Honor in Uniform

By T. Scott and T. Greenwood

A good point of departure is the commissioning oath every officer takes to support and defend the Constitution. Implicit in these powerful words is a commitment to nonpartisan behavior. Why? Because the democratic values enshrined in the Constitution are unique neither to a political party nor to the presidency. In addition, in swearing to well and faithfully execute the duties of our office, we agree to follow orders issued by superiors in the chain of command—including the President.

An officer's allegiance is to democratic principles and ideas, not to specific public officials. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North discovered this the hard way. Naturally, servicemembers give the Commander-in-Chief the same fidelity and allegiance they give all superiors, but they should give no more. Officers must obey those senior in rank, but they serve the American people and those precious beliefs encapsulated in the Constitution.

Furthermore, an officer's oath does not make fidelity and allegiance conditional upon the quality of leadership exhibited within the chain of command. Moral, intellectual, or operational shortcomings by civilian and military leaders never have been license for disloyal behavior—except in egregious circumstances, such as My Lai. Nor has marginal performance at the top ever justified decreased professionalism in the ranks. To the contrary, mission accomplishment and unit cohesion require unstinting fidelity and sacrifice even in the darkest of hours.

Those who want it both ways need to think again. If enlisted members behave in a similar manner—display loyalty to their seniors only when it is convenient—courts-martial are convened quickly. As the barracks saying goes: Loyalty is a two-way street; those who expect it must practice it.

Professional fealty is the foundation for the social contract officers sign with the nation. In exchange for being appointed an officer of the United States, we pledge our unconditional support. We consent to give up a host of personal freedoms—the most serious of which is leaving loved ones to fight our nation's wars, even those warsthat may be unpopular. It also means we uphold good order and discipline in the name of obedience while waiting to go in harms' way. The latter is indispensable to winning battles. For this reason, servicemembers who openly criticize their seniors commit a breach of trust and violate their sacred contract. Such behavior constitutes disobedience, which in the military is intolerable.

Undergirding the above are fundamental rules inextricably linked to the military ethos. It is not enough for officers to internalize the oath; they must understand and practice the rules our military culture has handed down from one generation of soldiers to the next.

Rule #1: Good Officers Show Respect for the Uniquely American Political Process. The rule of law, sanctity of the ballot box, and consent of the electorate determine the texture of domestic politics. Americans elect the civilian leaders they want to hold public office. In a democracy, neither the armed services nor the individual officer is asked to recommend a specific candidate. They are expected to be faithful to whoever wins. Winners can comprise an incredibly diverse group. Almost any colorful American can—with enough money, volunteers, and media support—compete for high office. Like it or not, the military must accept this reality. Officers must ensure they are as prepared to salute a socialist or libertarian President as they are a Democrat or a Republican.

Rule #2: Good Officers Are Public Stewards Who Serve Their Juniors. Officers should be consumed by the needs of their subordinates. Ensuring that junior enlisted personnel are properly trained, equipped, and cared for is more than a job. It is an all-consuming avocation that demands a leader's complete thought, passion, and energy. Advancing new military ideas to help improve the status quo is certainly compatible with the ethic of serving others. But publicly castigating flag and general officers and the American people for being slow to endorse impeachment or censure reflects professional disenchantment and intellectual arrogance. Neither belong in the military.

Rule #3: Good Officers Understand the Terms of Permissible Political Participation. It is entirely proper for officers to vote and to encourage their subordinates to vote. Military officers also may express their views—as citizens—by writing to their elected representatives. Those who want to give private financial contributions to a political party or candidate can do so within prescribed legal limits. Beyond this, one quickly runs aground on rocky shoals. The list of taboos is long: wearing the uniform to political gatherings; publicly supporting a specific political party; and using one's military position to espouse political platforms with subordinates. In fact, truly professional officers go to great lengths to disavow their political affiliations—to include not putting political bumper stickers on their cars and not listening to partisan media broadcasts in the work place. When doubt arises about acceptable political participation, it is wise to err on the side of discretion.

Throughout a career, almost every officer will be confronted with moral dilemmas and ethical problems that challenge core values. Serving in the profession of arms means that we try our best to resolve these matters in a principled way that each of us can live with. Sometimes this does not work. On such occasions—when the gap between personal standards and institutional requirements becomes irreconcilable—resignation is the only honorable option. Those in uniform who cannot keep their dislike for the Commander-in-Chief out of the public domain need to demonstrate the depth of their conviction. The American people deserve honor from those who serve.

Lieutenant General Terry Scott is Director of the National Security Program and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He joined the faculty after more than 32 years in the U.S. Army. Lieutenant Colonel Tom Greenwood is an active-duty Marine currently assigned to Harvard as a National Security Fellow.


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