What is Worth Fighting For?

It’s a simple sentence. Deceptively simple. And yet, it’s one that people resist answering or get awkward if it gets brought up.

What is worth fighting for?

And further, what is worth dying for?

Home? Family? Religion? Way of life? Economic pursuits? Safety and security?

How about this one: what is worth killing for?

Yes, I know I’m tossing out the big, difficult questions that have plagued ethicists, philosophers, generals, and politicians for eons. But just because they are hard questions doesn’t mean that we should stop asking them altogether.

Especially now, in a time where our nation is in its most prolonged conflict in our history. The war in Afghanistan has dragged on since 2001, and few ask, “Is it worth fighting?” There are the lives lost, both American and Afghan. There is the cost, financial and emotional. And there is the legacy of a constabulary force at the end of the world that time forgot – or that the U.S. forgot.

In this, our longest war, we’ve moved into a numb acceptance that conflict is the status quo for the United States. Proponents of the frequent use of the U.S. military can point to other periods of protracted conflict: the clashes with American Indians and the Philippine Insurrection. Yet those examples are hollow; the former being a morally unsound conflict fought on the North American continent and the latter being a conflict that was declared “won” even though it still bleeds into violence in the Philippines to this day.  Additionally, just because we have done it before doesn’t make it a good idea. Accepting that we are always going to be involved in undeclared wars takes a toll on the psyche of the nation and of those who are asked to carry the burden of the wars.

This group, the military, has benefited from an unprecedented era of constant high defense spending with no tax increases to make up for the cost of the conflicts. But at what price? We are asked to remain at heightened levels of readiness at all times. Readiness is a word that gets tossed around frequently these days, but at its heart it means the ability to go to war, now.  Constant readiness drains money, sucks up resources, and saps the energy of individuals. Even when not heading out on a deployment, service members are constantly in training or are pulled in a dozen different directions if they are in leadership positions. Marriages are strained, relationships stretched. For service members, they often find the requirements too demanding and get out.

We do not have an unlimited pool of qualified candidates, so this constant drumbeat of “readiness now, readiness always” will eventually be met with no accompanying footsteps. Or we will have to take in sub-standard recruits. And with that comes a rise in accidents, crimes, and a grave risk of mission failure when deployed.

The drive for readiness also creates another problem: if we have a military ready for anything, but it does nothing, then why are we paying for it to be ready? Readiness drives the propensity for use. If you have a new bright and shiny toy, no one wants to let it sit on the shelf. They want to use it. And so the cycle continues, with a demand for readiness while more conflicts rumble into growth around the globe.

And speaking of readiness, what happens when a “big one” kicks off? A massive conventional war, when we have worn the edge of our sword dull on small actions around the world? That’s a question that keeps many military leaders up at night.

So. What is worth fighting for?

This is a question that needs to be asked. Not just for the present, but forever. In the Civil War, Congress convened an inquiry on the conduct of the war that lasted all four years. The U.S. was barely eight months into World War I before Congress began an inquiry into why U.S. troops didn’t have the proper weapons or equipment. The Truman Commission in World War II studied, monitored, and curtailed the fraud, waste, and abuse of government contractors. And yet, we are sixteen years into a war that Congress has committed only a passing interest to. They need to ask this question as well.

And maybe they will come away with the answer that the war is indeed worth fighting, for a whole variety of reasons that are important to the American people. And having been there, I can say, “Yes, there are so many reasons to be in Afghanistan.” But there are so many reasons that we could use force all over the world.

So the question must be asked.

Not just by the military, not just by the government, but by the American people. We are your military. We act in your name, empowered by the government that we all elected, to use force. If we cannot establish this connection between the people of the United States and we who act in their name, then these conflicts will continue indefinitely, with the threat of sapping the strength and life blood of the nation.

What is worth fighting for?

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Opinions here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense.

Cover Photo: U.S. Army artillery firing in Iraq, 2008 (WIRED)

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