On Killing and Breaking Things


In 1994, ten Belgian peacekeepers were sacrificed on the altar of a new-age idea, that the military — originally designed to break things and kill people — was something else altogether. The soldiers of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) were ordered to keep a tenuous peace without the mandate, weapons condition, or rules of engagement that provided the credibility to a military. In attempting to protect the moderate Rwandan Prime Minister, Madam Agathe Uwilingiyimana, 10 Belgians from the most elite forces of UNAMIR were kidnapped, tortured, and executed by the Rwandan presidential guard. They had been castrated, with their Achilles tendons cut so they couldn’t run before they were killed. Years later Gen. Romeo Dallaire, their Canadian officer-in-charge, would attempt suicide to escape the horror he witnessed for the world’s fiction of policy.

Matt Cavanaugh wrote an article some weeks ago in which he argued that the military’s purpose is not to kill people and break things. This piece, which created quite a stir in the military community, is a well-meaning, but ultimately incorrect, re-hashing of this flawed idea. He states, “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.”  Semantically, Cavanaugh’s point may sound true, but it is a non-sequitur to the core issue.

The military is often called a “hammer” in the world of foreign policy for a reason. Cavanaugh would note that a hammer has many missions, from building houses up to breaking them down. However, every use is built on the hammer’s ability to apply force to an object: its ability to hit things. The military is not the only arm of the U.S. government that secures the nation and its interests abroad. However, the military is uniquely charged with the violence potentially necessary for that defense. Such a purpose exists at the core of a military; it serves as a force that engages in — or has the potential to engage in — the professional breaking of things and killing of people when necessary.

Cavanaugh quite accidently makes the case for this purpose in his citation of missions he sees as wholly separate from “break things and kill people.” There’s a reason we don’t send the Peace Corps or contract UPS for these missions:

  1. Training the Ukrainian military: Aiding Ukraine in developing the execution and support of breaking and killing necessary to defend against the Russian invasion.
  2. Baltic assurance: Demonstrating the ability and resolve to break and kill if forced to.
  3. Security force development: Training friendly forces to break and kill if necessary in defense of their country or in defense of NATO and NATO aligned nations.
  4. Space operations: Supporting operations on the ground oriented towards the potential breaking of things while also increasing our engagement in an underexploited domain where breaking of our assets and threats to forces below may become an increasing challenge.
  5. Dr.Seuss’s war propaganda: Supporting the political will for the grim but necessary task of breaking and killing.

The off-axis missions cited by Cavanaugh such as the Berlin Airlift, exploration, and the byproducts of defense efforts such as commercial internet are just and virtuous uses of the capabilities this vast enterprise provides in times of peace and in pursuit of new capabilities.

The gut challenge Cavanaugh makes is when he asks the very human question: “Should I get down on bended knee and tell my girls, ‘Daddy is a killer and a breaker?’ Would this make them smile? Proud?

Honestly? If explained properly, in context, and at the right time — I hope it would. Cavanaugh accuses others of reduction — of wrongly boiling down the military’s purpose to “breaking things and killing people.” The reality is that Cavanaugh commits the cardinal sin of using semantics to impugn the dignity, moral gravity, and reality of military’s existential purpose. It is necessary and one of the ugly truths about the world that, in time, I will explain to my son when he’s ready. I hope I’ll have raised him to understand these things when that time comes — and part of me quietly hopes I’ll do a good enough job that he will follow me into the service. But I can’t give in to the easy path of changing the truth to make my job easier.

Militaries are capable of many wonderful acts of mercy and peace, and we are right to prefer these to the ugliness of war. However, when those missions supplant the core purpose of the military to break things and kill people, we must remember the broken souls and killed bodies that returned from the UNAMIR mission. UNAMIR experienced the horror that occurs when militaries are sent into combat zones and ordered to forget their violent truth. Our home, family, and allies are only able to find peace because our military has demonstrated that it will be there to break and kill when that tenuous reality is threatened. We forget that at our peril.


Matthew Hipple is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. A graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, he is president the Center for International Maritime Security — where he hosts the Sea Control Podcast. The venn diagram sections of “his opinions” and “official representation of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or Government,” do not intersect. Follow him on twitter: @AmericaHipple


Photo credit: The U.S. Army