Military obligation

By Nathan Barton

Warning: this is a commentary on a commentary on a commentary!

A guy (gal?) Finian Cunningham published a commentary on OpEdNews, asking, “Is a military coup against Trump in the cards?”  In part this reads: “In an extraordinary US Senate hearing this week, lawmakers and military officials rounded on President Trump as being a danger to world peace due to his Commander-in-Chief powers for launching nuclear weapons. The highlight came when the hearing was told military officers have the constitutional right to disobey the president. This was, in effect, an open call to mutiny against the president’s authority.”

In Freedom Net Daily, Tom Knapp provides a very good note (commentary): “The president does not have any authority to give unconstitutional orders. Military personnel are under no obligation to obey unconstitutional orders, and indeed are obligated not to…”

Tom is absolutely right, but I want to add my two cents as a military officer who undertook that obligation and still accepts (and tries to carry out) that commitment. Telling a military officer we have the constitutional (and God-given) right to disobey the president is NOT mutiny.  And it is NOT a coup.  And it is NOT news to anyone with two brain cells to rub together, who has served as a military officer.

The solemn promise the military take (and are supposed to live by) is to obey the LAWFUL orders of those appointed over them. What is and is not lawful is not decided by courts or superiors or popular vote.  It is, and can only be, decided by the individual who must make the choice to obey or not.

That requirement, that obligation, is not limited to  “unconstitutional” or “unlawful,” or by the laws of any level of government.  Something that is “legal” can nevertheless be unlawful.  Something that is constitutional can still NOT be lawful.  (We are to defend and protect the Constitution against all enemies, but that does not necessarily mean that an action allowed by the Constitution is lawful. Nor does it mean that an action not required by the Constitution is unlawful.)

Why is that?  Because there is a higher law.  Call it “nature’s law” as many of the Founding Fathers did.  Call it God’s law.  Call it what you will: moral law or the law of liberty.  Whatever, each of us (both in and out of military service) must decide whether what we are told to do is right – lawful – or not.

There is a physical example that might help illustrate the social or moral idea of lawful: If I am told to flap my arms and fly to the top of a tree, that is NOT a lawful order, because it is not physically possible.  I have no obligation to obey that order, if for no other reason than that it violates natural law and cannot be done.  We would not expect someone to even try to do so. Other natural law – moral law, the law of liberty – is no different than the laws of physics and chemistry.

There are several considerations:

  1. Does the person giving the order have the authority to do so, and the authority over us to require our obedience?
  2. Does the order violate human laws?
  3. Does the order violate natural law?
  4. Is the order and the (likely) results rational?  Will it really accomplish what is needed or wanted?
  5. Is it going to require aggression against someone?  (Not violence, which can be self-defense, but aggression (whether violent or not)?)
  6. Is carrying out that order going to result in more good than harm?

Individuals cannot surrender their responsibility, or shirk accountability without, at least in the long term, suffering the consequences. (Military or not.)

Despite that, many do. Too many military try to use the old Prussian and National Socialist justification “befehl ist befehl.” (Orders are orders.)  It is one of the reasons that we are in the trouble that we are today.

For decades, Presidents AND Congress have issued unlawful orders of all kinds to the  American military forces, and there have been very few officers and NCOs do what they promised to do in their oath of enlistment and commissioning.  At the end of WW2, America completely succumbed to the temptation to become an imperial power, and the soldiers, sailors, and airmen (for whatever reason) did not stand up to the politicians and the (deluded) public demand.

Every president since then has given many orders that are illegal, unlawful, and unconstitutional.  There have, no doubt, been some junior officers and enlisted who have refused orders (or figured out work-arounds), but the flag officers at the top of the pyramid have said and done little or nothing.  And what little they’ve said has been said only after they left the service or retired – except for some very rare cases.

Is the hatred and contempt for Trump, that apparently some military leaders share, enough to get them to refuse an unlawful order?  Apparently only if it is some horrific order, like nuking Berlin or London.  Many of us believe that Trump has already issued (or approved, or tacitly accepted issuing) orders which are obviously unconstitutional.  Many of the military missions continuing at this moment are illegal and should have never been started. And need to be stopped soonest.

So don’t hold your breath.  Although military refusal to obey an illegal order is neither mutiny nor a coup, the media and liberals AND conservatives will no doubt condemn anything the military balks at AS both.  Nor is military refusal to obey an order likely to result in anything like a military takeover – not even in the way it was done a few years ago in Honduras or in Zimbabwe in the last two weeks.  Certainly, I do not think that American military personnel or organizations would demand the resignation of Trump any more than they would have demanded that his predecessor, or LBJ, resign for giving unlawful orders.  Disobey?  Maybe.  Demand resignation? Not much chance.

About tpolnathan

Follower of Christ Jesus (christian), Pahasapan, Westerner, Lover of Liberty, Free-Market Anarchist, Engineer, Army Officer, Husband, Father, Historian, Writer.
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