A Military Officers Oath of Office
I graduated from College in 1965 during the early stages of the Vietnam War. Since I was in college I was exempt from the draft until I graduated, but now I was out and my options were limited. I had considered grad school but the Military seamed better at the time than two or more years of school. So knowing I would be drafted I joined the Army in the summer of 1965. While in the induction center I got talked into going to Officers Candidate School (OCS). Ten months later I was one of 121 men that graduated out of about 250 that started. On 13 September 1966 I accepted a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army and along with 120 others took the oath of office that is required of all officers. That oath had a profound affect on me and how I looked at my country ever since. That Oath is what I want to tell you about today.
Most of the following information I’m going to talk about comes from a report issued by Lt Col Kenneth Keskel, USAF in 2002. His analysis was written from an Air Force prospective and being an Army man I did need to make some changes. I will apologize in advance for having to read a lot of this as the words and meanings are very important and I don’t want to screw them up.
The first law of the United States of America, enacted in the first session of the first Congress on 1 June 1789, was statute 1, chapter 1: an act to regulate the time and manner of administering certain oaths, which established the oath required by civil and military officials to support the Constitution. The founding fathers agreed upon the importance of ensuring that officials promised their allegiance and so little debate occurred before the first Congress passed this statute. The wording of the military officer’s oath has changed several times in the founding, but the basic foundation has withstood the test of time.
While developing the oath of office for US officers, the founding fathers had serious concerns about pledging “allegiance” to any specific person. For example, during the Revolutionary War, Gen George Washington issued a general order on 7 May 1778 that required all officers to take and subscribe to an oath renouncing King George III and supporting the United States.
This general order had significant weight. On 1 October 1779, Washington court-martialed Benjamin Ballard for “selling rum, flour, pork, hides, tallow and other stores the property of the public without any orders or authority for doing so and contrary to the tenor of his bond and oath of office.” This example shows that the oath represented more than a simple, ceremonial formality; rather, it provided overarching guidance and a standard of moral conduct, as opposed to dictating specific, limited criteria.
The first official oath of office for US military officers under the Constitution was established on 1 June 1789. The law implemented the requirement in Article 6 of the Constitution that “Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution.” This first oath was short and to the point:
“I, YOUR NAME, do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”
The current Oath had its origins in the civil war area and on 11 July 1868 40th Cong., 2d session, chap. 139 congress made a change to the Officers Oath as follows.
I, YOUR NAME, do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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. So help me God.
Note that the last sentence is not required to be said if the speaker has a personal or moral objection, as is true of all oaths administered by the United States government.
Note also that this is not an oath to defend any specific territory or persons or property. This is an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States.
Note also that there is no duration defined in the Oath. Once taken, it is a lifetime affirmation. Maybe even a bigger commitment that that of a marriage. But don’t tell my wife I said that or maybe I’ll be single again.
The Oath that I took on 13 September 1966 and as shown on DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers; is a variation of that 1868 Oath.
“I, David John Pristash (SSAN), having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of 2nd Lieutenant do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or 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.”
The Oath of Office is a solemn oath taken by officers of the United States Uniformed Services on commissioning. It differs slightly from that of the oath of enlistment that enlisted members recite when they enter the service. It is statutory (i.e. required by law) and is prescribed by Section 3331, Title 5, United States Code. It is traditional for officers to recite the oath upon promotion but as long as the officer’s service is continuous this is not actually required.
One notable difference between the officer and enlisted oaths is that the oath taken by officers does not include any provision to obey orders; while enlisted personnel are bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice to obey lawful orders. Officers in the service of the United States are bound by this oath to “disobey” any order that violates the Constitution of the United States.
The following Descriptions give the logic behind the words that are used in each phrase of sentence.
I, YOUR NAME, Do Solemnly Swear (or Affirm)
The oath begins with an option to swear or affirm. This wording is also consistent with the option for the president to swear or affirm, as prescribed in Article 2 of the Constitution. Either way, the oath signifies a public statement of personal commitment. Officers must take personal responsibility for their actions.
That I Will Support and Defend the Constitution of the United States
The oath requires officers to support and defend the – Constitution of the United States – not the president, not the country, not the flag, and not a particular military service. The preamble to the Constitution succinctly highlights the ideals represented by that document. Because the Constitution was built on a series of checks and balances that distribute power across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, officers must give their allegiance to all three entities – despite the fact that the chain of command leads to the president.
These checks and balances create an inefficiency that is inherent in America’s democratic system that often proves frustrating for military officers, whose environment tries to provide the most efficient and effective fighting force available.
But it is also a key element to that which keeps us free. For the founding founders knew that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely that is why the Constitution is written the way it is — not because it is the most efficient method of government but because it is hard to consolidate power. That is a critical point you should never forget.
The words and defend were added in 1862, during the Civil War, when defense and preservation of the nation became paramount. The phrase support and defend the Constitution is purposely vague, allowing better minds to interpret and improve, within certain guidelines. To understand the significance of the wording, one should compare the US oath to the old Soviet Union version, the latter requiring officers “unquestioningly to carry out the requirements of all military regulations and orders of commanders and superiors.”
It is a true blessing that America does not require its officers to obey “unquestioningly” but gives them the opportunity and flexibility for innovation. But with that flexibility come both responsibility and accountability for one’s actions.
Against All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic
This phrase was added in 1862 as a direct result of the Civil War- specifically, to address the possibility of Union soldiers joining the Confederacy (most notably the forces commanded by Gen Robert E. Lee). That is, people who had previously sworn allegiance to the United States were now fighting against it. No one expects another civil war but this clause was designed to clarify the military Officers duties in every instance.
Military officers cannot simply maintain the status quo- they must look toward the future, identify emerging trends, and develop capabilities to counter the entire range of threats. Officers must ensure that they address all potential enemies. An officer’s oath demands that they support and defend against all enemies no matter where they are if they pose a threat to the Constitution.
That I Will Bear True Faith and Allegiance to the Same
The officer’s oath ensures allegiance to the Constitution as a whole. Even though the Constitution built a system of checks and balances to embrace multiple branches of government, the founding fathers cautioned against counterproductive parochialism.
In his inaugural address, Washington warned, “I behold the surest pledges, that as on one side, no local prejudices, or attachments; no separate views, nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage.” An Officers’ allegiance compels them to work together to develop the best solutions for the nation.
That I Take This Obligation Freely, without Any Mental Reservation or Purpose of Evasion
This passage also originated during the Civil War. Congress and President Abraham Lincoln, wanting to ensure that soldiers not defect, expanded the oath in an attempt to guarantee loyalty. In the final analysis, however, loyalty depends upon the integrity of the individual.
Integrity is a learned trait. Whether that learning is based upon a religious upbringing or an embracing of acceptable norms of society, honor and integrity are part of the core of all military services. Maintaining integrity is implicit in the oath and must guide officers when they face conflicts of interest and hard choices.
And That I Will Well and Faithfully Discharge the Duties of the Office on Which I Am about to Enter
This wording has its genesis in the first statute of 1789. This clause epitomizes the military values of “excellence in all we do,” “commitment” and “duty.” We must be proactive and perform our duties to the best of our abilities, mastering our specialties while we are junior officers and then gaining breadth as we advance in rank. The progress of the nation depends upon our doing so.
So Help Me God
So help me God became part of the officer oath in 1862, but the enlisted oath did not add these words until 1962. The Congressional Record provides superb insight into their meaning:
The words, “So help me God,” are not a part of the obligation assumed upon taking the oath. They constitute rather an assertion of sincerity to undertake the duties of military service in good faith and with the aid of the highest power recognized by the enlistee. It is directed solely to his or her personal conception of the almighty, whatever that may be or whatever it may not be. There is no effort to impose on the enlistee any established religious conception, or even to require his acknowledgement of any religious conception. . . . For the vast majority of the persons taking the oath, however, this addition will assure a unique degree of personal conviction not otherwise attainable, and will thus prove a welcome source of both personal and national strength.
So help me God also implies retribution if officers do not keep their word. Compare the part of the Soviet oath that ends with “If I break this solemn vow, may I be severely punished by the Soviet people, universally hated, and despised by the working people.” Although that is quite a condemnation, in actuality it is less severe than the potential consequences for someone who has a strong moral or religious foundation. So help me God acknowledges that no stronger commitment exists.
I’ll leave with this last thought.
The Men and Woman in the United States Military are the only Federal Employees that have knowingly put their very life’s on the line 24/7 for the citizens of the country and the defense of her Constitution. Their life’s are valuable, precious even, to them and their country but yet both they and their commander know that in any use of force their will be losses. Accepting that those losses will occur is what sets these men and woman above the rest.