*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on October 5, 2015. It can also be found online here

A little over a month ago, I made the argument that the military’s purpose is not to kill people and break things but instead to serve and protect America, Americans, and American interests. Fair winds and full sails carried the message far and wide.

From the same sea, a thoughtful naval officer (and War on the Rocks contributor), Matthew Hipple, raised a rebuttal, arguing that the “core purpose” of the military is to kill people and break things. While allowing high praise for his excellent podcast, as well as all things Navy football related, I respectfully dissent.  Ironically, I find myself doing so on behalf of his beloved Navy, as this week we found out the only ship left in our seafaring force that has sunk another is a 200-year old frigate, which, of course, is in dry dock for two years. If we were to accept Hipple’s argument, and judge our military services by killing and breaking figures, then that does not bode well for our Navy.  So, in defense of sea power and Sea Control, we will apply one more intellectual strainer to this sopping wet idea, wring out the wrong, and let the mistakenness run into the drain of history. Let us keep the logic dry, and simple.  Here goes:

What we do – and who we are – is different from why we do it.

The military fights in order to protect America. Fighting is an active, physical task. Protecting America, the purpose.  Here is a helpful tip for identifying a purpose: ask why (as a 4-year old might) until you cannot anymore and you will have ultimately arrived at a purpose (i.e. Why destroy that tank? Why fight this war? Why defend that or this?).

Thankfully, Hipple is halfway there. Consider his summation: “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.” Let’s deconstruct that, and focus on the critical word because as the hinge point between task and purpose. Task: “our military…will be there to break and kill.” Purpose: for “our home, family, and allies.”

Beyond basic misidentification, it seems much of this problem’s wickedness lies with a limited lexicon. Perhaps we in the military should hold our noses and borrow from business literature, and consider using “core competency,” which is said in the Harvard Business Review to be “a complex harmonization of individual technologies and production skills” that is “difficult for competitors to imitate.” Translated, core competency describes distinctiveness and competitive edge, which for the military seems to be its unique ability to effectively kill and efficiently break things; actually, pretty much anything, anytime, anywhere (i.e. killing mercenaries in their sleep on Christmas).  To update our logic: what we do (task) – and who we are (core competency) – is different from why we do it (purpose).

Yet lurking under the surface is an even bigger problem. Sharing the War on the Rocks screen with Hipple’s argument is Keith Nightingale’s essay asking why the U.S. military is so “tactically terrific” but “strategically slipshod.” This writing seems like distant sonar echoes of historian Richard Kohn’s assessment from 2009: “The excellence of the American military in operations, logistics, tactics, weaponry, and battle has been manifest for a generation or more. Not so with strategy.” Ben FitzGerald of the Center for a New American Security calls this our “Michael Bay problem” where we often focus on “special effects technology to make our movie better instead of in the script.” In short: great with our hands, not with our minds.

It might well be this is the by-product of a not insignificant number of those in uniform who have difficulty parsing task from purpose, which suggests day-to-day combat decisions are similarly marred by an inability to connect tactical action with strategic objectives. Colin Gray tells us, “Strategy is the bridge that relates military power to political purpose; it is neither military power per se nor political purpose.” If one cannot tell the difference between the two, between dynamic steel and the grand design, how could they become Gray’s strategic bridge builder?  This answer might just satisfy Nightingale’s call.

In sum:

Yes, we are the philosophers of firepower.

Yes, we are the authors of destruction.

Yes, we are the ones with a plan to kill everyone we meet.

Yes, we are the conductors of the symphony of violence.

Yes, we are capable of many tasks and a distinct core competency, which support our military’s sole purpose: to serve and protect America, Americans, and American national interests.

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