On Veterans Day, the nation thanks those who have served honorably in the United States armed forces in both peacetime and wartime. It should also be a time to remember that not all of the veterans of America’s foreign wars wear uniforms.
Civilians serve too.
Modern warfare, especially the counterinsurgency and nation-building missions that the armed forces have been called upon to perform in recent years, requires a range of civilian expertise. This can involve base management or intelligence analysis. It has also meant going outside the wire to be part of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which work to bolster the performance of local governments as part of ongoing nation-building missions. This work is vital to the military’s exit strategy, and hence getting the troops home.
As I show in my book To Build as well as Destroy: The American Experience of Nation-Building in South Vietnam, civilians have been deploying to war zones for a long time. In fact, the practice reached its postwar height in the Vietnam War. This is something it is easy to miss if we rely on the standard history books and movies to gain our understanding of the war.
As well as a brutal guerrilla war, Vietnam was also a war of nation-building. The issue over which the war was fought was the governance of South Vietnam. Would it be united with Communist North Vietnam, or would it develop an independent, non-Communist government? The latter was the U.S. preference, and over the course of the war over ten thousand civilians deployed to Southeast Asia to try to shape the development of South Vietnam’s government to enable it to defend itself from the Communist challenge.
They came from a variety of backgrounds and agencies – the State Department, the CIA, the Agency for International Development, even the Peace Corps. In the early years, some hitchhiked from postings elsewhere in Asia to join the nation-building mission. Many were inspired by the ideals of development with an almost missionary zeal – they wanted to save the people of South Vietnam from the corruption, mismanagement and brutality of their own government. They often served deep in the countryside, where no American had ever gone before.
As American involvement in the Vietnam War expanded in the late 1960s, this nation-building apparatus grew in size as well. In 1967, the Johnson administration created the Office of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) to expand the nation-building mission. CORDS was headed by a civilian, and throughout its ranks thousands of military and civilian personnel worked side by side on the same mission, being exposed to the same dangers and writing each other’s efficiency reports. Its “sandwich” structure meant that civilians gave orders to military personnel and vice-versa.
It was an experiment without precedent in American history and has not been repeated on such a scale since.
Civilians who have served in war zones have faced some unique burdens, both during the Vietnam War and today. They are all volunteers who usually must be granted permission by their host agencies to go overseas. Often these agencies see such deployments as a distraction from the “real” jobs their employees are supposed to be doing at home, and so serving can be harmful to careers. As a result, the military has often struggled to attract enough volunteers. As of July 2018, 70% of the necessary positions for civilians in Afghanistan were unfilled.
So, this Veterans Day, spare a thought for these “expeditionary civilians”. They often serve in the shadows, and some pay the ultimate price. They deserve to be honored, too.
About the author of this blog post: Dr. Andrew J. Gawthorpe is Lecturer in History and International Studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands. He has written for publications including Stars and Stripes, Foreign Affairs, and more.