Small Wars Journal

Yes, Unfortunately, Sometimes Militaries Must “Destroy the Town to Save It”

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 10:43pm

Yes, Unfortunately, Sometimes Militaries Must “Destroy the Town to Save It” by M.L. Cavanaugh - Modern War Institute

Fifty years ago this week, during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a US Army major famously remarked to a journalist, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Pilloried for its callousness, one fellow officer who claimed to have been present even said it went “down in history as an example of some of the insanity that was Vietnam.”

Myself an Army major, I know how crazy it sounds to most people. And, yet, while I am on the record as strongly opposed to empty platitudes like “the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things” (the military’s purpose is to protect and defend), I also know this infamous quotation from fifty years ago reflects one of the harsh, paradoxical realities of war: sometimes, unfortunately, militaries must destroy in order to save.

While some will scoff at that formulation, they should know that battlefields impose a different set of values than those of the civilian world. War has always been ruled by a logic of paradox—as Edward Luttwak has pointed out, the presence of an aggressor makes conflict a counterintuitive endeavor where a good road is a bad road because it is a good road (and thus the enemy will likely attack there). The ancient aphorism, “if you want peace, prepare for war,” follows the same sense.

And, unlike most other contests, at war there are few rules and no guarantees an enemy will abide by them. Sometimes that enemy gets to choose where the fight will go…

Read on.