The Military’s Purpose is Not to Kill People and Break Things
I have killed people and broken things in war.
I have killed people and broken things in war, but, as a military officer, that was never the end. There was a purpose, a reason, a goal. Always. My country, profession, and family demand this, as is the case for all in uniform.
So when, in the first Republican presidential debate earlier this month, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee responded to an open question from moderator Bret Baier on the “changing” culture of the American military by saying, “The purpose of the military is kill people and break things,” the audience applause appalled me.
The military’s purpose is not to kill people and break things. This idea is factually, historically, professionally, and philosophically wrong — and must itself be remorselessly killed and violently broken. This 11-word platitude has no place in modern society.
To suggest the military’s purpose is to break and kill confuses purpose and task, ends with means. Ironically, this miscalculation came from a minister. To apply the error in ecclesiastical terms would be to claim that Jesus’s purpose was merely to die a painful physical death, without any higher design. This might seem like silly semantics to some, but to professionals carrying either cross or carbine, words matter.
Beyond the logic, consider U.S. military doctrine’s first among equals — Joint Publication 1: Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States — which affirms that “military power is integrated with other instruments of national power to advance and defend US values, interests, and objectives.” This purpose applies even to the ground-pounding infantry, whose mission is “to close with and destroy the enemy.” Again, “destroy” is a task, which does not a purpose make. And recent reality reflects a much broader set of tasks for the grunts than myopic fixation on stabbing and smashing, all of which serve the same purpose Joint Publication 1 describes: training the Ukrainian army, assuring the Baltics, supporting African states, not to mention the development of security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade. Doctrine and recent experience combine to confirm that killing and breaking are not the military’s sole purpose or occupation.
Huckabee’s oft-repeated assertion is also wrong historically. Consider the Berlin Airlift, or the responses to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the earthquake in Haiti, and the massive disasters in Indonesia and Japan. Or the military’s role in creation and discovery: the Panama Canal, the Space Race, Lewis and Clark, the Great White Fleet, the Internet. We stand watch over the heroes in Arlington, as well as the environment: the U.S. Army protected Yellowstone, our first National Park, for over 30 years (which is where Smokey the Bear got that great campaign hat). Dr. Seuss drew political cartoons as a lieutenant, while director Frank Capra of It’s a Wonderful Life fame made movies as a major in the U.S. Army during World War II. The military does many diverse tasks. The common denominator is serving and protecting America, Americans, and American interests.
To sharpen this edge with a personal point, I write from a forward-stationed position in the Republic of Korea. Tensions are up after North Korea planted mines on our side of the Demilitarized Zone, maiming two South Korean soldiers, which resulted in an escalatory exchange of psychological operations loudspeaker broadcasts and indirect fire. If I were to receive a real-world alert call tonight, the entire range is possible: humanitarian aid and disaster relief, airstrikes and artillery, tanks and tunnels, not to leave out the fully present danger of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. Or all of the above.
Critics will counter with Clausewitz, dismissing my argument as the naïve, “kind-hearted” words of someone that misguidedly believes there is “some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed.” But Clausewitz was writing in an era of limited options, when a bloodsucking leech was often the medical profession’s first and only recourse. Today is different. New U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley just alluded to the same kind of red stuff. “As America, we have no luxury of a single opponent,” Milley said, warning that “we will pay the butcher’s bill in blood” if the military is not prepared to succeed at tasks across the full spectrum. Limiting the military to killing and breaking would inappropriately constrain us to black/white responses in a Technicolor world.
Not everything has changed. The Spartans had a saying, which roughly translates to “Come back with your shield or on it.” The shield was valued above all, because in the ranks, the shield protected not just its immediate bearer, but also the next soldier, and on, and so on. The shield mattered more than the sword. The message was clear: If you do not have your shield, if you lost that implement of integrated defense, then you had better not come back at all. And this rings true today: The military is both the country’s shield and sword, but, always the shield over the sword.
The final stake in this mistaken sentiment’s heart is that it misrepresents me as a military person. If my purpose is to kill people and break things, how do I explain this to my wife and two young daughters? Particularly as Gen. Milley considered this our primary audience, stating: “Most importantly, we serve for our children.” Should I get down on bended knee and tell my girls, “Daddy is a killer and a breaker?” Would this make them smile? Proud?
The idea that the military exists to kill and break rests on a Hollywood-informed view of the world, loaded with giant, muscular superheroes that never have to submit to the laws of physics or a weapon’s maximum ammunition capacity, perpetually ready to whack a terrorist at a moment’s notice. This Bruckheimerian theology might be captured at its uniformed best in Marvel’s Captain America (played by a CGI-enhanced Chris Evans). Ironically, friends at work have taken to calling me “Steve Rogers” — as in the scrawny, scrappy, hard charger who eventually transforms into Captain America after taking a mystery drug (steroids). As in all jokes, there’s some truth in the punchline: As a runner, I fill out every bit of my extra-small uniform.
But here’s why I’m proud, fiercely proud, to be nicknamed “Steve Rogers.” In the movies, you take some chemicals, get big and impervious to heavy-weapons fire, and start mauling bad guys. In reality, those of us in uniform are human, not Terminators. There’s a telling moment in Captain America when a senior officer tests a group of recruits by rolling a grenade into a large gathering of soldiers. Without hesitation, the smallest of them, Steve Rogers, hurls himself onto the explosive. The protective instinct on display represents the military far better than any written description ever could — sacrificing one’s all to safeguard the many.
The purpose of the military is not to kill people and break things. While sometimes it must break, it must always guard. While sometimes it must kill, it must always keep. In all things, in all tasks, beyond any debate, the military’s purpose is to serve and protect America.
Major Matt Cavanaugh, a U.S. Army Strategist, has served in assignments from Iraq to the Pentagon and New York to New Zealand. He writes regularly at WarCouncil.org and invites others to connect via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the US Military Academy, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army