cloud, by Rosa Brooks in Foreign Policy, is a very good read. She addresses the problems arising from the inherent differences in culture between the military and civilian communities especially at the national level and between policy-oriented folks and those having experiencing actually making things happen 'on the ground.' I have had similar experiences to the examples given by Brooks.

While serving with the 26th MEU(SOC)--a deployed Marine Corps unit with various 'special operations capabilities'--we were dispatched to the west coast of Africa to prepare for the possible evacuation of Americans from then-Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). At that time the country was mired in civil war and US officials were concerned for the safety of Americans in the capital city of Kinshasa. The US military commander responsible for US military operations in that part of the world was well aware he might be called upon to dispatch forces to effect such an evacuation; the U.S. State Department was similarly aware. Both also knew that such military operations are expensive. By law, if the State Department requests an evacuation it has to pay for the operation hence it has every incentive to wait until the last possible minute to do so. The military, knowing the challenges and limitations imposed by space and time to actually execute such an operations knows that the more time it has to properly position, the more quickly and effectively it can save American lives. But if the military moves to prepare before being asked, it has to bear the cost alone. What to do...what to do...

While assigned to US Central Command headquarters just after Sept 11 as an 'operational planner' to augment efforts to plan and execute the operation into Afghanistan, I routinely saw in those early days the frictions between civilian and military communities, the differing expectations of those involved, and the legal restrictions that prevented (or made very difficult) many on-the-ground options that were not only desired, but also necessary. Everyone is now familiar with the pictures of US special forces riding horses alongside allies in operations against the Taliban. What folks aren't usually aware of are the difficulties to pull-off such an operation and sustain it over time. How to get saddles, ammunition, batteries, and goods used for barter or to gain favor with the locals? Aircraft have to fly through the airspace of many countries. US law places very tight restrictions on use of various monies to buy things for certain uses. For example, is it legal for a military command using taxpayer dollars given to it for the military operations of US units to purchase non-military supplies (especially from a foreign source) to give to a foreign force especially when that 'force' isn't operating under the authorities of a recognized government? It takes time and extraordinary coordination to work these things out.

Lastly, after I retired from the Corps, I was involved in a series of meetings conducted by a working group at the Department of Homeland Security Headquarters chartered to think through response options to various calamities that might befall our country. The person leading the discussions had NO military experience...or really any relevant experience, but there we were. At the close of one session that had focused on a notional biological event he offhandedly said, "at our next meeting we might look at a nuclear event or something like that." Those of us with military experience and who had been involved in related discussions in other venues were shocked that such a complex and involved scenario would be tossed out so if we were doing to discuss ideas for a high-school reunion. He simply had no idea what he was wanting to wade into. Other examples abound.

As Brooks points out, the civilian-policy side has ideas about what they would like to see happen, especially in terms of 'the world after' an event. The military-operational automatically jumps to 'how would we actually do this on the ground and what is the specific outcome you are looking for' types of questions, knowing from experience that getting people and equipment to a place on the globe is hard and once there a whole host of questions and situations arise from "who am I actually working for and with?" to "under what circumstances should I be prepared to kill someone?" The cultural gap between the civilian and military communities is very wide indeed. It is also quite wide between the general public and political communities and their expectations for what is possible and the military's experience for what you can actually do and how doing anything is actually quite difficult.

To close with Clausewitz: "Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult."

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