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Unity of Mission: Civilian-Military Teams in War and Peace

Unity of Mission: Civilian-Military Teams in War and Peace, edited by Jon Gundersen and Melanne A. Civic. Air University Press, 2015, pp. 576.

This collection of essays offers a wealth of enlightening, if at times exasperating, insights into one of the toughest challenges our complex contingency operators face: namely, how best to orchestrate missions where an adroit blending of civilian and military expertise and resources is a vital prerequisite for success. Such teaming has long been the classic construct here, albeit in an austere environment. Although this volume’s subtitle infers a clear dichotomy between “war and peace,” the reality is far more messy, ranging from situations where a fragile peace may be threatened by local grievances, economic hardships, or dysfunctional governance to ongoing irregular warfare campaigns where insurgents or illicit transnational actors may be expanding their influence or, alternatively, withering on the vine.
In these conflict-affected settings, civilian-military teaming is always going to be an activity of necessity, not just of choice, since the larger campaign must somehow navigate toward locally owned peace and stability. But as this book makes clear, numerous challenges abound. Specifically, how will these teams be organized, staffed, and resourced? What mix of expertise must these teams possess? Who will be in command? What is their overall strategy? Internally, can their members work together in a collaborative, respectful manner? Externally, what kinds of partnerships should they seek to forge (or avoid) with host-nation partners? And once in the field, how will their performance impacts be measured, from hamlets in South Vietnam to rural districts in southeastern Afghanistan?

None of these questions is fundamentally new. Indeed, if we could miraculously assemble a team of America’s leading civilian and military practitioners who had to wrestle with complex contingencies over the last century—say, for instance, Elihu Root, John J. Pershing, Robert Komer, Creighton Abrams, Richard Holbrooke, Ryan Crocker, David Petraeus, and many others—just imagine what their historic conversation might be like. I am guessing there would be waves of smiles, grimaces, and head-nods, as each would realize the extent to which their predecessors and/or successors had to grapple with the same set of unforgiving challenges they also faced.

Overall, this volume’s depth and breadth is truly impressive. It walks the reader through US civilian-military teaming’s complex history, with a heavy focus upon our Vietnam-era Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program. While field-level experiences—most notably those of our provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) in post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan—receive the greatest scrutiny, several chapters also address synchronization challenges at the strategic level. The editors here also cast their net widely, capturing insights of key NATO partners, UN actors, and nongovernmental organizations, in addition to US scholars and practitioners. And, finally, several chapters shine a bright spotlight on future needs: What precepts should guide civilian-military training? What analytic products can help to inform these teams once they are deployed? And what kinds of bureaucratic organizations and advocacy would best suit their needs?

These are all definite pluses. I must also flag three admonitions this volume highlights: first, steer clear of “over-learning” from a few select cases the lessons of which may or may not be applicable elsewhere, for example, the challenges of stabilizing Kuwait after the 1991 Gulf War were extremely different from those we encountered in Iraq more than a decade later. Secondly, be careful to avoid getting captured by overhyped stereotypes of the “other.” Granted, it is not always easy to stave off “knuckle-dragging” or “tree hugging” caricatures, but what is critically important to understand is how internally diverse our military and civilian communities really are and the extent to which each side’s institutional cultures and bureaucratic equities shape attitudes and behavior. Third, never assume “mainstreaming” civilian-military expertise for stabilization missions is going to be easy. Fortunately, this volume’s last several chapters address both challenges and opportunities for our own capacity building.

As for shortcomings, there are two. Ironically, one actually flows from Unity of Mission’s strength as a compilation of insights from field practitioners. Members of this cohort understandably are most comfortable relating their own experiences, but there are some gaps. For example, while Liberia and Africa-focused challenges since the 2000s are well covered, there is hardly any mention of operations in Somalia, West Africa, or, indeed, the Balkans during the 1990s, all of which provided huge civilian-military stress tests for the United States and its coalition partners. In addition, while there is some discussion of host-nation engagements, the reader will definitely sense an introspective quality to the narratives here. Again, that is understandable, given how all-consuming the team-building job can be. But aside from the need for sociocultural analyses of the operating environment’s human terrain—which this volume rightly underscores—there is really no detailed analysis of alternative ends, ways, and means for engaging host-nation interlocutors at various levels.

Despite these limitations, I definitely put this book in the “must-read” category for students, scholars, and aspiring practitioners of international security, especially when building toward a strong comparative knowledge base for complex contingency operations. Particularly valuable here is the volume’s explication (chapter 17) of how best to institutionalize systems and processes for incentivizing more effective civilian-military collaboration at the field level. So definitely make sure this book is in your carry-on luggage! 

Finally, there is also a bit of clairvoyance on display in this volume. In assessing PRT experiences in Iraq’s Anbar Province up to 2009, the author wraps up a generally optimistic note, but then he adds “the province, like the rest of Iraq, is not out of the woods. Terrorists still strike with lethal effect.” Alas, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) shows that he was right, albeit tragically so.

James A. Schear
Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Partnership Strategy and Stability Operations (2009–2013)

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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