Ends and Means

“The military’s purpose is not to kill people and break things. This idea is factually, historically, professionally, and philosophically wrong — and must itself be remorselessly killed and violently broken. This 11-word platitude has no place in modern society. To suggest the military’s purpose is to break and kill confuses purpose and task, ends with means.”

–Major Matt Cavanaugh, “The Military’s Purpose is Not to Kill and Break Things,War on the Rocks (26 August 2015

So Nathaniel, tell me, what is it you do? All Miranda said is that it is something too techie for her to understand.”

He smiled. 

“I reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

Confusion flashed across her face. 


“Well its not all I do!” he said, a little too quickly. “I also ‘promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ and help  ’employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples’.”

She thought about excusing herself then and there, but Miranda had worked so hard to pair the two off… she least had to at least give him shot.  

“That sounds so… interesting. How do you do it, exactly?”

“I work at the United Nations,” he said, brightly, trying hard to impress. “That is part of their mission statement–it is in the preamble of the U.N. charter. I memorized it so I never forget the real purpose of my work.”

“That’s pretty impressive. So are you a diplomat then, or some kind of negotiator?”

His face dimmed. “No.”

“What do you for the U.N. then?”

His eyes narrowed. “I told you: I reaffirm faith in the dignity and worth of the human person.”

“Well yes, I believe you, I just want to understand how exactly you do that. I mean, it must be pretty cool. Are you a translator? Do you direct one of those global poverty reduction programs?”

“I…” He slouched. “I am in IT. A computer information systems manager.”

“I have a friend who does that. He had to get an MS in IT, makes buckets now.  I am sure you must do fairly well for yourself too.”

He gave a bland smile. “Enough to afford my apartment in Manhattan.”

“But why not just come out and say it? Your job, I mean? Why all this ‘dignity and worth’ stuff?”

“Well, that is  what I do. This is why working IT for the U.N. is so rewarding–I know I am working for a greater cause. Not just for a buck, you know? Really if you think about it, all the troubleshooting and security updates  I do is just a means to an end. We should focus on ends of my efforts, not their means.”

“That’s admirable way of looking at your job. It explains why you are so enthusiastic.” He beamed. “But… don’t you think explaining your job this way is it a bit….silly?”

“No, I-“

“Wait, just here me out. I acknowledge that global peace is the purpose of what you do. But how you do that matters, right? How many thousands of people does the U.N. employ? They all are working towards the same general ends–or at least I like to think so. But they are all quite different from each other. One is a translator, another does field surveys, some are crisis mediators, and then there is you, working IT.  You could explain your job as “preserving world peace”–but so can they. And if that is true, if that is all there is too it, why bother with the distinctions at all? Why have information systems managers in the first place?”

“We are important! This is the 21st century. Without us-“

“Exactly!” she said,You are important.  But it isn’t just the end goals that makes you important. Your value comes from the actual work you do to accomplish them. The U.N. needs people to maintain their systems. They need IT experts. Only IT specialists can do what they need done. By describing yourself with all these lofty words about global ends and epochal goals, you devalue the unique part you play in making all that come to pass. You undersell yourself.

He looked down, brow furrowed. After a moment’s silence he sighed, and said,“Maybe you are right… but people don’t understand what really goes into this. You heard Miranda: “some techie job” is how she described it. Its not approachable. And sometimes….” he took a deep breath, “well its not exactly like techies are at the top of the social totem pole. You don’t know what it is like, being tortured and teased for years. High school was a nightmare. College wasn’t much better. I want to move past that.”

 Again he went silent, this time staring over her shoulder. “Look,” he said at last, “I don’t know why I am telling you this, I just met you. But I don’t want to be associated with all that… hate. I wished I would never be called ‘nerd’ ever again. I just want to leave all that behind.”

She laughed.  “But you are a nerd! Please, don’t get mad, please–don’t leave,” she said quickly as he rose out of his seat. “I think there is nothing wrong with it. Really, I don’t. And you shouldn’t either.” 

He stared at her for a long while, shrugged, and moved to sit back down. “Does the United Nations need nerds?” she asked.


“You heard me: does the U.N. need nerds?”


“Then own it. You are a “nerd,” and that is exactly what they need you to be in order to–how was it you said–‘preserve the dignity of the human race?’

“Dignity and worth of the human person.”

She grinned. “Yes, that. If being a nerdy computer systems manager is what the U.N. needs to reaffirm the dignity and worth of the human person, then why try to describe yourself in any other way?”

He didn’t answer. He still looked rather morose. She didn’t know what memories she had stirred up inside him, but they couldn’t be as bad as hers.“I think I can understand how you feel. I sometimes feel the same way about my job.”

“What do you do?”

“I am a Marine.” He looked surprised. “And if anyone else asks what me I do, I will say “I am a Marine.'” She added with a wink, “Unless of course they are from the Air Force, in which case I’ll say “harder work than a zoomie like you ever thought possible.”  

He didn’t laugh.

“I could say,” she continued, “that my job is ‘to protect American interests,’ or ‘to implement American foreign policy,’ or ‘to make the world a better place.’ It is just as true as your U.N. preamble quotes. But it is the same problem, isn’t? Diplomats work to protect American interests. USAID officers implement American foreign policy. What person employed by the government doesn’t try and make the world a better place? We all do. What matters is how we do it.”

“And how do you do it?”

“You’ve heard  “every Marine is a rifleman,” right? I don’t think much more needs to be said. With a rifle.”

 He contemplated this. “And if some bloke comes around and tries to state it as rudely and crudely as possible? “Your job is to kill and break things, you get paid to maim and destroy.” What would you say?”

“What would I say? I would tell him that my job isn’t to kill, break, main, or destroy things. My job is to kill, break, maim, and destroy things better than anyone else on the entire damn planet.” 

She smiled again. “Especially those suckers in the U.S. Air Force.”

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