I was recently privileged to assist in the teaching of a course in introductory military analysis at one of the U.S.'s more prestigious universities. One question I was constantly asked by the undergraduates in my sections that first week was "Why should we study the military?" Bear in mind that this wasn't asked dismissively; in most cases this was a serious question, asked with the intent of getting a serious answer. For many of them, the course was a distribution elective; it fulfilled a set of bureaucratic restrictions on their course selection and may have looked marginally more interesting than the courses next to it.

I had prepared answers to many of the questions I thought likely to pop up that first week, but naturally, that one had slipped past me. I knew why I was studying the military; it was my chosen graduate degree track, and the reasons for that had been examined in ample detail amidst application-process soul-searching. However, unless I felt like labeling my own field of study as irrelevant, I needed to have an answer to this question. I took several minutes to formulate it, but this is an approximation of what I replied.

At the current time, the world exists in a state of what is essentially anarchy. Now, this is debatable, especially amongst political scholars! However, history and personal experience tell us that armed conflict is still possible, and arms are still used to fight it. At the base level of human existence, in my own personal opinion, lies the relationship of a man or woman to their own life and the lives of those they care about. Warfare, no matter how much it is sugar-coated or buzzworded or removed to the other side of the CNN screen, is about breaking things and killing people. It is potentially the most serious activity, in the sense of having the gravest consequences, that a society or polity or even single person can undertake. Nearly everything else we do is fixable if we change our minds. Warfare and its results are not. Damage is not only physical and corporeal; the emotional, or psychic if you will, scars that it can brand into an entire people or area can take decades to heal. Some examples, as we are finding out in various places around the world, end up appearing so intractable that only the death of an enormous fraction of the people(s) involved can cause them to fade, by lowering the number of survivors to the point where it's simply too much effort to hate. Naturally, humans are doing their best to prove that there's no such point.

As Americans, or scholars of America, the undergraduates (I told them) will one day run this and other countries. Even if they are not involved directly in policymaking, if they believe in the version of representative democracy that we purport to practice, their voices and their minds will shape the debate over our nation's actions. As the United States, we possess more warmaking capability than any other nation in the world. That is an unbelievable responsibility. Use of that power should not be informed only by what is seen on CNN, or what is told to politicians reassuringly by military professionals (even with the best of intentions). We are a nation with civilian control of the military, at least in name, and (I believe) so far in practice. Civilians, swayed by other civilians' wants, needs and preferences, will decide whether or not to send our forces to places around the world to perform their prime function - which is, again, breaking things and killing people, no matter what CNN tells you.

Sure, our military can build bridges. It can feed large groups of people. It can transport enormous masses of materiel around the world. It can set up infrastructures. It can organize large groups of people for their mutual survival. However, it must be remembered that the military knows how to do these things for one purpose and to one end - to allow it to carry out that prime function of breakage and killing. As we found in Somalia, no matter how pure the motives, the danger is always present that in the face of unexpected and unplanned circumstances, the military will respond the only way it knows how - violently.

This is not a condemnation of the military. That's its job! I want to be absolutely sure, when I do advocate sending the military to deal with a problem, that its ability to deal death and destruction is unimpaired, because that's what I'll want it to do when the chips are down.

In any case, these young people will inherit this legacy of power and responsibility. Even if the closest they get to war is through reading a newspaper and voting (a gift of the incredible level of security the United States now enjoys) they need to be aware when they vote, or write op-eds, or write their congressman, of exactly what the military is good for, and what happens when it gets cranked up. Without clear knowledge of these capabilities and consequences, the power to send this force off around the world is a dangerous and impermissable thing.

That's what I told them. I think a few of them listened. That's all one can hope for; and for those people who either wear the uniform of the United States Armed Forces, or have the poor luck to live in a place where that military might come through about its task, those few who listened will be absolutely crucial.