In the last decade, the United States has found itself fully immersed in nation building, despite its alleged distaste for such endeavors. U.S. military forces in particular have been at the center of these efforts, building schools in Iraq, staffing Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) throughout Afghanistan and training soldiers in Mozambique. U.S. Army platoon leaders hand out micro grants to small business owners and help stand up city councils. Civil servants who once trained for peacetime development work now find themselves mediating tribal disputes in remote mountain provinces. Regardless of the efficacy of such efforts, public statements by both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggest that nation building and related activities are preferred solutions in the war against terrorism. Yet despite the enormous complexity and ambition of such efforts, there remains a gap in the training and education for nation building.
This paper details the U.S. Army−established School of Military Government and its related Civil Affairs Training Program that prepared forces for occupational duties in Europe and Asia. It highlights the demonstrated effectiveness both of its curriculum and approach to education and of its impact on the occupation of Germany and Japan, which offer important lessons for today’s military faced with similar challenges. If nation building, particularly with economic growth as a key component, is to assume a greater role as a component of foreign policy or national security strategy, it needs to consume a greater role of our planning, analysis, and organizational design. Civil Affairs and several other functional areas within the military play a significant role in aspects of nation building today and would benefit from education focused on such matters. Other beneficial initiatives would include creating a mechanism for drawing experts into and out of the military to serve as nation-builders at a level commensurate with their experience, providing a more effective and less expensive option than hiring contractors.
Given our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their extraordinary cost in resources, rethinking how the U.S. military plans and implements transitions after hostilities is vital. Our latest entrée intro Libya supports this assertion: firing cruise missiles, although costly, is relatively simple to plan and execute, but what do we do next? War-to-peace transition is difficult, in part, because the responsibility for war is straightforward, but responsibility for what comes afterwards is not nearly as simple—there isn’t one organization to which the military can pass off responsibility for the occupied or pacified territory. Furthermore, different aspects of transition occur at different speeds; for example, it is relatively easy to train police, but especially difficult to establish an entire criminal justice system.
Finally, resourcing is always an issue—the indigenous population of a foreign country is not a U.S. constituency. Finding adequate personnel particularly with the correct skills remains a significant challenge. Even when executive branch departments such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Commerce, send personnel to fill the military’s expertise gap in nation building, the individuals assigned have significant institutional and legal barriers to assisting foreign countries.
Given these institutional constraints, what can be done? Rather than accept the status quo, advocate that "the interagency" or "whole-of government" can solve the problem, or look for a panacea in every new idea that comes out of Washington, we should look back on an institution that prepared U.S. forces for nation building at a time in our history when that capability was most needed. Conceived before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army established a School of Military Government in 1942 that trained military officers for the myriad tasks associated with governing occupied territories. As U.S. involvement in the war expanded, the program grew from one military-run school in Charlottesville, Virginia, to ten universities around the country. In eighteen classes between May 11, 1942 and February 16, 1946, the school graduated over a thousand officers, most of them members of the U.S. Army, but others from the Navy and Marine Corps, and from many of the United Nations, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland. Its graduates assisted tactical and operational forces of the United States and many of its allies in Italy, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, the islands of the South West Pacific, the Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, and Korea. Military government and civil affairs officers served with distinction on the staffs of theaters of operations, task forces, army groups, armies, corps, and divisions, in general staff or special staff sections—almost wherever American troops had engaged the enemy. If the United States was able to create such an institution that had a positive impact on the outcome of the war, and on the creation of a sustainable peace during a time of extreme crisis (the Great Depression and an attack on the homeland), it is worth revisiting such an idea today.
We should fully expect that the United States and its forces will engage in economic reconstruction again and again, as it currently is the exit strategy for today’s wars. The emerging field of Expeditionary Economics, advanced by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, suggests that a country’s political and social stability stems from economic opportunity and job growth. Its premise is that economic development is essential for the longer-term success of many military interventions, but while the United States has enjoyed military success abroad, our discouraging record in promoting economic growth and development has at times prevented us from attaining strategic success. Nation building and its associated tasks always have been a challenge for the U.S. military, which normally is not equipped or trained to undertake such endeavors, but instead is relied on by default as the only actor with the responsiveness and capability to perform them. What is particularly instructive is to examine a case where the military actually prepared systematically for nation building—the World War II−era School of Military Government—and also implemented military government with relative success.