War Games: Civil-Military Relations, c. 2030

T he year is 2030 and four leaders—two military, two civilian—sit around a table at the White House or the Pentagon, perhaps, or at a military headquarters or embassy halfway around the world. One is an Army general, an infantryman by trade, who has spent his entire thirty-year-plus career rotating to and from the war zones of what was once called the Global War on Terror and then changed during the Obama administration to the more anodyne Overseas Contingency Operations. The second is an Air Force general, a former fighter pilot who has spent his recent years focusing on more conventional threats, among them how to deal with rogue states via airpower. The third is a Foreign Service officer who has spent much of his career engrossed in the political and economic side of irregular warfare, sometimes embedded with the military, other times manning a remote diplomatic outpost in some hostile precinct. The fourth is a more traditional political appointee: well educated and well connected, he has spent most of his career outside government, but very much inside the Washington world of policy debates.

The participants in this hypothetical meeting exemplify four very different types of leaders, who, if current trends continue, will all be coming to prominence and power by 2030. All come to the table with institutional biases; all boast strong, Type A personalities. None of them come from the same background; none of them speak the same language.

Part of the baggage they will bring to this meeting is a complex history of civil-military relations during the post–September 11 era. Most professional Army officers of the Vietnam era served one, two, and maybe even three tours in Southeast Asia. After that war, however, the Vietnam generation of Army officers spent the latter half of the 1970s and 1980s trying to rebuild and reorient their service, but not engaged in combat operations. When they reached general officer rank, the Vietnam-era officers then found themselves sitting across the table from civilians who probably had avoided the draft, if not actively protested the war. The emotional scars of a conflict that had taken place decades earlier, therefore, were part of their relationship.

Today’s member of the ground forces will spend, if current trends hold true, an even greater percentage of his time in combat than did officers of the Vietnam generation. By the time he gets to the table where strategic decisions are hashed out, his war will still be fresh in memory or on the front pages, not distant history. And unlike his predecessors, he will not be sitting opposite a civilian who actively opposed his war. The challenge of this hypothetical meeting will be based not necessarily on inherent hostility between the warrior and civilian, but rather on whether the warrior and the civilian can comprehend each other.

If the Vietnam generation had to wrestle with a dichotomy—those who served versus those who did not—the current generation will have to grapple with a four-sided debate. With the growing presence of civilians on battlefields, there will be significant numbers of “civilian-warriors,” some with as much time in combat zones as their military counterparts. Simultaneously, there will be a certain percentage of military officers—especially those who do not belong to the ground or special operations communities—who will spend their careers focusing on different, more conventional challenges. True, air and naval forces will deploy to combat zones, but they will be less likely to engage in air or naval combat. It is conceivable, then, that a situation may arise in which an Army officer of 2030 might have more shared experience with a Foreign Service officer than with his Air Force or Navy counterpart. As a result, the traditional competition of “civilian versus warrior” will be replaced by a series of new relationships and alliances. There are a variety of ways these could play out, not all of them predictable. What is certain is that the potential for friction and disagreement at the decisionmaking table will multiply several-fold.


W hat will be the profile of general officers in 2030? They likely will have joined the Army or the Marine Corps in the period around the September 11 attacks, which means they will have grown up in services at war. Even after the Obama administration’s promised troop drawdowns in Iraq have taken effect, this officer’s formative years—as platoon leader, company commander, and junior field-grade officer—will likely have been spent fighting counterinsurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and wherever else U.S. forces have deployed to fight terrorism. They will be battle-hardened and somewhat removed from society, having spent six, seven, maybe eight years in combat and the intervening years recovering from one engagement and preparing for the next. They likely will be set in their ways, with a confidence born of leading troops time and time again. They will know what they know. They will be difficult for their civilian bosses to manage, to lead, to understand.

At the same time, there will be a second class of flag officers. Coming particularly from the ranks of the Air Force and the Navy, they will have spent most of their time outside Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war zones. They might have spent a shore rotation or two augmenting the upper-echelon staffs or flying to and from different battlefields. Given a continuing shortfall in land forces, they may have experience working on provincial reconstruction teams or as advisory staff with coalition partners. Ultimately, they have a very different exposure to irregular warfare than their ground counterparts, if for no other reason than that there are far fewer two-way air or naval engagements in asymmetrical conflict. Moreover, their careers likely will be determined by what they do in the air and on the sea, not by their relatively brief experience on the ground. This time will have focused on combating more or less conventional threats—Iran, North Korea, perhaps even China or Russia. Ultimately, assuming that the United States does not become embroiled in a large-scale, conventional conflict at any point in the next twenty years, they may not have the same prolonged combat exposure—with all the warping and hardening effects that the experience implies—as their ground officer counterparts.

And what about the civilians these military elites will face across the table in 2030? They likely will have gone to elite universities for undergraduate and professional degrees. Neither they nor any member of their immediate family will have served in the military. Instead, they will opt for careers in law firms, businesses, think tanks, and academe, interrupted by occasional stints in public service, an experience likely shaped by the mandates of partisan politics. During these interludes of government service, our civilian leaders may have visited war zones, but always under the watchful eye of military escorts. They will meet military men and women during these periods—perhaps even befriending a few here and there—whom they will regard with a mixture of curiosity, admiration, and, at times, frustration. They will look on the generals across the table from them in 2030 with a degree of puzzlement, if not actual mistrust, as inhabitants of a world they really do not know.

There also, however, will be “civilian-warriors.” In many ways, this group is the most inscrutable but also the most interesting to study. One subset will be the relatively traditional category of the retired soldier turned statesman—think George Marshall, Colin Powell, or Jim Jones—civilians in dress but still military men at heart. A second class of civilian-warriors will come from the ranks of other government agencies—spanning every field from agriculture to law enforcement—that increasingly find themselves on the modern battlefield. Like their military counterparts, they will be products of their respective bureaucracies’ idiosyncrasies, but different from those of the military. Still a third group will come from entities outside of government, from nonprofit development groups to the ever-expanding ranks of corporate contracting. Some will have served in war zones embedded in the military hierarchy, but many will have fought their own wars semi-independent of the government-led effort. And last but not least, there is a growing core of professional civilian advisers to military commands. Drawn from the ranks of think tanks and academe, today they may be seen at multiple echelons of command on the modern battlefield, serving in a variety of roles as members of Human Terrain Teams and strategic planning staffs. In this sense, this latter category may serve as the natural bridge between the political and military worlds. Ultimately, civilian-warriors may spend as much—if not more—time at war than some of their uniformed counterparts.


W hen our generals meet our civilians in 2030, it will be a novel experience for all. The gap between the military and the socially elite classes will have grown even greater than it is today. With the rise of a professional military, fewer people serve and those who do tend to come from military families. (If I had a nickel for every time I was asked, “You went to Harvard, so why are you here?” over my four and a half years of active duty service and two tours in Iraq, I would be a very wealthy man.) And with the addition of extended periods of time in combat, this divide is only going to widen.

So what will the four talk about when they finally come face to face? They will discuss topics like weapons acquisitions, force structure changes, and military strategy, but they also may find themselves moving into the “Viceroy Sphere”—that of politics, economics, and governance. Our traditional political appointee and, to a lesser extent, the civilian-warrior will likely be somewhat more comfortable in the latter than the former sphere (much as they are today), but be able to discuss both intelligently. Perhaps more importantly, unlike in previous eras, our Army general of 2030 will be as much at home discussing governance as weapons systems, having wrestled with the issues since his days as a junior officer coaching some small village in Afghanistan or supervising a district meeting in Iraq.

No matter the topic, our civilians and flag officers will approach the issues with certain biases. For his part, the ground force general will be “conventionally unconventional,” comfortable with a range of “outside the box” options he and his fellow officers have developed and employed over the years. He will be well read in military history and counterinsurgency theory and may have advanced degrees, although it is equally possible that he will have opted out of broadening educational experiences in favor of more time “on the line” and a fast track to promotion. He will be media-aware—used to escorting American and local journalists around battlefields—but not necessarily media-savvy. He will be accustomed to manipulating foreign media to serve his tactical ends, but not used to being criticized. Above all, he will be used to getting his way.

Whether or not he does, of course, will depend on the other three members at the table. Our traditional political appointee has the weakest hand to play. He likely will be more intellectually supple than our general officer, accustomed to the more flexible norms of the university, the think tank, or even the American corporation. More than any other member of our quartet of leaders, he will know how Washington works: how policy is developed, decided, and implemented. Almost as important, he will be comfortable dealing with politicians.

Depending on the popularity of the administration in power at the time (and, more particularly, the commander in chief), there will be a tremendous temptation for our civilian to kowtow to the man in uniform. Yet he might also turn to our non–ground forces flag officer for support. This Air Force general, or perhaps Navy admiral, will be as conservative and as conventional, if not more so, as the Army general. He will be worried about a separate set of threats, with an eye to states rather than non-state actors. He likely will have a wealth of operational experience and time in command. He will need allies, though: without major air wars or naval engagements to thrust him into the limelight, he will not have the same star power, bully pulpit, or, ultimately, political leverage as his ground forces counterpart. After all, his mission will be successful if he deters rather than engages in war. Ultimately, this might result in a marriage of convenience between him and our political appointee: an exchange of military clout for political leverage in common cause of constraining decorated ground-pounders.

Enter our civilian-warrior. Sharing many of the traits and the experiences of our ground forces general, he may in some ways be his natural ally. It is not inconceivable that their careers paths may have crossed on some remote battlefield. As much as the two may share certain experiences, however, our civilian-warrior will bring his own institutional biases to the table—be they from the diplomatic, intelligence, or nongovernmental-agency arenas. As a result of his own “combat” experiences, he likely will be equally as set in his positions—on everything from procurement to politics—as his military counterparts. He will be as assertive at the table as our ground forces general.

Ultimately, there are any number of alternative ways the balance of power between these four actors might play out. The military duo may unite behind the common fraternity of officers; the military may join with the civilian-warrior against the politico; the civilian-warrior may join with the Air Force or Navy officer in order to balance the natural clout of those fighting the ground war; one actor might dominate the rest simply by force of personality. Or they all might agree.


H ow might this hypothetical conversation develop in the event of war? The debate largely will depend on the individual personalities at the table, how the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have turned out and, of course, the type of war they face twenty years from now. Should the United States have to assist a counterinsurgency effort in a small, landlocked country in central Asia, for example, our ground forces general and our civilian warrior may take the lead. Conversely, in a conventional conflict dominated by air and naval power—perhaps with China over Taiwan—our Air Force or Navy flag officer, now in his element, may take center stage. Perhaps the more interesting case is a hybrid of the two—a mixture of low- and high-intensity conflict, particularly if it occurs outside the traditional turf of the current war on terror and, consequently, outside the realm of expertise of any single member of the quartet.

Let us imagine the following possibility: In 2030, a Hugo Chávez–style Venezuela, wanting to assert its regional power and profiting from illicit narcotics payoffs, begins overt military action in support of FARC, threatening the stability of our allies and risking second- and third-order effects for the “war on drugs” on U.S. soil. Let us further imagine that diplomatic efforts have been deadlocked and economic sanctions have been met with the regime cutting off American oil supplies, prompting massive oil shocks at home.

How then might our quartet approach this imaginary scenario? Our land forces general and civilian-warrior might focus on the counterinsurgency aspect of the problem, pushing to defeat FARC first, not to mention any other insurgencies that might arise from unseating the former regime. Our air or naval officer might view this scenario in more conventional terms—as another “rogue regime” that has overstepped its boundaries and needs to be dealt with as such. Finally, our politico might emphasize the political dimension of such a conflict—both for politics at home and U.S. standing abroad. No one view is correct per se: each member of our quartet is merely viewing the scenario through the lens of his own experience.

We can expect both of our military men, true to form, to be wary about potentially “messy” wars—even more so if today’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are seen two decades from now as outright defeats or bloody stalemates. If the use of force becomes inevitable, our Navy admiral or Air Force general, seeing a role for his respective service, might push for limited air or missile strikes to pressure the “rogue regime” as an alternative to all-out war, particularly if such a conflict occurs well within range of land- and naval-based American airpower. Our ground general, by contrast, wary of the efficacy of strikes, would argue that limited fusillades would only provoke an anti-American backlash in the population, without effecting any real change. In contrast, he might try to focus our response on a counternarcotics and counterinsurgency effort that he would argue is a more productive use of resources, albeit a potentially messier one. For his part, our traditional civilian appointee, more attuned to political feasibilities, might side with Air Force or Navy flag officers, arguing that air and missile strikes demonstrate American resolve without risking all-out war. Potentially the most bellicose of the quartet, our civilian-warrior, with a war record to stave off accusations of being a “chicken hawk,” may be the most willing to commit to the use of force, and like our ground forces general, would likely be leery of fighting a war of half measures, instead pushing for more decisive action.

Assuming the president decides to overthrow the regime, the next set of decisions would determine how to fight the conventional war. Here, the friction between our two types of military officers may come to a head. On the one hand, the more conventionally minded officer may push for targeting the military and infrastructure of the rogue state and destroying these as quickly and as completely as possible to minimize friendly casualties and ensure the success of the invasion. Conversely, a more unconventional officer may counter that every power station destroyed now is one more to rebuild later, every radio station disrupted is a missed subversion opportunity, and every displaced former soldier is one more potential insurgent. In other words, he might argue that overwhelming victory in a conventional fight may increase the chances of an insurgency later.

How might our two civilians play into this debate? Perhaps our traditional politico may side with our conventionally minded officer and argue for a quick, dramatic, and decisive conventional win with all the political benefits that entails. Conversely, our civilian-warrior—especially if he has spent most of his career on the reconstruction end of operations—might align with the ground forces officer and accept a certain amount of short-term risk to avoid long-term problems.

Regardless of how the conventional fight ultimately shapes up, the quartet will face a third set of issues, regarding the tricky “Phase IV,” or reconstruction operations. The good news is that thanks to the failures to plan correctly for this phase in today’s wars, reconstruction (and counterinsurgency) will be on the minds of the entire quartet in the future. The disagreement likely will be over how exactly to rebuild the defeated enemy state. Should we dismantle the former regime’s military and start afresh or recognize that it is the glue that holds the state together? How should we merge counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations? These are questions our own era has faced and failed to deal with adequately. Then, as now, there likely will not be one clear solution to these thorny issues. Perhaps the major schism within the quartet will be between our civilian-warrior and ground forces general. The latter may favor “quick” tactical victories. Our general may argue that temporarily turning a blind eye to drug production, accepting a degree of oil corruption, and leaving the military apparatus of the state more or less intact—at least for the short term—might diminish the chances and severity of an insurgency and buy “time” for longer- term progress. Our civilian-warrior, conversely, might respond that such policies would only undermine the legitimacy of American efforts, reinforce malicious tendencies within the nascent state, and lead to collapse in the long run.

Finally, there likely will be debates regarding an exit strategy. The outcomes of today’s wars will shape this debate. If the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan are that with enough time, these campaigns are winnable, the military officers may push for a more flexible exit strategy (under the assumption that, once committed, there is no way out, except through victory). On the other hand, our politico, depending on the will of the president, may push for more rigid time limits—to get in and out before the next election cycle. Alternatively, if the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan are that these campaigns at best amount to muddled stalemates that simply “degrade the force,” the roles may be reversed: the general officers may push for hard timelines, while our politico may want a more flexible policy to allow the United States to claim victory for his administration’s political gains. Our politico, recognizing the United States’ security commitment to South America dating to the Monroe Doctrine, also might argue that a set exit date runs counter to larger American strategic interests. In this case, our civilian-warrior functions as the wild card in the debate, torn between political and military necessity.

Who will ultimately win the debate at our table? It is hard to tell, but how it will be carried out is more foreseeable. It will be characterized by four very different personalities, each with strong institutional biases and sharing less common ground than in peacetime conditions. For a variety of political, strategic, and perhaps personal reasons, those who have sustained combat experience will have added clout and, hence, the upper hand in the discussion. No matter who wins, however, thanks to the complexity of these relationships, the divergence in career paths, and the hardening of personalities that comes with sustained combat experience, the chances for an even more contentious, acerbic, and fractured civil-military discussion will be greater in 2030 than it is today—or even, arguably, than it was for the Vietnam generation.


T here is no way out for our quartet. Despite the impending “withdrawal” from Iraq, there could still be American troops there, certainly in harm’s way if not in outright combat. With the present surge in Afghanistan, the total number of American forces committed to the war on terrorism will have declined only slightly since the time of the Bush administration. Thus, ground forces officers will rotate in and out of unconventional wars for the foreseeable future, as will our civilian warriors. Simultaneously, elements of the military, rightly, will focus on conventional threats. And, finally, our traditional partisan appointees will maneuver through the halls of Washington.

Done correctly, the policy debate surrounding our hypothetical South American intervention of 2030 could be more thoughtful, more nuanced, and ultimately more productive for the diversity of opinions represented at the table. After all, unlike the Vietnam generation, whose civil-military relationship was characterized by antipathy, the relationship in 2030 will be marked more by differing expertise, with each player bringing to the table a unique but informed point of view.

To an extent, we are already diminishing friction twenty years from now, if only on an ad hoc basis, through contacts that should be expanded. Thanks to the rise of civilian-warriors, soldiers today are far more likely to have interacted with their counterparts from the diplomatic community, the intelligence services, and nongovernmental organizations than at any time previously. Similarly, rotations that insert Air Force and Navy officers into aspects of ground warfare—from filling spots on provincial reconstruction teams to working in higher headquarters—help not only to relieve the strain on the Army and Marine Corps but also to bridge the military divide.

Yet these ad hoc programs do not go far enough. Ground rotations in combat zones for Air Force and Navy personnel help bridge the internal military divide, but the question becomes whether these experiences are rewarded by their own services, as opposed to more traditional jobs. Similarly, programs that embed civilian-warriors—the Foreign Service officer, the intelligence officer, and so on—with the military for extended periods of time may help civilians understand the military, but do not necessarily give soldiers equal insight into civilian organizations.

Ultimately, the key to averting friction in 2030 is common education. If this education starts in college with ROTC programs at elite universities, continues through graduate and professional schools, and is cemented by interagency exchanges at the career level, it will give our quartet, now started in their separate careers, a common forum before they find themselves at the table.

This meeting in 2030 will pose unique challenges, but also opportunities. The quartet will bring a wealth of knowledge and greater breadth of opinions to the table than their predecessors did. Indeed, our hypothetical South American intervention of 2030 could be far better planned and led—and ultimately more successful—than we now imagine, provided the quartet functions harmoniously. Whether their meeting leads to sounder policy or deadlock, however, will depend on whether its participants can identify this common ground. At present we lack the will and incentives to ensure the participation of civilians and military personnel in educational programs that will smooth the way for their sessions two decades hence. Undervaluing these programs today sets the stage for a civil-military crisis twenty years from now, when our four leaders sit down at a table and try to figure out what to do next.

Raphael Cohen, a former active-duty Army intelligence officer, is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University.

OG Image: