Dismantling the Oath of Office

Every commissioned officer in the US military has taken an oath as a condition of military service. But what does this mean? The text of the oath is very specific, but what about its practical application? What are the implications if those who take the oath are asked to violate its principles? These are incredibly important considerations, and every military member ought to reflect deeply upon their oath and what it represents. The stakes of warfare demand it.

So, what does the oath actually say? Specifically, it reads that the oath-taker does "solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter, so help me God." There are slight variations, but the oath is substantially the same across the services. Notice, the oath is to defend a document – not a person, administration, or political party. For obvious reasons, this is an important differentiation from the Wehrmacht “oath to Hitler”, in which German soldiers swore fealty to Hitler himself. There is danger in swearing to support and defend a document, however. What if the document is not based on sound principles, or its interpretation changes over time? What if the Constitutionally-placed limits on authorizing war are overridden by legislation such as the War Powers Resolution or the Authorization for Use of Military Force?

America has already reached this point. The Constitution is quite clear regarding the decision to go to war; it states that Congress (not the executive or judicial branches) shall declare war. The fact that not one American war has been declared since WWII – despite continued armed conflict – is the most obvious indicator that the Constitution is no longer binding for civilian and military leaders in practice. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was intended to check the power of the Executive to commit armed forces to conflict, after a history of the executive overstepping its bounds. Now the WPR, an act intended to prevent the president from going to war unilaterally, is used to enable that very situation (Libya is a recent example). Almost 30 years later, the Authorization for Use of Military Force has essentially created carte-blanche permission for one person to utilize the entirety of American military might around the world. The AUMF is so broad in scope temporally and geographically, and uses such vague language, as to enable war anytime, anywhere, and against anyone. It is under the auspices of the AUMF that American citizens have been assassinated by their government without charge, and away from any conventional battlefield. This is a slippery slope, indeed.

As shown above, taking an oath to defend a document does not guarantee that its intent or interpretation will remain the same over time. But where does that leave all those currently serving in the military, whose service is bound by the Oath of Office? What if they find that their orders are not aligned with what they interpret the Oath to mean? It is imperative that men and women understand what they are pledging their service to, so that they can make an informed decision regarding war and remaining in the armed forces. In that light, it is useful to examine the Oath of Office critically. The first section of the oath is to “defend the Constitution…against all enemies, foreign and domestic, [and to] bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”  The underlying principle in this first section is the concept of defense. In the past few decades, however, "defense" has been the first theory to go out the window. A simple litmus test to see who is defending and who is an aggressor during armed conflict is to notice where a battle/war/terrorist act occurs. By this test, it is painfully obvious that US military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, etc. (name your country) is aggressive in nature. Instances of personal defense certainly occur on a tactical level, such as when soldiers defend themselves from mortar and rocket attacks. When viewed strategically, however, this example breaks down, and the fallacy is shown for what it is. The concept of traveling tens of thousands of miles to "defend" liberty and freedom at home is simply an illusion. Similarly, the concept of "preemptive defense" is an oxymoron at best and switches the roles of aggressor and defender at worst. "Preemptive defense" distorts the very meaning of the word.

The second section of the oath, to “take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion” is somewhat misleading. Military members are not currently permitted to make moral assessments of the wars they are tasked to fight. This begets an impossible situation: members who do not agree with the morality, justness, legality, or necessity of a war are not free to abstain; they risk court martial to follow their conscience. There are many (like myself) who would take up arms in true defense, but who are morally opposed to aggressive action. The common arguments against service members exercising personal, moral judgment are 1) that command relationships and mission accomplishment would be negatively impacted, 2) that the military is a volunteer force, and 3) that it is not fiscally responsible to train people for war and allow them to walk away if they do not agree with a war.

To the first point: if a mission fails due to a lack of willing members, it is a strong indicator that the people with the most to lose (and the most credibility) do not deem the mission necessary or just. It then follows that the barriers to entry into foreign war become higher, which is a good thing for everyone. As for diluting the chain of command, there is no honor in the legal ability to order men and women to their deaths at the risk of their liberty. To the second point: the US military is a volunteer force in name only. After signing up, service members become round or square pegs to fit into round or square holes. More importantly, the military is not a volunteer force in that members are not allowed to make decisions about going to war, when the stakes are highest (destruction of life and property). One does not check individual accountability at the door when they join the military. As for fiscal considerations, it is unlikely that enough service members would choose to leave to make a big impact financially. If enough people did choose to leave, this is another indicator that the tolerance for armed conflict overseas has been lowered, which is a good thing. Even if not, the amount of money spent when a tanker dumps fuel to land is more than one airman’s military training. It is constant, global warfare that costs money, not training people in defense.

The third section of the oath regards a commitment to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office.” This does not mean blind obedience.  Somewhere along the way (or perhaps since the beginning), the chain of command became synonymous with moral and legal authority. Military members are in a unique position in that their ultimate mission is death and destruction of property; a cashier, teacher, or financial analyst cannot be ordered by their boss to take life. Violence may be justified in the course of actual defense, but a standing army is rarely used for defensive purposes. Many injustices occur in the course of people "just doing their duty". Examples are the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the targeting of American citizens for assassination. To faithfully discharge duties in accordance with the Oath of Office is to defend a principle – not an administration, a commander, or a career. It does not relieve an individual of moral responsibility for their actions. The Nuremberg Defense ("I was only following orders") is not a valid reason to perpetuate war crimes or to facilitate illegal, aggressive, or immoral warfare. But aren’t there provisions for disobeying an unlawful order? Technically, the Uniform Code of Military Justice does offer some protection for service members who find themselves in this position. Whether this is true in practice remains to be seen, but there are many instances of soldiers being charged and often jailed for their beliefs, from Civil War resistors to modern-day members (Camilo Mejia, Katherine Jashinski, and Ehren Watada are but a few examples).

To take an oath is no small thing. As discussed above, an oath to a person or document can be equally distorted, and may change its meaning over time. This is precisely why anyone in the military (or considering signing up) needs to truly assess what the oath says, what it means to them, and whether they believe it is being carried out in good faith. If this reflection is done, and a person feels as though what they are doing is illegitimate, unjust, or immoral, they should be free to follow their conscience. The stakes of war – human lives and property – demand that violence not be undertaken lightly, and never just because "I swore an oath."

Jessica Pavoni is a former Air Force Special Operations instructor pilot. She has 1,335 combat hours, and has deployed eight times to three regions of the world. Visit her blog.

Read more by Jessica Pavoni