Best Defense

The military’s purpose isn’t to break things and kill people, but it should be

Mike Huckabee unwittingly opened a philosophical debate when he responded to the proposition of allowing transgender people to serve in the military during the Republican primary debate. “The military is not a social experiment,” he said. “The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.”

South Korean army commandos smash a pile of stone plates in a show of force at the national war museum in Seoul on May 5, 2010 marking children's day.  North Korea has completed deployment of about 50,000 special forces along the border with South Korea, a report said Wednesday, amid high tensions over the sinking of a Seoul warship          AFP PHOTO / PARK JI-HWAN (Photo credit should read PARK JI-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images)
South Korean army commandos smash a pile of stone plates in a show of force at the national war museum in Seoul on May 5, 2010 marking children's day. North Korea has completed deployment of about 50,000 special forces along the border with South Korea, a report said Wednesday, amid high tensions over the sinking of a Seoul warship AFP PHOTO / PARK JI-HWAN (Photo credit should read PARK JI-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense office of military philosophy

Mike Huckabee unwittingly opened a philosophical debate when he responded to the proposition of allowing transgender people to serve in the military during the Republican primary debate. “The military is not a social experiment,” he said. “The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.”

While he meant his remarks to be construed within the context of the question, it still provoked Army Major Matt Cavanaugh to argue against the assumption of the military’s role. “The military’s purpose is not to kill people and break things. This idea is factually, historically, professionally, and philosophically wrong,” he wrote. “And must itself be remorselessly killed and violently broken.”

Cavanaugh stands on “Joint Publication 1” to propose that the purpose of the military is to advance and defend U.S. values, interests, and objectives. While that purpose sometimes requires the military to wreak death and destruction, Cavanaugh asserts that it more frequently demands a broader range of tasks that include everything from disaster relief in Japan to training security forces in Iraq. What Cavanaugh fails to realize is that this construct of the U.S military’s purpose is itself a social experiment. The idea is only “historically and philosophically wrong” if you limit your survey to the latter half of America’s political history. From the Continental Congress all the way up to World War II, the American political leadership and citizenry believed that a standing peacetime military was not only a threat to liberty but a waste of tax dollars. The modern global-do-all force of which Cavanaugh is so proud to be a member is really only a 20th century development, and a radical departure from what it was intended to be.

Cavanaugh’s own historical examples of the military’s illustrious achievements outside the scope of warfare don’t support his arguments as well as he’d like. Yes, the U.S. Army did “stand watch over the environment” in Yellowstone for 30 years. However, that protection was against American citizens and companies. The law was upheld and the land preserved, but posse comitatus had to be trampled on to do it. As for the Great White Fleet, its intended purpose was to deter Japanese aggression and prevent war from happening. It’s arguable that the show of naval strength based on a battleship-led fleet had the opposite effect. Like the song says, “Never saw a military solution that didn’t turn out as something worse.”

The results of the experiment are clear. Whether Cavanaugh believes it or not, the majority of Americans and the world believe that military forces are meant for killing people and breaking things, and anytime you attempt to use a military force for purposes outside of killing and breaking confusion is inevitable. The continuance of the experiment in the face of these results has only affirmed them through countless attempts at nation building and police actions. Included on Cavanaugh’s list of tasks within the military’s purpose are “assuring the Baltics” and “supporting African states.” Those last two references are so ill-defined that it’s hard to say whether they’re tasks or purposes, methods or measures. For those old enough to remember, “supporting African states” can either mean handing out food to starving people or getting in a two-day gunfight in downtown Mogadishu.

There’s no doubt that Cavanaugh wins the debate with Huckabee if we frame the argument in existential terms. Yes, at present the military’s purpose encompasses a lot more than just killing people and breaking things. It’s building schools in Afghanistan and Africa. It’s flexing muscle around the Spratly Islands. It’s managing a host of domestic construction and environmental projects. It’s studying the effects of sound on marine mammals. It’s advancing renewable energy technologies. According to Cavanaugh, “the common denominator is serving and protecting America, Americans and American interests.” True enough.

But what Cavanaugh and many others ignore is that many of these initiatives could just as easily fall under the purview of the Department of State, Interior, Energy, or USAID. The blanket of “protecting America, Americans and American interests” can be used to cover just about anything you want, up to and including firefighting, law enforcement, and domestic surveillance.

Orwellian visions aside, all of this constitutes a more immediate ill that is destroying US military effectiveness. The 1990’s idea of a force capable of the full spectrum of operations mutated into a 21st century perpetual motion war machine. We have committed the error of confusing a military that can do anything with one that can everything, and with disastrous results. The military is burned out from over a decade of war, and its highest leaders continue the refrain in speech after report after testimony that there is no rest for the weary on the horizon. The military must pivot to Asia and Africa at the same time while maintaining a footprint in the Middle East and keeping an eye on Eastern Europe. It’s a game of geopolitical twister that no organization can hope to accomplish effectively, yet the military does it anyway. Cavanaugh himself crows that at any moment, his phone may ring tonight and rip him away from the hair-trigger state of affairs between North and South Korea with a mission ranging from “tanks and tunnels” to “humanitarian aid and disaster relief,” mixed in with the potential threat of chemical and biological warfare. “Or all of the above,” he says. He basically believes he’s James Bond. This is how delusional our military leadership has become about its capabilities.

It’s this hubris that compels our top leadership to constantly assure Congress and the President that it can always answer the call no matter what the problem is. Our political leadership has responded in kind by handing the problems over before they even truly comprehend them. Nothing demonstrates the epitome of this foolishness better than the government’s creation of a mission to fight a “Global War on Terror” and the military’s insistence that it can win it. In so doing we have militarized American diplomacy. The linguistic magic tricks used to justify funding for all manner of initiatives within the scope of counter-terror operations inadvertently turned the Pentagon into a black hole of foreign policy actions. Now it sucks in programs and missions by virtue of its sheer gravity. Even the language of foreign policy itself gets distorted within the event horizon of the beltway. In Vietnam we believed that napalm could be used as an effective means of communication. Today we’ve become so detached from reality that we are literally proposing the fight against ISIS as a means to strengthen our nuclear arms treaty with Iran. It’s a perverse riff on a military’s capability going beyond killing and destroying — even death and destruction themselves are more than what they are.

In these terms, it’s difficult to quantify how successful the military is in accomplishing its purpose. How supported is Africa? What is Europe’s level of assurance? Do irreconcilable Afghan warlords and the Chinese feel our presence? Does it matter? Did North Vietnam receive our message? Does ISIS? Will Iran?

These are no idle questions when our military still can’t decide if it won its two wars or not. As Emile Simpson wrote in response to that very question, yes and no. “In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, when the conventional phase was over and the mission became indistinguishable from enforcing the writ of a relatively corrupt government over disillusioned parts of its own population, the notion that a decisive outcome was even available was illusory.” In other words, there’s a flip-side to Cavanaugh’s reality.

Yes, the military does more than kill people and break things. It just doesn’t do it well. And yet the military has persisted in its belief that it can, going so far as to chisel it in the granite of its own doctrine. It trumpeted the publication of FM 3-24 like it was the autobiography of Kanye West.

But for all the brilliant instructions of how to win hearts and minds by not killing people and breaking things, the military seems cursed to forever be drawn into situations where people are killed or things are broken, service members have their judgment questioned and political and military leaders perform the sweaty dance of dodging the awkward Congressional inquiry moment.

It doesn’t have to be this way. No one has asked FEMA, USAID, the Department of the Interior or the State Department to kill people and break things. While the military has for reasons unexplained felt it necessary to adopt many of those agencies’ functions, they have not similarly impinged on the Pentagon’s sacrosanct territory. Perhaps a whole-of-government approach to counterinsurgency would work better if it played more like a team of equals than one built around a superstar. Certain arms of the government have tried to pack on the military muscle, however, with telling consequences. “The militarization of law enforcement” is not a term that casts American police and investigative agencies in a flattering light. The local sheriff, state trooper and border patrol agent are as much protectors of America as Marines and Airmen. Theirs is supposed to be a profession that endeavors to kill as few people and break as few things as possible. Yet as they’ve adopted more of the equipment and tactics from our military, the number and severity of instances of police brutality and excess has exploded. Militarizing was a step backwards for police. An initiative to obtain better equipment and skills to protect people had the opposite effect.

None of this is to say that Cavanaugh and the other members of the military haven’t done the best job possible. But it’s time to admit that they have been given a smorgasbord of purposes too numerous to cover effectively.

The great social experiment is over, and our citizenry and political leadership should bring it to a close. The military’s purpose is not to kill people and break things, and that’s the problem. To safeguard its capability and keep it on the right side of the American values, interests and principles it was meant to protect, we should pare the multi-tool back to a hammer and return it to the toolbox. It used to be called The Department of War. Ever since it changed to Defense, it has only assumed a greater range of tasks, many of which have nothing to do with either war or defense. Cavanaugh takes exception to Huckabee’s speech because it doesn’t align with reality. But it’s the reality, not the speech, which should be changed.

Jim Gourley is an author, journalist, and former military intelligence officer. 

Photo credit: Park Ji-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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