Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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It’s Time to Talk About the Role of U.S. Civilians in Modern War

by Guest Blogger for Janine Davidson and Janine Davidson
July 28, 2014

usaid-iraq-afghanistan Rear Admiral Gregory Smith (L), director of the Multi-National Force – Iraq’s Communications Division, and Denise Herbol, deputy director of USAID – Iraq, in Baghdad January 13, 2008. (Wathiq Khuzaie/Courtesy Reuters)


By Janine Davidson and Phillip Carter

There is a new bill currently languishing in Congressional committee, the “Combat Zone Tax Parity Act,” which would grant federal civilian employees deployed to combat zones the same tax benefits as the military servicemen who fight alongside them. It comes long overdue.

Measures like this recognize the complex realities of the twenty-first century battlefield, in which the pursuit of national security objectives rarely turns on the efforts of uniformed military alone. This bill represents a first, small step in what must become a broader conversation about the role of civilian workers in modern war.

For many observers, the line between deployed civilian and soldier remains clear as day. Amid the political rancor surrounding Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s May 31 negotiated release from Taliban captivity, there remained one point of general consensus:  Bergdahl’s status as a uniformed serviceman distinguished him from three other Americans still languishing in captivity in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki explained at the time, “Sergeant Berdahl…is a member of the military who was detained during an armed conflict. That obviously is a unique circumstance.”

Yet in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the line between military and civilian has never been blurrier. There are currently 21,000 American civilians deployed in Afghanistan, both civil servants and an array of contractors who fill roles in support of and alongside the U.S. military.

These Americans are the war’s cooks and convoy drivers; intelligence analysts and cultural experts; diplomats and development specialists.  While these civilians have grown increasingly vital to the war effort, the legal protection, support, and basic respect accorded them by our nation has lagged far behind.

Consider the case of Warren Weinstein, an American consultant operating in Pakistan with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  He has been held ransom by Al-Qaeda since August 2011. His wife, hearing of Bergdahl’s release and her husband’s continuing captivity, was hard pressed to see the distinction between the two.

“There’s no difference between my husband and an American serviceman,” she told the New York Times. “My husband was working to improve the life of Pakistani people and by doing so improving the image of America abroad.”

In many ways, Weinstein’s story is a parable for the broader transformation of civilian roles in war since 9/11. The “whole-of-government” approach entailed by the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and championed by civilian and military leaders alike, has required deep involvement by the U.S. development and diplomatic corps.  They in turn have relied on an array of contractors and third-party vendors to fill out their ranks and get the job done. Tens of thousands of foreign nationals under U.S. contract bolster these ranks still further.

At the same time, changes in the basic force structure of the U.S. military have relegated many supply maintenance, and general support jobs in the logistical “tail”—once done by American soldiers—to civilian contractors. These contractors represent the invisible backbone of the modern American way of war and enable the U.S. military’s unmatched global reach.

Although these civilians face many of the same risks associated with their uniformed counterparts, they are entitled to very few of the same benefits. U.S. federal employees and contractors deploying to a warzone often purchase their own body armor and fire resistant clothing; they must also sometimes seek their own basic weapons training.

If they are fortunate enough to find a life insurance company willing to cover them, they are likely to be charged astronomical premiums—a cost rarely reimbursed by the U.S. government.  If injured, these civilians can expect a lifetime’s struggle to receive basic medical care. If killed, their deaths are marked only by a quiet notification to next of kin. If forced to defend themselves while traveling with military counterparts, they are unshielded by the international laws of armed conflict.

This growing reliance on civilians has increased their exposure to the dangers of war. According to Department of Labor statistics, roughly 3,100 foreign and U.S. civilian workers have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. In 2011, more U.S. and Afghan civilians under U.S. contract were killed in Afghanistan than were American soldiers.

As troop levels in Afghanistan draw down to 9,800 by the end of the year, and toward zero after that, it is the commitment and durability of this civilian force that will largely determine the outcome of the Afghan stabilization mission.  The “civilian surge” transition plan must include adequate support and security for these Americans who will stay to finish the job.

The United States has long pledged to “leave no man behind” when it comes to its uniformed combat personnel, a privilege not extended to American civilians. On the wake of a critical military transition in Afghanistan, it is time to reconsider if we are going to continue to leave these Americans behind.

Phillip Carter is Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Ben

    Civilians are essential on today’s battlefield. However, federal civilian pay in combat zones appears to me to far exceed that of military personnel in most, if not all, cases. Making all civilian pay tax exempt would deepen the inequity. In a combat zone, federal civilians often receive a 35% danger pay PLUS 35% post hardship differential. They also receive overtime, night time differential, and weekend differential if they work on Sundays. Friends of mine have received tens of thousands of dollars extra for 4-month deployments. By contrast, military personnel receive $225 in hostile fire pay and $250 in separation pay monthly in addition to tax exemption.

    Furthermore, civilians tend to have a narrower scope of work than deployed military personnel. From a hostage rescue perspective, I suggest US forces attempt to rescue all US civilians, just as they do military personnel. Jessica Buchanan’s rescue in Somalia is a good example.

  • Posted by LarryS

    Great blog! Thanks for raising these issues. A couple (or more) of observations:

    You conflate all civilians in the battle space. I think we need to reconsider from the “ground up” all civilians, but prescribed remedies will likely accrue to specific groups. USG direct-hire AMCIT civilians, FSN staff, USG PSCs, institutional contractors, and general contractors are examples of just some of the groups.

    Your blog focuses more on US ~Contractors~ than civilians. A useful distinction, but one that would need to be further explored.

    And your blog focused on ~US~ civilians. Many of the contractors, while the corporation winning the contract may be US-based, are foreign nationals. This further complicates many of the issues and relationships raised in your blog and/but is worth further consideration.

    Thanks again for raising the questions!


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