Shrinking the Tactical Civilian–Military Divide

April 11, 2016

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The ongoing discussion over potential reforms to the Goldwater-Nichols Act provides an opportunity for government leaders to address an important segment of the civilian–military divide. The majority of discussions around this divide focus on the growing division between civil society and the military — partly a repercussion of the move to an all-volunteer force following Vietnam — or tensions at or near the very top of the national command authority. However, too frequently left out of the conversation is the gap between tactical level military personnel and their civilian government counterparts on the ground. This segment of the divide is extremely important, as it negatively impacts interagency coordination and cooperation, and — at the end of the day — our country’s ability to do what it sets out to do around the world.

The divide has been on display in the counterinsurgency campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan — for example, the wide-ranging composition, utilization, and effectiveness of Provincial Reconstruction Teams. But contingencies not pertaining to conflict, such as responses to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa or the earthquake in Haiti, have also illuminated the divide and provided examples of interagency coordination and cooperation that could be improved upon.

Given the complexities — which do not appear to be going away anytime soon — in various regions of the world and the emphasis on waging campaigns in these environments at small-unit levels, our military and civilian agencies will again be called upon to work together at the tactical level. The last two decades of military operations have demonstrated an enhanced ability to operate in a joint manner — a direct result of Goldwater-Nichols. However, to deal with complexities of the future, the division between the Department of Defense and its civilian agency counterparts at the tactical level needs to be reduced. Bridging the gap can produce improved interagency coordination and cooperation that enhances the government’s ability to address future tactical issues.

Adequately Resource our Soft Power Capabilities

The greatest barrier to enhanced interagency cooperation at the tactical level is a disproportionate allocation of resources. Despite calls from senior government officials — even former defense officials like Robert Gates — to enhance our soft power (read: diplomatic and economic) capabilities, resources between key civilian agencies and the Department of Defense remain unbalanced. As a result, civil service and foreign service officers are stretched thin without reserve across the world. Increased funding would allow agencies such as the State Department and USAID (among others) to grow adequately these officer corps, creating a reserve that helps shrink the gap and produces an environment conducive to enhanced interagency coordination and cooperation opportunities. Additionally, increased personnel could enable civilian agencies to play greater roles in missions aligned with their core competencies, reducing reliance on the military to spearhead such missions simply because they are the best resourced.

Enhance Civil–Military Interactions at the Junior Officer Education Level

There exists some civil–military interaction in the classroom environment at our war colleges, but this interaction is taking place too late in military and civilian officers’ careers. If we expect our small unit leaders — namely platoon and company commanders — to interact and cooperate effectively with civilian personnel in unstable environments, we need to enhance interactions in the classroom at more junior levels. In this regard, the military should look for ways to incorporate civil servants into junior officer educational institutions, such as the Officer Basic Course and the Captain’s Career Course in the Army. Priority should be given to placing these civilian officers in those courses slated for combat arms officers. These officers are the most likely to engage with civilian personnel in future conflict zones and serve as unit operations officers, responsible for coordinating and inserting interagency capabilities into unit operational plans.

Additionally, existing civilian agency-sponsored fellowships for undergraduate and graduate students — such as the Pickering, Rangel, and Payne Fellowships — should be reexamined to determine if this pool of future civil and foreign service officers could be tapped to attend military educational programs prior to beginning their public service careers. Finally, civilian agencies should identify educational opportunities in which military personnel could be included. For example, the Foreign Service Institute provides a range of training for foreign service officers and should also open its doors to junior military officers.

Incorporate Civilian and Military Personnel in Training

There have been some limited successes in incorporating civilian personnel into military training and vice versa, but these successes have been far too limited to be considered institutionalized. Civilian agency personnel, such as those from the State Department and USAID, should be present as units conduct pre-deployment certification training at the national training centers. Taking this a step further, civilian personnel who attend training with military units should be the same personnel who later deploy with those units. If pre-deployment training with interagency components is not possible, efforts should at least be made to identify the interagency personnel who will augment the military unit once deployed, allowing for some level of coordination and planning prior to deployment.

Embed Civilian Officials Within Tactical Level Organizations

The command structure of the relatively new U.S. Africa Command is interesting in that it includes a State Department official as a senior deputy to the commander. The outcomes around this organizational setup should be studied closely and scaled down to tactical units — such as Army brigade combat teams. On the flip side, it is not uncommon to find military personnel operating within civilian agencies, but this is almost always within the intelligence community. Embedding military personnel in the more traditional civilian agencies would be value added to both the service member and the civilian agency, as the exchange of civil–military ideas and viewpoints would provide significant contributions to various offices — such as policy planning or regional desks.

Ultimately, none of these policy solutions are revolutionary in thought, nor are they easy to implement. All efforts to reduce the tactical civilian–military divide and enhance interagency coordination and cooperation hinge on a larger civil and foreign service, which likely requires larger budgets for civilian agencies. This is not a popular solution for many who argue that the current fiscal climate is already too restricting. That being said, if we expect a more holistic government approach to difficult regions in the future, we need to implement difficult policy solutions now. In short, there needs to be an emphasis on more frequent tactical level civilian–military interaction through education and training. This will help shrink an important area of the civilian–military gap and deal with the increasingly complex world in which we find ourselves.


Kenny Sholes is currently a graduate student at Princeton University. He previously served as an officer in the U.S. Army and as a government civilian within the National Counterterrorism Center. The views expressed here are his, and are not representative of the U.S. government.


Photo credit: HMC Josh Ives, U.S. Navy

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5 thoughts on “Shrinking the Tactical Civilian–Military Divide

  1. Rick S. exactly right: militarizing the civilians is improper and won’t work. It would be far more effective and in keeping with American values to embed civilian and civil-military relations norms, values, procedures, and perspectives at the tactical level into the pre-commissioning education of every officer so that they are prepared to make the relationship work.

  2. As an old cold war survivor, what the authors propose to do, is a return to the cold war practice of allowing federal civilians to volunteer to undergo military training schools and courses. A practice that was almost completely wiped out (95%) by President Jimmy Carter and Democratic Congress with animus against the military and the Intelligence Community. They did this with changes to Federal Civil Service rules, funding and expansion of Lawfare within the government.

    The last vestiges of Federal Civilians undergoing military training schools was destroyed by Pres. Bill Clinton.

    The bottom line today – is that without substantial changes in Federal Civilian pay, benefits and rules – Federal Civilians going into a war zone is a huge career loser and with far more negatives than pluses. Every one of those negatives was presented to the Military Brass from 1977 to 1996 and the bastards uttered not one peep in objection to OSD and Congress.

    From 2002 to 2012, the military brass NEVER asked the OSD or Congress to correct/rescind the anti-military socialist rules imposed on Federal Civilians. Despite bellyaching the entire time about the lack of Federal Civilian volunteers they were getting to go into war zones and hazardous duty locations and their incessant bellyaching about the costs of contractors in warzones.

    Those Fed Civs that went… they didn’t re-up to go again after being screwed over.

    Plus for Federal Civilians you have completely different educational levels, ages, personnel administration and organizational structures and private sector civilians in general vice the Military. The brass doesn’t like it when we say, “I quit! F**k you and the horse you rode in on. I’m going home.” We can do that at any point in time and there is nothing uniforms can do about it.

    If you are a Federal Civilian in the field long enough with military uniforms… you learn one thing quickly. Uniforms will protect uniforms and they’ll abandon a Federal Civilian almost as fast they’ll abandon contractors. Whether you are in a boardroom, Pentagon executive offices, and especially in a warzone Federal Civilians do not trust the military to do right by them. We have 3 decades of bad experiences and the word gets around fast.

    I will point out that to this very day there are thousands of Federal Civilians who will never be paid the special pay rates and for time worked from 9-11-2001 to 1-11-2013. I’m one of those people.

    Why? Because the Federal Civilian ‘leadership’ and the MIL brass DID NOT know how to fill out the paperwork to compensate or reward the Federal Civilians who volunteered, or even provide for the hundreds who were WIA’d and KIA’d in action. It should indict something to you, when Congress in 2008, had to force the Pentagon to begin reporting on Federal Civilian and American citizen contractors WIA and KIA’d in the warzones.

    The rules and training in place since 1996 is biased against sending a Federal Civilian into a hazardous or warzone.

    To this very day the idiots in the OPM still HAVE NOT issued a formal guide book for Federal Civilian Supervisors and Leadership on how to deploy or detach for special duties Fed Civs. The US Army Corps of Engineers did produce an unofficial guidebook for themselves but there is NO official guidance anywhere else.

    Don’t get me started on the collection of over-educated, elitist, socialist, military and national security hating POS that thoroughly infest the Foreign Service and large swaths of USAID.

    Better to take a flamethrower to the US State Department.
    Oh! I apologize to those who wear tight pink panties. We don’t have flamethrowers or Napalm in our TOE anymore because the socialist trash says these are too inhuman for the carnage of warfare. [My sarcasm and contempt intended.]

    Here is your tip for Military and for newbie Fed Civs. One hold-over from the Cold War is that when a Federal Civilian signs those forms to become a Federal Civilian –deep inside in the small print is a part that says that Fed Civs can be activated/converted over into US Military Service (legally it is not the same as being drafted but it is involuntary) at the military rank and pay grade equivalent to their Fed Civ paygrade for a period of time not less than two years. This can be accomplished at the direction of the Secretary of Defense. The President will authorize the Sec Def to do this and the Sec Def can execute the ‘activations’ at his discretion. The paperwork to accomplish this is exactly the same as activating National Guardsmen and Reservists.

    The author didn’t even scratch the surface as to the benefits to the DoD and IC for Federal Civilians to volunteer for military schools and courses. But this will not happen without substantive regulatory, policy, administrative and leadership changes.

  3. DoD has more band members than State Department has diplomats. Until that funding/resourcing imbalance is corrected, you’ll continue to get the Pentagon wasting $60 million plus dollars on some “business development initiative” in Afghanistan.

  4. The flow of understanding and exchange should go both ways – opportunities for civilians to build understanding of values/norms/best practices/structure of their military counterparts and military officers, enlisted, and NCOs with opportunities to integrate and learn cultural norms, best practices, and terminology from their civilian and international counterparts. Alternatives to completely leaving one environment to embed in another are also available (fellowships, German Marshall Fund seminars, Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, Truman National Security Project, Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21), Women in International Security (WIIS), Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), etc.) These platforms foster relationships, enable learning and mutual understanding (and healthy debate) over topics as varied as women in combat, frontline civilians, disruptive thinking, the force of the future (and The Future in general), human-centered design, and ample events to mingle, mentor, and pursue/share professional growth.

    As a civilian who has embedded across military services (US and foreign) it took time, patience and respect to build rapport with my counterparts before I could influence or advise. Simply showing up and being smart is insufficient! Effective exchange of ideas takes time and empathy, a healthy dose of curiosity and tolerance for ambiguity and discomfort. My own experience was that the best relationships hinged on my ability to adapt to “their” culture (which is an expectation of all anthros in the field!) and to be seen as an “enabler” not an “expert.” I’m sure the late night chats, hectic patrols and movements, and general survival experiences as a team (through firefights and boredom!) helped facilitate some exchange back the other way. But more often than not, I was expected to adapt to the “other,” which I accepted and embraced to the best of my ability.

    I’ve also been a civilian teaching at the Army staff college and left after just under 2 years due to pressure to “do as we’ve always done.” I was told on more than one occasion that I didn’t “look” like everyone else (early-30s female anthropologist working with mostly retired all-male counterparts who had never worked outside the military complex). After starting numerous strategic and exchange initiatives with interagency partners I was pulled in to “earn my stripes” trudging through administrative, coordination, and curriculum-writing tasks in order to “earn” opportunities to go back out and do my job. The interesting and ambitious partnerships I had created, based on my access to diverse networks and colleagues, were seen not as beneficial to the organization but competitive to the way they’d always done things. Integrating TED Talks, guest speakers, podcasts, and applied, real-time case studies really grinder their gears. Opportunities for exchange and designing new initiatives were treated as “privileges” that required days/weeks of painful tasks to earn time to go back to developing them. The more successful these outside-the-box initiatives, the more painful and mundane my day-to-day. This in a program dedicated to teaching alternative perspectives, groupthink mitigation, empathy and critical thinking! A disappointing blow. Given the subject matter, my fieldwork and academic experience, and energy for the position, I had high expectations to genuinely exchange ideas. Although I connected deeply with my students and had classroom opportunities to foster trust and influence, healthy debates, and solid critical thinking, my biggest challenge was with our teaching faculty’s perceptions and, specifically, the leadership. The suggestion that you could simply drop civilians into a military training/education program disregards the cultural change required to truly foster an environment for exchange and new ideas.

    I’m now happily preparing for the next civ-mil field opportunity and actively participating in exciting (and friendly) networks dedicated to real exchange and ideation – see above. Really good things are happening for those willing to step outside the comfort of their home organizations in order to develop, cultivate and introduce/integrate new ideas. But it’s not easy, as my mentor once said — go get a helmet (and get back out there).