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The moral courage of the military in confronting the commander in chief | Column
What is legal, what is moral and how to do the right thing: lessons from a retired lieutenant colonel.
In this Sept. 3, 2019, file photo former U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis listens to a question during his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
In this Sept. 3, 2019, file photo former U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis listens to a question during his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. [ RICHARD DREW | AP ]
Published Jun. 9, 2020

The president recently threatened to use our active duty military to “dominate” demonstrators nationwide, who are exercising their wholly legitimate right to assemble and be heard.

The distinguished former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis nailed it in his recent broadside published in The Atlantic that took aim at our current commander-in-chief. Mattis states, “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago … I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking the same oath would be ordered under any circumstances to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

Robert Bruce Adolph is a former US Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel and United Nations Chief Security Advisor, who holds graduate degrees in both international affairs and national security studies and strategy. His previously published works have appeared in nearly every US military publication of note. Most recently, he penned the commentary series “Dispatch from Rome” for the Military Times. Adolph also recently published the book entitled “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.”
Robert Bruce Adolph is a former US Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel and United Nations Chief Security Advisor, who holds graduate degrees in both international affairs and national security studies and strategy. His previously published works have appeared in nearly every US military publication of note. Most recently, he penned the commentary series “Dispatch from Rome” for the Military Times. Adolph also recently published the book entitled “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.” [ Courtesy of Robert Adolph ]

The current Secretary of Defense, Mike Esper, who now perhaps regrets being made into a photographic prop for the president, has come out publicly against using the active duty military to quell civil unrest in our cities; as has 89 high ranking former defense officials who stated that they were “alarmed” by the chief executive’s threat to use troops against our country’s citizens on U.S. soil. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former U.S. Army general and Republican Party member, has also taken aim at this presidency by stating that he will vote for Joe Biden in the next election.

The U.S. armed forces should never be used on U.S. soil against American citizens while exercising their right to protest. At this juncture it may not be the law in which we can place our trust, but in morality and our Constitution. The Uniform Code of Military Justice and Manual for Courts Martial provide guidance for officers in determining what constitutes a legal order from this president. Thoughtful flag officers on the Joint Staff will have already checked with their Staff Judge Advocates. But legality may not be the key issue. There is sometimes a chasm that exists between what is legal and what is moral. That is why U.S. military officers swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States…” -- and not to any one individual. Mattis has already shown us how it is done. He honorably resigned in protest over U.S. policy in Syria when he no longer felt that he could stand behind this White House occupant.

Almost everyone knows that morality is all about doing the right thing, which can be generally found in good judgment based in ethics. Essentially, when an armed forces officer finds that s/he is at a moral crossroads - when conscience will not permit that officer to follow an immoral order – there are in my memory four ethical actions possible:

1. Confront the superior who has given the order and respectfully dispute it.

2. If the above fails, to go over the head of the superior giving the order to see it reversed. This is an option not available when dealing with a U.S. president.

3. Refuse to carry out the order and perhaps face court martial.

4. Resign in protest over the order and then thereafter go public or remain mute.

Other than complying with the immoral order, there are no other options of which I am aware. Of course, it seldom happens. To do any of the above is clearly against self-interest. To take the moral high ground and fall on one’s sword means that the officer’s career is over. To act honorably on a sense of morality when all around you are not takes considerable back bone.

Acting honorably can never be accomplished on the cheap. This kind of courage is rare and therefore precious. Yet, there has seldom been a time when we needed it more. Our current president seems to have few ethical boundaries. I believe that some of our most senior civil and military leadership may have already written their letters of resignation and placed them in a ready drawer if this president once again threatens to issue an immoral order. I wish to believe that moral courage still lives in America and that - based in the evidence - it has often worn a uniform.

Robert Bruce Adolph is a former U.S. Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel and United Nations Chief Security Adviser, who holds graduate degrees in both international affairs and national security studies and strategy. His previously published works have appeared in nearly every U.S. military publication of note. Most recently, he penned the commentary series “Dispatch from Rome” for the Military Times. Adolph also published the book entitled “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.”