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.