Stabilization is … an essential step in translating military success into political victory.

Picture the scene: widespread famine, millions displaced, towns destroyed, transportation and sanitation infrastructure ruined, agricultural land and property abandoned, livestock rotting, violent insurgents and dangerous brigands roaming the landscape, education and healthcare nonexistent, and corruption flourishing. Where is this? When is this? Is it Ethiopia in the 1980s? Sudan in the 1990s? Is it Northern Syria today? It is all of these, but this scene was also the reality across much of the American South in the summer of 1868.

The post-Civil War Reconstruction period is the most all-encompassing case of post-conflict stabilization in U.S. history. President Abraham Lincoln had wisely begun planning for post-war stabilization from 1863, developing mechanisms for reconciliation and infrastructure development projects to modernize the economy of the South, such as railroad and other infrastructure expansion to blunt Southern dependence on cotton once slavery was abolished. John Wilkes Booth’s bullet brought much of that thoughtful preparation to a halt. Although not defined as “stabilization” at the time, historians suggest that the Army had learned applicable lessons during the occupation of some Southern states while hostilities were still ongoing and prior to the war in the recently acquired territories of California and New Mexico.

Stabilization is important. It is a Joint and Army concept today and the most common activity for U.S. forces throughout their history. It is also an essential step in translating military success into political victory. Yet despite these compelling facts, U.S. military stabilization has been (with notable exceptions – i.e., post-World War II Europe and Japan, and post-Korean War South Korea) under-resourced and poorly planned. Today’s U.S. military should learn some crucial lessons from the post-Civil War Reconstruction experience.

Although conducting war is what the Army trains and plans for, cleaning up after war, shoring up fragile states, and providing humanitarian assistance are the stabilization operations to which the Army as a tool is most often applied. Stabilization is defined in joint doctrine as “the process by which military and nonmilitary actors collectively apply various instruments of national power to address drivers of conflict, foster host-nation resiliencies, and create conditions that enable sustainable peace and security.” Since 2009, the Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction, drawn from doctrine and practitioner expertise, serve as the stabilization “bible” for those in the field. It illustrates the six critical “End States” required for effective stabilization: Safe and Secure Environment, Rule of Law, Stable Governance, Social Well-Being, Sustainable Economy and the Cross-Cutting Principles without which the effort is expected to fail. Applying these modern Principles to the historical case of domestic Reconstruction  determined that the experience largely mirrored that of more modern cases: the Army is always tasked with too many responsibilities, many of which are outside its core competencies, and it is never appropriately resourced nor kept in place long enough to achieve the objectives it is given.

Reconstruction occurred domestically in an environment that was relatively permissive, with well-mapped terrain, basic infrastructure for maneuvering men and materiel, well established government institutions, and essentially shared language, culture and basic values, with some regional variation. This combination of beneficial factors is singularly unique compared to foreign stabilization efforts.

In the case of Reconstruction, long-term failure resulted primarily from a lack of planning for the post-war period and a lack of clear political vision among the two presiding executives and the legislature, which gave conflicting guidance to the military governors charged with enforcing the post-combat peace. Furthermore, strategy changed by political leader and from commander to commander, which precluded a consistent, unified approach to stabilization. While a tragic consequence during the Reconstruction period itself, the more critical point is that if stabilization was unattainable for a sustained domestic post-conflict effort (Reconstruction lasted only 12 years); it is highly unlikely to be effectively implemented abroad, even when consolidating gains attained during conflict is a stated priority for long-term U.S. interests.

In addition to the causes of failure noted above, the Army suffered from under-resourcing. In the fall and winter of 1865, a perfect storm developed to derail the early gains. The Army’s mobility and manpower was severely reduced by demobilization, redeployment to the West, and the start of new contract negotiations for staff just as state governments began to re-enter the Union, ending the Army’s authority to operate in many locations.

By autumn 1865, the Treasury made $7.5 million selling 128,000 horses and mules and removing cavalry forces entirely from some Southern states. Astoundingly, the numbers dropped significantly in still-restive states–10,000 in North Carolina alone at end-war to 854 by midsummer. These effects led directly to increased violence in the areas where it became ever more difficult for the Army to have a presence. Movement of troops from the South continued this way through 1866 as troops were mustered out and others redeployed to the West.

The problem of voter fatigue with stabilization activities did not first emerge in Vietnam. It has been part of American politics at least since the Civil War and historians would likely agree that it is eternal. Only 10 years after the end of this very bloody domestic affair, the crucial need for a long-term commitment to ensure sustainable peace was unrecognized. The issue for today’s stabilization warriors is that if the U.S. electorate became disinterested in these activities intended to ensure its own society remained stable in the wake of a brutal war at home, how can decision makers expect the progeny of these same voters to support foreign interventions for the same time period or for the decades that have characterized successful post-conflict stabilization activities as in Germany and South Korea?

The issue of “ungoverned spaces,” where the legitimacy of Federal or even state authority does not reach, is not widely understood. Human social organization does not permit power vacuums to exist for long and wherever the Union Army’s reach was sparse or nonexistent in this period, alternatives to its governance capability invariably arose. The use of the Army as the “long arm of the law” reaching across the South was highly effective in ensuring the Federal government could provide security and the population could access its services; however, its reach could not be fully ubiquitous as resources were constantly being constrained.

The Army’s primary role is to provide security … to allow the other stabilization conditions to grow, [BUT] the Army consistently fails to include stabilization in all phases of war planning and resourcing.

Geography plays a crucial role in any government’s ability to prevent the rise of alternative governance. Not only is distance a challenge, but the ruggedness of the terrain can prohibit movement and divide populations within a single region into distinct and often competing sub-units. Looking at U.S. geography, the areas around the Appalachian Mountains have remained relatively fractious throughout U.S. history, for instance. Rugged terrain and distance played significant roles, especially as cavalry troops were reduced in the Southern region, especially before railroads were fully restored.

In his Anatomy of a Failed Occupation: The U.S. Army in the Former Confederate States, 1865 to 1877, Louis DiMarco suggests that the attitude of the Army commanders tasked with stabilization has an effect on mission success. If they do not embrace the mission, they are not likely to fulfill it effectively. We train warriors then deploy them as nation builders, failing to task them with opportunities to ply their hard-won skills but still expecting them to innately know how to employ others they have not honed.

DiMarco further posits that local conditions as well as domestic conditions in the occupying power’s own body politic are extremely likely contributors to the failure of Reconstruction and stabilization writ large. Partisan politics lead to a lack of clear and unified objectives for the stabilization process itself, which results in poor planning and a lack of will to allocate the necessary types and levels of resources, eventually ending in a failure to consolidate gains.

While reviews of the efficacy of Reconstruction are mixed and multitudinous, those that focus at all on the Army’s role tend today to see it as critical but eminently problematic. As Robert Selph Henry noted sagely in his 1938 The Story of Reconstruction, “The hardest part of war is not the fighting, but the cleaning up after.”

A basic assessment of the early part of Reconstruction clearly shows the Army’s short-term (1863-70) successes in bringing its leadership and organizational capabilities to the effort and its valiant attempts to find and grow those skills it did not possess. However, larger strategic issues resulted in dismal failure in the long-term (1870-77), many elements of which still echo today and may seem eerily familiar to practitioners.

The “stabilization stigma” as defined in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s 2016 Biennial Assessment of Stability Operations Capabilities is a misunderstanding of the need for stabilization activities before and during conflict, not only after conflict has ended, to ensure national security objectives are fully met. The Assessment coherently describes the precise roles of the U.S. military and other actors including other U.S. government agencies that may be better equipped for long-term engagement, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It further states that potential host nations should be involved in security cooperation activities and joint training long before a crisis, to be prepared to take the lead for stabilization with the U.S. only providing support.

As the risk to forces is considered lower during stabilization, even though the Army’s primary role is to provide security (Safe and Secure Environment) in order to allow the other stabilization conditions to grow, the Army consistently fails to include stabilization in all phases of war planning and resourcing. This “stigma” prevents effective policy development in the pre-conflict phase and highlights how prescient President Lincoln was in beginning to plan for Reconstruction long before the famous meeting at Appomattox.

The U.S. military is suited to bringing security to any operational environment. While practitioners and policymakers nearly universally recognize that the military is not the appropriate institution for most other stabilization tasks, as it is the best resourced, best organized and most responsive to government direction, it is typically tasked beyond its capabilities and capacity, leading to a pattern of stabilization failure unlikely to be broken as North Korea and Syria top the headlines.



Diane Chido is the Security and Intelligence Policy Advisor in the Stability Operations Division of the U.S. Army Peace Keeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo: A newly refurbished building stands next to an old derelict one in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although reconstruction has slowly commenced since the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended hostilities, evidence of the war remains in bullet ravaged buildings still standing throughout the city.

Photo Credit: Marco Secchi/Getty Images

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1 Comment

  1. Insightful article!

    Extracting lessons learned from recent and historical events is always beneficial and frequently paradoxical. Reconstruction, which is still in process, has been complicated by politics (carpetbaggers and so-called Scalawags), economics, prejudice, police brutality, lynchings, and Civil Rights victories and vicissitudes. When one drives through Southern states, or rides an Amtrak train through the south, one definitely gets the feeling that Reconstruction is not yet over.
    Viewing Reconstruction from the point of view of the U.S. Army is a refreshing and fascinating challenge. One of our now-readily-admitted errors in Iraq was the combined disbanding the Iraqi Army and the “firing” all Baathists from gainful employment. Iraq was soon described as “our 51st state,” our ability to “win a war but lose the peace,” and as our re-visitation to the Vietnam quagmire for a new generation of Soldiers.

    Our 23rd Secretary of the Army in his eloquent initial message to the troops identifies our priorities as Readiness, Modernization, Reform, and Army Values. Interestingly from Army locations such as Forts Jackson, Rucker, Benning, Bragg, Bliss, Hood, Gordon, Stewart, Campbell, Knox, and Polk, we could still continue the unfinished work of the Reconstruction Era and perhaps right wrongs and eradicate lingering errors. Readiness and Reform while still at our home bases will help us Modernize and add value to our home front while preparing for hostile fronts. Stabilization is the garrison complement to mobilization.

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