The U.S. Constitution (National Constitution Center photo)
By Charles D. Allen
Americans should remember the turmoil and nationwide debates that opened 2021.
Of note were a series of protests and demonstrations that raised questions about the role of the US military and how it would/should respond to such events. In September, I was asked to provide my thoughts to a Constitution Day panel titled “A Conversation on the State of Civics Education in PA.”
As I close the year, the following reflection has stuck with me mostly because of calculated activities that politicize our U.S. military in seeming support of partisan groups. In my view, involvement in domestic politics is untenable and poses a threat to the military’s relationship with the American people whom it serves.
On the 7th of June 1978, I took the following “Oath of Commissioned Officers”
“I ___, do 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 reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.”
I made this statement prior to graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point and at the base of the monument to General George Washington. This attestation is how I became a member of the military profession along with officers commissioned through service academies, Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and other programs.
The essence of the United States profession of arms is the trust between the American public represented by its elected officials and its military members.
They are officers and enlisted personnel who swear fealty to the Constitution; their loyalty is to neither a person nor a political party.
As they progress through the ranks from young lieutenants and ensigns to generals and admirals, senior military officers must provide their best military judgments to inform and help civilian leaders make difficult strategic decisions for our national security. Irrespective of political ideologies, military leaders must give what is needed to hear, rather than what civilians may want to hear.
The secretary of defense and the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff are the principal advisers to the president on military matters.
As senior military officers, the chiefs of services (Army, Navy, Air Force, National Guard, and now the Space Force), as well as field commanders provide assessments and recommendations to the secretary and the chairman. Thus, they engage in national security conversations and debates out of the public eye.
The need for private and privileged communications within the executive branch is well-established. However, under Title 10 of the United States Code, service chiefs and senior commanders are obligated to provide Congress with their opinions when different from the defense department and executive branch policy decisions.
The challenge for senior military leaders is to not be pawns in the political theater that is the milieu of our system of government. Under constitutional authority, military officers must be loyal to two masters: the Office of the President and to Congress. Section 8 of Article I gives Congress the power to organize, train, and equip, as well as fund the Military. Thus, Congress provides oversight through its rules and regulation of the force through laws. Section 2 of Article II, defines the president as the commander-in-chief of the military. And, importantly, the Constitution directs the president to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed.”
For the advice of senior military officers to have weight, it must be considered truthful and apolitical. When the inevitable conflicts of opinions happen, the constitutional masters should consider Vince Lombardi’s practice of “praise in public, criticize in private.” Rather than reprimand in the media, national security leaders should exercise restraint and consult with military members behind closed doors when appropriate.
A closing thought—each year I engage with a new cohort of senior officers at the U.S. Army War College.
Inevitably, there are discussions and debates based on international and domestic events, and circumstances for which individuals have strong opinions and beliefs. I remind our students of their Oath of Commission and their obligations under the U.S. Constitution.
Effective civil-military relations sustain the connectedness of those who serve with those whom they serve.
The U.S. military profession is charged with tremendous responsibilities for the security of the nation and is an integral part of American society. Accordingly, the charge to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” continues to require “true faith and allegiance” to the principles upon which our nation was founded.
Opinion contributor Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret’d) is a professor of Leadership and Cultural Studies in the School of Strategic Land Power at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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