The storming of the U.S. Capitol last week rattled our nation. Many Americans believe the election was free and fair. Others believe it was stolen. Governors across the country have mobilized National Guard units amid fears of civil unrest. Amid such political uncertainty, what will prevent our soldiers from choosing sides, as so many Americans have?
The Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a rare joint statement last Tuesday. Their purpose was to remind service members of their oath to the Constitution. “As Service Members, we must embody the values and ideals of the Nation. We support and defend the Constitution,” the generals wrote. “Any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.”
As a U.S. Army drill sergeant, I was once charged with transforming civilians into soldiers. The way loyalty and duty are fused into the nature of military service should comfort Americans. Regardless of political affiliation, service members swear an oath to the Constitution — not to a person, politician or office.
Each service member’s oath of enlistment or office begins with swearing to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” These words give meaning to soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. They give service members purpose as being part of something greater than themselves. The oath to the Constitution aligns loyalty and duty to the document that unites our nation.
When I served in the Army, this oath gave me meaning at 3:00 a.m. before grueling 16-hour workdays training recruits for combat, despite my fatigue. Its words gave me purpose before conducting nighttime raids in downtown Fallujah, despite my staunch opposition to the war. In the face of conflicting desires and political sentiments, the oath guides our actions. Importantly, it serves as the social glue that binds together American service members who hold diverse personal and political beliefs.
Our founders wrestled with an age-old political dilemma. On the one hand, they wanted a military powerful enough to defend the nation from outside threats. On the other hand, they didn’t want the military to seize power from a legitimate authority. Given their aversion to dictators and despots, they certainly didn’t want the military to swear allegiance to one person. Our founders wanted to ensure that political power in the United States grows from the will of the people and in accordance with our Constitution.
Our military exists to use force on behalf of the Constitution, and with that comes immense power. Our founders acknowledged that institutions are only as good as the people who run them. That’s why civilian leaders control our military, and service members swear an oath to the Constitution. The former guards against a military coup. The latter protects against soldiers pledging allegiance to individuals or groups. Both are crucial to maintaining our constitutional democracy.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The armed forces are our republic’s last line of defense when the enemy is at the gates. But sometimes, the enemy is already inside the gates. Sometimes, it is our fellow Americans that intend to undermine our government and Constitution. But Americans should feel comfort knowing that our soldiers are morally bound to the Constitution. The oath defines who they are, what they stand for, and where their loyalty and duty rest.
Jesse Hamilton, a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, is an Iraq War veteran and former advisor to the Iraqi Army. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times. Follow him on Twitter @jessedhamilton.