I do solemnly swear to support and defend
By Lt. Col. Jeremy Weber, 30th Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate
/ Published February 06, 2013
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The very first act of a servicemember's military career is to raise their right hand to take an oath. The heart of that oath is a promise to, "Support and defend the Constitution of the United States." This simple act distinguishes us from other countries and other militaries throughout history. With those words, we signify that our allegiance lies not to an individual. Instead, we mark the Founding Fathers' grand concept of rule of law - that governance by law best protects the rights we fought so hard to secure.
The concept of a military oath dates back centuries to Roman times, but oaths typically required allegiance to a political or military leader. Gen. George Washington broke from this pattern in 1778, when he issued a general order requiring all officers to subscribe to an oath to the United States generally, not to any specific person. This order aimed to provide military officers of the new nation a moral compass when presented with conflicting loyalties. The Constitution later specifically provided that all executive officers "shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution." In fact, the first oath after the birth of the nation simply called on the officer to, "Support the Constitution of the United States," with no additional requirements. This oath was later broadened and enlisted personnel were required to take an oath, but the core of the oath has always remained allegiance to the Constitution.
Taking this oath is a solemn act. It defines a military member's duties throughout his or her career. It is a higher calling than the duty to one's superiors, wingmen, branch of service, or even mission. In fact, it is even a higher calling than the duty to the President, since the Constitution established a system of checks and balances that allocate power across the branches of government.
This system of checks and balances means military members owe their ultimate allegiance to no one individual. This can frustrate military members, who rely on a clearly defined chain of command to provide the most efficient and effective force possible. Sometimes Constitutional guarantees or other legal impediments stand in the way of leaders' priorities, or at least make those priorities more difficult to achieve. The Staff Judge Advocate can help navigate around those legal limits where possible, and advise leaders candidly when the law dictates otherwise. However, military leaders must never fall into the trap of believing that legal requirements get in the way of mission accomplishment. Obedience to the law is our first and most sacred mission. The military exists to safeguard a system of governance in which power is regulated according to law, not might. When we forget that - when we take actions that infringe upon the very rights we vow to support and defend - we fail in our most fundamental mission.
The military is a key protector of our democratic society. It is an apolitical body beholden to the rule of law above all. The military's singular allegiance to the Constitution vests the military with the enormous respect and authority it currently enjoys. The military is seen as being above the fray, devoted to a higher calling than the shifting priorities of politics. The military uses this respect and authority to secure the peaceful distribution of power embodied in the Constitution. When our system is working at its best, devotion to rule of law empowers the military, which in turn uses this power to empower the rule of law.
In his farewell address upon leaving the Presidency, Washington recognized the importance of supporting the Constitution by saying, "The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution, which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government." Let us never forget that our first duty as military professionals is to secure a society in which disputes are settled by the law, not by force or expediency. It is our solemn oath.