The Soldier’s Question: Why Go Over There?


From preparation, to its conduct, and in its aftermath – war is certain pain for uncertain gain. As I recently returned home from a one-year tour in Korea, I’ve kept asking myself: Why did I go? Especially when I knew the cost my family would bear.

My journey to Korea had a shocking preamble. I still remember her tiny body on the floor, shaking, vomit pooling under her pale lips.

Everything changed with our three-year-old’s first seizure in December 2014. My wife, Rachel, called, and I recklessly drove our mini-van up the steep curve home, arriving just ahead of the ambulance. That night and the subsequent weeks were difficult. After multiple tests and second opinions, we learned our daughter has a seizure condition. The pediatric neurologist prescribed medication and advised preparedness for the next strike.

The following week, my military career manager phoned. He needed someone to take an unaccompanied position in Korea. That meant my family had to stay behind. It was up to us, but, as my last deployment was several years ago – two years in Iraq, and a couple more at an overseas school –  Rachel and I decided, since it was ultimately inevitable, to accept the tour and I flew across the Pacific in June 2015 without my family to serve as a staff officer in the newly organized South Korean-U.S. combined division.

Then lightning struck again. After I had been in Korea for a little over a month, our daughter had another seizure, another emergency room visit. Rachel’s message came in the middle of the night – I missed it and didn’t know what happened until the next morning when I woke with a deep sense of panic, helplessness, and a recurring question:

Why did I go?

With nearly 120,000 soldiers serving overseas, every day, in the U.S. Army, this is a common question. For me, we can dispense quickly with the material reasons to go – it wasn’t for the lawyers, the guns, or the money. Cash and bullets aren’t enough of an incentive, and the law didn’t coerce me as I certainly wasn’t prepared to defect to a new life and accent in Canada.

Non-material reasons provide much more powerful explanations. Social sanction must have had a hand – a sense that “it’s my turn.” I haven’t been overseas for this type of duty for a few years and felt compelled to pitch in. It’s routine nowadays in the “era of persistent conflict.” It seems like we’re all on a two-year conveyor belt, where at the end we fall into another country for a year, after which we get put back on the conveyor to start the process anew. And, if I didn’t go, if I said “no,” someone else, likely with kids and a family, would go in my place.

But it might even go deeper than duty. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has professed a “theory of eusocial evolution”: While natural selection remains predominant, humankind’s development favors traits which “introduce highly cooperative behavior into the physiology and behavior of group members.” His thesis suggests soldiers serve because on a genetic level they’re wired to sacrifice for society’s greater good.

In my genes or not, this year has torn our family up. Last month, the doctors told us the seizures are happening while she sleeps and so we had to up the medication. Beyond the illness, I missed our other, younger daughter’s first words and first steps this past winter, which isn’t surprising because I’ve been gone for well over half her life. And I left Rachel to tackle all this as a single parent. It’s taken a serious toll on our marriage, to the point that we had a conversation in January where we momentarily raised the sickening specter of the “D” word.

That “D” could just as easily stand for “disappointment” or “deadbeat” – the guilt that emerges in recognizing I wasn’t there for the tough stuff. There’s a full year gap where I won’t be in my family’s memories and they won’t be in mine. While not a big deal today, eventually, as age sets in and memories rise in importance, that fact will hurt more. I let them down this year.

Maybe, maybe, there is one last redeeming reason, deeper than comrades or chromosomes that compelled me to leave home. North Korea, with its nuclear guillotine and unpredictable threat to tens of millions of innocent people, is a potent peril to human progress itself. If, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” then containing and rolling back such a perverse ideology is a step to creating the world I desperately want for my family’s future.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that can’t specify my precise contribution to this cause – deterrence is unprovable and such calculation exceeds measure. When I held my girls again, for the first time in a long time, an unsurprising question rang through my head:

Was it worth it?


ML Cavanaugh is a US Army Strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and has served in assignments from Iraq to the Pentagon, and Korea to New Zealand. A Contributor at War on the Rocks, he looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

Image: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson