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The Army’s Purpose is NOT to “Deploy, Fight, and Win Our Nation’s Wars”

By Ben Ordiway

I hope our wisdom will grow with our power and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be. Thomas Jefferson

What is the Army’s purpose? The answer depends on where you look. Doctrine enthusiasts will point to ADP 1-0, The Army, for their answer (also featured prominently on the Army’s flagship website). In this fundamental text, we find the language of offense

“The Army mission—our purpose—remains constant: to deploy, fight, and win our Nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt, and sustained land dominance by Army forces across the full spectrum of conflict as part of the joint force. The Army mission is vital to the Nation because we are a Service capable of defeating enemy ground forces and indefinitely seizing and controlling those things an adversary prizes most—its land, its resources, and its population.” (§3-4)  

However, given the military’s constitutionally mandated subordination to civilian leadership, the Army’s purpose should align with, if not mirror, the purpose espoused by its service secretary. This is not the case. In her February 2022 message to the force, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth instead emphasizes the language of defense:

“Whether it is defending the country at home or overseas, our Nation counts on the United States Army to be the first line of defense. We stand ready to deter and defend around the globe as the tip of the spear in Europe and the backbone of the joint operations in the Indo-Pacific. The Army surges in times of crisis and is ready when called upon [emphasis added] to fight and win the Nation’s wars.” 

ADP 1-0’s use of “dominance,” “conflict,” “seize,” and “adversary” presumes an adversary, presumes conflict, and presumes offensive operations. It is provocative, jingoistic even. It is a text written for a warrior–”one who makes war.” Considering ADP 1-0’s aggressive language, it is unsurprising that buzzwords like “lethality” and “warfighter” abound in Army senior leader circles, but these circles fail to encompass Secretary Wormuth’s intent. Her message to the force softens and supplements ADP 1-0 with the language of defense, i.e., “defense,” “deter,” and “defend.” She employs the language of necessity, of last resort. Secretary Wormuth’s memo is, on the other hand, evocative. It is written for a professional Soldier

The difference between “deploy, fight, win” and “defend the country at home or overseas” is not merely semantic. It goes beyond doctrinal artifacts or memos and instead strikes at the basic assumptions we in the Army hold true about ourselves. To elaborate, let’s accept that something’s purpose, its telos, informs its function (or at least that it should). In human organizations, the collective orientation toward an espoused purpose will shape the organization’s function, form, and very identity. For example, if we accept, for argument’s sake, that the purpose of medicine is to heal, we might expect to find those in medical organizations who function as healers and have the form of healers, e.g., board-certified practitioners. Finally, we’d expect them to identify as healers, e.g., “I’m Doctor Hippo Crates; where does it hurt?”

Now, what if we hypothetically change the purpose of medicine? Let’s look at a second case, this time with Dr. Hypo Crite. Suppose Dr. Crite believes the purpose of medicine is not to heal but to maximize profit. In that case, we might expect him to function in profit-maximizing ways, perhaps by leveraging means as ends in themselves, e.g., recommending expensive and possibly counterproductive medical interventions ostensibly on the patient’s behalf. In this case, although Dr. Crite may have the outward form of a healer, his identity is chiefly that of a businessman. With the original purpose of medicine abandoned, Dr. Crite’s patients and his profession are left to suffer the consequences.

All this to say, it appears that the Army is mistaking a means (“deploy, fight, and win”) for a purpose (“support and defend the Constitution”). Deploying, fighting, and (hopefully) winning should just be a means, in certain cases, of achieving the purpose laid out by Secretary Wormuth. Moreover, why does the language of our Army’s stated purpose also seemingly diverge with the language of the oath of office that all officers in the military take? The oath’s opening lays bare our true purpose and proper orientation: “I ______, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” Here, we again find the language of defense in the leading role. ADP 1-0 and the Army website notwithstanding, we—the Army—do not get to pick our purpose, a fact which the Constitution and oath of office have long confirmed.

Just to be clear, emphasizing the language of defense is not necessarily a vote for isolationism. Nor is this some pacifist ploy likely to imperil our capabilities or readiness (not that pacifism has little to recommend, namely a “just and lasting peace“). Rather, stressing the language of defense may even enhance our ability to, “when called upon,” fight at home or abroad, by growing the pool of those who answer the call. If our objective is, as Secretary Wormuth states, “to reach out to Americans from all backgrounds, talents, and geographies…to help all Americans to be able to see themselves in what the Army has to offer,” then we should carefully consider how our stated purpose affects a key external audience: parents–especially those who have not served. Suppose our military is experiencing a recruiting crisis. It may be worth revisiting, then, are parents more inclined to support their teens joining an institution that saber rattles to “deploy, fight, win”–especially when the economy is strong–or an institution that emphasizes “support and defend?” 

The language of the common defense has long been the foundation of our Army. It serves as a reminder that our true strength lies beyond our mere ability to engage in conflict and instead rests in our wisdom to deter conflict or avoid it when possible. We should focus on the defense of the Constitution as our foremost purpose rather than to “deploy, fight, and win.” In doing so, we do not mistake our mission–the means–for our purpose. Finally, by reorienting on our true purpose, we reinforce the idea that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.

MAJ Ben Ordiway is a Civil Affairs Officer. He teaches philosophy and officership at the United States Military Academy. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army or the United States Military Academy.