The Military Officer’s Oath

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W.J. Astore

The U.S. military exists to win America’s wars.  But even more fundamentally, the military exists to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, i.e. America’s laws.  America is supposed to be a nation of laws.  The military, as a defender of the Constitution, must uphold those laws to the best of its ability.

Here is the key sentence I recited as a regular officer in the U.S. military: “I do solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

The oath says nothing directly about obeying the president as commander-in-chief.  It says nothing directly about the need to “win” wars.  Its primary meaning is clear.  Uphold the Constitution.  Defend it.

Indeed, it would be better to lose a war than to subvert the Constitution.  Wars come and go, but the Constitution and our laws must be permanent.  They are the nation’s bedrock.

As Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense in 1776, in a newly forged America, the law was to be made “king” — the law was to be our monarch and our guiding light.

It all sounds idealistic, but that’s where the rubber meets the road, and too many of our most senior officers don’t recognize this.  They are far more concerned with enlarging the Navy, or the Army, or the Marines, or the Air Force, as well as protecting their service’s (and the military’s) reputation.  Hence the misleading “progress” reports in Iraq and elsewhere.  Better to lie (or to be economical with the truth), they think, than to be honest and to “hurt” the services.

So, in lying to protect their service branch, they harm the Constitution — indeed, push the lie far enough and you end up betraying the Constitution you’ve sworn to uphold.

It takes men and women of courage and integrity to speak the truth when those truths are uncomfortable.  We don’t have enough of such officers today.  As a first step in reinvigorating our republic, officers need to look to the oath and meet its demands on their integrity and their courage – most notably their moral courage.

11 thoughts on “The Military Officer’s Oath

  1. Professor.

    A timely topic. Although it is inside baseball, I urge further development. To make my case I need only borrow from Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. Speaking on October 25, 2007, at the Center for a New American Security, Mullen had this to say about the officer oath: “We all raise our right hand, swear to support the Constitution and carry out the orders we are given, and we should do that, and if we can’t do that, then we should leave.”

    Place Mullen’s lack of understanding into the context of the 1934 “Hitler Oath” (which you can find at the Jewish Virtual Library), and you will know what I am talking about. All of the pain inflicted by Germany, and on Germany, comes down to a single act of legislative cowardice.

    By the way, Thomas Paine was a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard. We unwashed and unappreciated citizen soldiers are proud of him.

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  2. Again, the U.S. military exists to drain the economic resources of the national economy so that the country’s wealth will continue to enrich the corporate oligarchy and not go towards raising the general standard of living. Winning “wars” — or Overseas Contingency Operations — has nothing to do with this vast money-laundering scam, since the U.S. military has lost pretty much every “war” it has fought since 1945. You can always tell when the U.S. military has lost another war the minute they start calling it “long.”

    Anyway, consider if you will two admittedly jaundiced verse treatments of that oath taking-and-swearing thing:

    (I): Oath of Avarice

    I pledge allegiance to the corporation:
    A “person” as the judges have proclaimed,
    And place this “him” or “her” above my nation
    Whose Constitution “he” or “she” has maimed
    Pursuant to no legal obligation
    Except immunity, however named,
    For those investors in their campaign suites
    Who’d rather that we call them our “elites.”

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2014

    (II) The Eisenhower/McCarthy School Prayer (violating the Constitutional separation of Church and State) that the Republicans Party foisted upon us captive American school children in the 1950s.

    The Boobie Pledge of Subservience
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    I offer my obedience
    I pledge undying love
    To any symbol formed to serve
    The needs of those above
    Who rightly feel that I deserve
    The fist inside the glove

    I stand and mumble publicly
    With fear upon my brow
    Lest some mistake my silence for
    An insufficient vow
    Let all who see and hear me know
    How easily I cow

    Authority need never fear
    I swear I know my place
    I pledge to take the gauntlet slapped
    Across my beaten face
    The Seizure Class knows I’ll accept
    Chastisement with good grace

    About such things as freedom, I
    Have not the slightest clue
    By birth and class it’s come to THEM
    I know that it’s THEIR due
    To hand me down instructions as
    To just what I must do

    And so I promise faithfully
    To play my scripted part
    Each day I’ll chant Two Minutes’ Hate
    To finish, from the start
    Until I love BIG BROTHER from
    The bottom of my heart

    I swear to do as I am told
    I will not think too deep
    I’ll huddle in conformity
    Just like the other sheep
    To take my whipping like a slave
    And utter not a peep

    I pledge to stand up every day
    Within my schoolroom class
    And mouth my mantras on demand
    Without backtalk or sass
    Until the program makes me a
    Compliant, docile ass

    I swear upon my loyalty
    To stuff my head with fat
    And place my nation “under” “GAWD!”
    Supinely prone and flat
    With me then going “down” “beneath”
    And “lower” “under” that

    I swear to go to Sunday School
    Upon the public dime
    Each morning in my homeroom class
    I’ll mouth my dreary rhyme
    And if I leave out words
    THEY can Indict me for my crime

    I pledge and vow and promise that
    I’ll swear from dusk to dawn
    And never fail to chant or moan;
    To never blink or yawn
    And with each cry of “GAWD IZ GRATE!”
    My own soul I will pawn

    The Papal bulls and fatwas tell
    Me all I need to know
    Which isn’t much because I see
    I’ve nowhere left to go
    I swear to never set my sails
    Against the winds that blow

    The Popes, Imams, and Rabbis tell
    Me what and where and how
    The master’s overseer tells
    Me which row I must plow;
    To toady, genuflect, and crawl;
    To grovel, scrape and bow

    I’ll train to “hurry up and wait”
    And do the Bulgar drills
    To stand at rapt attention dressed
    In military frills
    Just point me and I’ll drop the bomb
    No matter whom it kills

    I pledge and promise on my word
    To do the things I ought
    To work for lower wages
    So my labor comes to naught
    I swear to vote Republicrat
    To prove I can be bought

    The Party keeps us all at war
    Which makes us quake with fear
    And so we give up all those rights
    Our ancestors held dear
    Which saves our enemies the need
    To take them from us here

    But I won’t think of bygone days
    The past I’ll just rewrite
    I’ll call my history “old news”
    To make it pat and trite
    Which sleight of mind will help me keep
    Its lessons out of sight

    With this capitulation I
    Agree to sell my pride
    Before I even own it or
    It grows too big to slide
    Into the shabby, craven cave
    Wherein I must reside

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005

    As Emperor Caligula said: “Let them hate, so long as they fear.” Today’s Americans have got that fear thing down pat through long practice. Too bad they have come to love rather than hate it. Easy pickings, really.

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    1. Mike: Your caustic insights are not wrong — nor are they fully right. Yes, military spending helps to drive the economy. Yes, it’s often a form of wasteful spending that inhibits real rises in the standard of living for ordinary Americans. We must think of the military as a tax on the people — after all, it’s funded by taxation. It taxes us, meaning we must use it wisely, especially since it’s often literally a matter of life and death.

      Where I differ from you is in your sweeping dismissal of the military as a form of exploitative capitalism. As a form of hokum. Yes, Smedley Butler saw clearly, but even he didn’t see all of the picture. None of us do.

      There is something to be said for a Navy that maintains trade and the freedom of the seas. There is something to be said for an Air Force that provides rapid airlift, search and rescue, humanitarian aid, but also one that can maintain freedom of the skies. There’s something to be said for an Army that defends our borders and our interests overseas. I don’t think we can just eliminate the military, nor do I think you’re calling for that.

      We need a true “defense” department, at a much reduced budget and size, that focuses on U.S. vital interests, and not on its own existence for the sake of its own existence and for the profits of defense contractors and so on. We need a reformation of the military, exactly because it has drifted so far away from its primary mission, which is supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution.

      The true “revolution in military affairs” that we need is a new vision of the U.S. military’s role in the world, a rejection of imperialism and interference, a retrenchment, a strategic withdrawal. But I simply don’t see this happening, partly because of the forces you mention (profits, elite priorities, and so on), and partly because the U.S. is caught in a paradigm in which military strength is the center of our existence — our image of ourselves. It’s as if we inhabit a Ptolemaic system in which U.S. foreign policy (and much of domestic policy) revolves around the Pentagon, rather than the Pentagon being just another satellite that circles the sun, the “sun” for me being the U.S. Constitution and a nation of laws and a people that recognizes that fact.

      This is a long note, and I need to think more deeply on this, but your polemics, as stimulating as they are in cutting through cant, offer a view of the military that is too one-sided for me to find convincing.

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      1. About that “freedom of the skies” thing, Bill. You mean like those “No Fly Zones” (as in Iraq and Libya and Afghanistan) that only American warplanes — and those of the UK, France, and The Apartheid Zionist Entity can fly in? Do you mean those “freedoms”?

        You’ll partdon my caustic and sardonic view of such self-serving American euphemisms.

        Or, do you mean that “freedom of the seas” where Iranian or other national shipping cannot supply humanitarian aid to Yemen, currently getting the shit bombd out of it by the U.S. assisted Saudi Arabian air force? Do you mean those “freedoms”?

        One must always ask: “Freedom for whom? Freedom to do what? To whom does this “freedom” not apply?” That sort of thing. Bland and empty generalizations like “freedom” need significant qualification before anyone should take them at face value.

        But I have a tendency, I know, to suffuse my comments with uncomfortable — for the U.S. military mind — facts, grammatical prose, reality based semantics, and even poetic verse. So I’ll simplify things for you, Bill.

        “We need to cut the military which mostly gets us into trouble all around the world and bankrupts us as a society.” — Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party Candidate for President of the United States.

        What she said.

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  3. “‘I will have no man in my boat,’ said Starbuck, ‘who is not afraid of a whale.’ By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.” — Moby Dick

    “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” crowed President George H. W. Bush, “in a spontanteous burst of pride” (New York Times) after ordering the U.S. military to kick the crap out of a defenseless Iraq in 1991. Now — thirteen years after Bush’s Boy, Deputy Dubya, plunged the United States into a voracious and vicious middle-eastern quagmire in 2003 — we Americans speak ruefully of the Iraq/Nam Syndrome. So, thanks to the “can do” U.S. military officer caste who saluted and “did it,” we have to live through, yet again, another debilitating episode of:

    Syndrome’s Revenge
    (From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley)

    See how the generals begin to quake
    As history, ironic and perverse,
    Reveals the rank careerism at stake:

    As yes-men officers salute and nurse
    The dreams of them not frightened by a whale:
    A Starbuck’s Syndrome written in reverse;

    Succeeding after decades to derail
    The bitter train of Southeast Asian guides
    Who warned that wanton willfulness will wail

    If sent to fight for him whom fear derides
    A legion built for one who says, “I am,”
    When asked who is the leader that decides

    A force forecast to fail at Whack-and-Wham:
    An army unafraid of Vietnam.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006-2010

    They may teach something of engineering and logistics at the U.S. military academies, but learning when, where, and why not to fight apparently doesn’t figure in the curriculum.

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  4. I didn’t come by my jaundiced views of the U.S. military solely from my own experiences as an indentured enisted nobody in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club during America’s criminal War on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). Here and there along the way I have read where other informed persons have noted the same things that repel and nauseate me. For example, from The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam (who did some really first-rate reporting from the field):

    “…the army was beginning to function more and more like a separate organism, responding to its institutional needs, priorities, vanities, and careerism. Challenged by outsiders, by civilians, it responded by protecting its own senior officers.” …

    “The only problem, as the Pentagon Papers would later note, was that the [critical] newspaper account was right and the [official military] account was wrong. Sound misreporting did not impede the carreers … but it did offer a fascinating insight into the way the military worked. Loyalty was not to the President of the United States, to truth or integrity, or even to subordinate officers risking their lives; loyalty was to uniforn, and more specifically, to immediate superior and career. … The Americans in Vietnam, long frustrated by the ineptitude of their ARVN counterparts, and by the fact that ineptitude guaranteed career advancement, had come up with a slogan to describe the ARVN promotion system: “Fuck up and move up.” They did not realize that by now the slogan applied to their own army as well.”

    Really. I have good and numerous reasons for feeling the way I do about the U.S. military, which has, as an institution, no better record of veracity and competence today than it had forty years ago in Southeast Asia. Whatever little bit of good it does — and I have a difficult time seeing any that others couldn’t do better — cannot in any way counterbalance the unmitigated disaster it has proven to be for the United States and the World. Subtract its ruinous activities from the past sixty years and you cannot help but see how much better off the world would find itself today had the U.S. military not existed at all.

    I do not hope to convince you of anything, Bill. You have your view and I have mine. You won’t change yours and I won’t change mine. So let us continue to talk past one another to the possible amusement, and perhaps occasional edification, of others who may stumble upon our combined ruminations. I have fewer years left to live than you do, Bill, so I have less time to waste supposing that the U.S. military will ever reform itself into something actually useful, much less cost-effective. I wish you well in your endeavors, however. If only your well-intentioned hopes had some foundation in possibility.

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    1. Mike: I’ve read a lot about the Vietnam War and talked to veterans of it (including you, if we count all of our exchanges). Yes, the U.S. military has much to be ashamed of in that horrendous war. Yet I would not pin it all on the military. As you know, mendacious civilian leaders such as LBJ, McNamara, Nixon, and Kissinger made matters far worse. All four of those men knew the war was basically unwinnable but they continued it regardless of that fact. They had their reasons — and their demons. A few generals knew it was wrong yet they failed to act — most famously Harold K. Johnson, the Army Chief of Staff, who’d decided to resign in protest but who then changed his mind because he believed he could effect change best by working within the system — a decision he later came deeply to regret.

      As you know, I served in the military for 20 years. I never experienced a situation like Vietnam. The men and women I served with were mostly decent, honest, and hardworking. They took the idea of service seriously. That said, I had little exposure to the “star chamber” at the Pentagon. I did my job, serving to the best of my ability, and I got out when I had had enough.

      Soon after I got out, I grew increasingly upset at the mendacity of a new set of leaders: Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. Hence my first article at TomDispatch.com in 2007 with the title, “Saving the Military from Itself,” at this link: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174845

      And this is part of what I wrote back then: “In this case, “support our troops” should mean supporting the idea of pulling them out of a morale-sucking morass. The President won’t act, so Congress must. Chaos may — or may not — ensue in Iraq after our troops withdraw, but buying time for more colorful benchmarks to be met, for more impressive metrics to be produced, is unconscionable when we know it will entail thousands of additional American casualties and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. These are the metrics that matter — blood and treasure. But what should matter even more to our country than body bags and billions is trust — the emotional and spiritual ties that bind our troops to ourselves. Those ties, currently being stretched in Iraq, must not be allowed to snap. For if they do, we’ll be left with hollowed — instead of hallowed — legions.”

      Like you said, we have our distinct views, which we both hope are “bracing” to those who read this site.

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      1. Bill, your list of mendacious civilian leaders should have started with Eisenhower (“oversaw” the scuttling of elections in Vietnam which would have put Ho Chi-Minh at helm of a united entity) and Kennedy (sent in first combat troops). And don’t even get me started on the loathsome creatures that inhabited the halls of Congress in those years!! My fellows in the Army (1967-71) were also “mostly decent [and] honest”…hardworking? Well, “We [were] the unwilling, led by the incompetent to do the unnecessary.” But once they got “in-country” in the rice paddies and rain forests of Southeast Asia survival became their only concern, not the niceties of the Rules of Engagement. The newbies learned from the old-timers “the way things really worked” over there. Human rights for the inhabitants of the countries invaded were not high on the list of priorities. And they never will be when a foreign military travels halfway around the globe to try to assert its will and “nation-build.” These are the fundamental issues. When you are inside the belly of the beast, violating human rights of others is far easier than saying “I quit! Take your war and shove it!!” Some of us took the latter course of action, others acted to remove themselves from contact with “the enemy” as the war ground on. The tragedy of the American experience in Vietnam is that too few stood up to authority and said “Enough!”

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  5. Col. Astore reveals his unshakable loyalty to the machine he served for years in parroting the BS about “our vital national interests.” No, no, and no again!!! These are the interests of the very oligarchical corporations that Mike and I rail against. They are NOT the interests of the ordinary citizen. They are INIMICAL to the interests of the ordinary citizen. The Cheney-Bush foreign policy of endless bombing, drone strikes and boots on the ground (the return of that tactic is looming), inherited and embraced by the Obama administration (demonstrating the utter worthlessness of the Democratic Party!) is precisely what is generating a desire among jihadists (genuine or merely self-styled) to harm our citizenry here on our home soil. It will be those terrorist operatives NOT set up in FBI sting operations who will do us harm. The threat, though blown out of proportion by the National Security apparatus and mainstream media, is real. And I have stated above who should be held accountable ultimately!

    A brief historical note on military legal affairs: the argument that by refusing to be part of the genocide in the Southeast Asia War we resisters were the ones upholding Constitutional principles–that war never having been declared by Congress–was utterly and universally rejected by every court, military and civilian, in which it was tried. So much for “the rule of law.”

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    1. Greg: unshakable loyalty to the machine? Really? Brainless parroting? I see no reason to resort to ad hominem attacks.

      If you truly think I’m a brainless parrot who whistles and clucks in the service of a machine, please stop reading my site and seek wisdom elsewhere. Thanks.

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