Warrior Diplomats: Civil Affairs Forces on the Front Lines

  • Published

Warrior Diplomats: Civil Affairs Forces on the Front Lines edited by Arnel P. David, Sean Acosta, and Nicholas Krohley. Cambria Press, 2023, 280 pp.

As the Department of Defense shifts its focus toward strategic competition, its temptation to simply leverage technological overmatch is real. In Warrior Diplomats, Arnel David, Sean Acosta, and Nicholas Krohley offer an anthology of nine chapters regarding the value proposition of military civil affairs forces within this new environment and how, at scale, the activities of these specialized service members inform military commanders—particularly in the human domain—at a fraction of the cost of the forecasted hardware procured for the joint force.

Despite published Joint, Army, and Marine Corps doctrine, there currently exists no unified theory of civil-military operations, but instead an interdisciplinary—and messy—body of work from sociologists, historians, political scientists, and strategists. The editors and authors of Warrior Diplomats, however, are largely operators, seasoned and exposed to the value of civil reconnaissance. David is a colonel in the US Army, Acosta a senior noncommissioned officer, and Krohley a US government adviser, all of whom hold experience operating within and publishing about the human domain. The authors of the chapters include civil affairs professionals from the active and reserve components, US Army, US Marine Corps, and British Army. Throughout the book, the authors challenge their field to know their worth and do better.


The term warrior diplomat used throughout the book stems from the civil affairs tradition of many of the authors and speaks to the military’s role in engaging and influencing people as well as battlefields. The warrior, exposed to contested terrain, must take acceptable risk in pursuit of operational outcomes, while the diplomat must act prudently and discreetly with foreign counterparts. The joint force is asked to appreciate the nuance of geopolitics for the coming struggles, but it is important to remember that all politics—even geopolitics—is local. To that end, warrior diplomats, through civil reconnaissance, provide the commander a more granular understanding of the human networks and communities which the United States seeks to influence.

Over nine chapters, the authors lament the ad hoc structures built over the previous decades to address commanders’ demands in that moment but hold that the wrong lessons may be learned from strategic failures by focusing only on technology as the remedy. While the authors do not challenge the joint force’s need to adapt and modernize, they posit a critical weakness is the inability to understand ground truth in areas of geopolitical importance borne of a lack of investment engaging at lower levels. Further, the joint force must address this vulnerability through systemic change.

In recent years, the services have been divested of many of their civil affairs forces. Whether this divestment is due to policymakers shifting the focus of resources toward technological change or to their fundamental misunderstanding of civil affairs’ value proposition, the authors do not claim civil affairs is without room for improvement. Instead, the book begins by communicating the value of civil affairs forces using historical and recent examples then suggesting ways to optimize civil affairs and evolve beyond the current structure.

The book first offers a discussion of the strategic environment and the new great game, resulting from a world disaggregating beyond even the bipolarity of the Cold War. This disaggregation makes the application of standard geometric models of the international state of play very difficult if not irrelevant, specifically because these models do not adequately account for localized details. This leads directly to a discussion of operating in the gray zone below the state of open conflict and the opportunities available to the state able to leverage information about the populations in question. In the gray zone, presence matters, relationships shift, and optimization is difficult. Warrior diplomats play a role as persistent partners, mapping local networks and providing continuous feedback to operations.

The discussion of the human domain balances cognitive and emotional models with historical context and strategic documents. Through this chapter, the authors remind the reader that influence over the population, the often-disregarded point of Clausewitz’s trinity, requires an appreciation of both how people think and feel. The described relationship of network science is similarly academic as it relates to the discipline of civil reconnaissance cultivated in civil affairs manuals. Expanding on these models, Acosta challenges readers to elevate their staff work by “cancelling the crosswalk” matrices (the example given is the PMESII/ASCOPE matrix—political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure domains interwoven with areas, structures, capabilities, organization, people, and events) that equate to checking boxes rather than engaging in deep, meaningful analysis of populations relevant to commanders’ decisions.

The messiness of these theories, however, is made salient with a relevant case study from central Africa’s Lake Chad Basin, wherein forces managed to integrate multilateral humanitarian assistance and counterterrorism operations. The simultaneity of these activities, given the nature of influencing populations in under-governed spaces, may seem as necessary as it is novel to the staffer negotiating military authorities with higher headquarters. The authors then illuminate opportunities to optimize and improve with chapters on integrating civil affairs forces across the US Army (active and reserve components, conventional and special operations forces), across the joint force (US Army and US Marine Corps), and across US Allies and partners—specifically discussing civil-military cooperation in the NATO Alliance—to build a global civil-military network.

Warrior Diplomats: Civil Affairs Forces on the Front Lines is, then, not a collection of war stories but a compilation that presents another paradigm for strategic competition beyond and complementing technological overmatch through its discussion of the value proposition of civil affairs forces moving forward. It leverages relevant examples of civil affairs actions during Operation Enduring Freedom–Philippines and the operation of the Danab Brigade in Somalia, but these inform the theories presented. Given the lack of exposure to civil affairs experienced by so many in the joint force—neither the Air Force nor the Navy have designated civil affairs forces—Warrior Diplomats provides insight beyond what the practitioner might glean by simply reading doctrine. Current civil affairs forces may parochially appreciate the book insofar as it validates any thoughts they may have around organization and optimization. Even so, the layperson likely benefits more so with a broadened understanding of the tools available to the joint force as it navigates the changing strategic environment.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Newton, USAF, PhD

"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."