The Oath

I was recently contacted by Mark Rosenthal ‘78. Along with being a product of Clarkson and the Golden Knight Battalion he also writes a blog, and he shared with me something he wrote regarding the Oath of Office. Springtime is when we usually commission our graduates. Part of that commissioning ceremony involves the Cadets taking their oath of office. Mark had some thoughts about the oath and he shared them with me, and I in turn share them with you.

Spring 2011 commissioning class taking their Oath of Office

The Oath of Office

When I was on active duty, we spent a lot of time studying the armed forces and political systems of the Soviet Union. Actually it was impossible to study those two topics separately.
While we liked to imagine that the USSR was totalitarian rule by a single individual, it was actually far more complicated. If the Chairman of the Communist Party lost the faith of the Politburo, it was possible for them to replace him. This actually happened in 1964 when Nikita Khrushchev was perceived as liberalizing too quickly. There was a bloodless coup, he was replaced, and we soon entered the Brezhnev era that epitomized the final stages of the Cold War.

There were also factions within the party structure.

There was the Communist Party itself. There was the KGB – the security apparatus – and there was the military.

The checks and balances were based on mutual suspicion. The Party and the Military were wary of the KGB’s power; and the KGB was on the lookout for disloyalty to the Party – as they perceived it.

Within the military structure, there were KGB political officers at every level of command. They were there to ensure the loyalty of the commanders, ensure the political soundness of orders and directives, and could countermand orders they disagreed with.

We see this pattern of “political control” consistently applied whenever a state has reason to distrust the power of its armed forces.

The USA, of course, has no such structure. We have never had a need for it. I had always taken it for granted that such political controls were the domain of states that did not share our values and freedoms.

When I was serving, the 82nd Airborne had a battalion of light tanks (M551A1 Sheridans). Part of my time at Ft Bragg was as XO of Charlie Company in that battalion.

In 1981 Charlie Company had a great opportunity. We engaged in an exchange with the Blues and Royals in the British Army. You may recall more recently that Prince Harry served in that regiment in Iraq. They trace their history back to the year 1640 or so and are, in their own words, “the second stuffiest regiment in the British Army.”

During my initial visit to set up logistics, etc. I was meeting their officers. One of them introduced himself as the “Education Officer.” He was not part of the Regiment, but rather, was in the “Education Corps” and stationed on the post with the regiment.

From the title, I naturally assumed his role was to give the soldiers opportunities to further their education while they served.

Boy was I wrong. In his words “our job is to ensure that the soldiers maintain the correct view.” Further, he filed reports on individual officers regarding what he regarded as their politics. In other words, he was a political officer of sorts, there to watch over the regiment and make sure they were loyal to the “values of a liberal democracy” and he specifically cited one by name who “bears watching.” Wow.

The officers’ oath was to the sovereign – the Queen, and just as we in the USA take our oath seriously (or should), so did they. The “Education Corps” was there to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government, as represented by the elected Ministers of Parliament, maintained control of the military in the event that officers somehow disagreed with governmental policies.
I found that quite interesting.

When in Germany, I served in 1st Battalion 32nd Armor, in the 3st Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division. We had a partnership battalion in the German Bundeswehr, the 41st Panzer Battalion.

While working with them, I found they had a civilian assigned to the unit. His nominal job was to help them maintain their budgets, etc. Though he worked with the military command, he was not part of it. His reporting was through a civilian chain up through the Ministry of Defense. This parallel chain ran all the way through their command structure. Their job was control – to make sure that money was being spent on the right things, and not being spent on the wrong things. His approval was needed for the battalion to do pretty much anything that didn’t involve staying in the barracks. He controlled fuel, ammunition, food, repair parts, logistics.

As I became more conscious of these structures in other countries, I came to realize that our military has a pretty much unique relationship with our civilian government – one of trust. They trust us. They don’t feel the need to have a parallel structure to watch what we say, what we do.

When you are commissioned, you will take an oath. Typically you only take this oath once.

On the other hand, during your time in service, you will hear the oath taken by Enlisted personnel many times, as they take it each time they reenlist.

It is easy to forget the differences between the two. The key difference is what is not in the oath of commissioning.

Here is the Enlisted oath:
“I, XXXXXXXXXX, 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; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
And this is the one you will take:
I, [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.”
As a commissioned officer, your oath carries a lot more responsibility. You are not taking an oath to obey orders, or even follow regulations. Your oath is to support and defend the nation’s rule of law. Is this a license of disobey lawful orders or ignore regulations? Of course not. That is not even implied here. The effectiveness of our Armed Forces requires that discipline to carry out the intent of this oath. But that discipline not imposed upon you. It is Intended to come from within you.

In the United States, we rely on our Commissioned Officers to be the ones who ensure the military remains loyal to the nation’s rule of law rather than an individual who might – at some point in the future – try to usurp that power. We don’t need a parallel command structure, because we trust our officers to do the right thing and we give them the flexibility to do so. We don’t constrain them from doing the right thing with their oath.

You have a very unique position. Almost without exception, no other nation places as much trust in the personal integrity of its armed forces. Take your oath seriously.

Mark Rosenthal ‘78

Clarkson Rangers circa 1976

Thanks Mark. I could relate to your thoughts because we served at the same time in some of the same places. I too remember when the USSR was the “enemy”. I also remind the Cadets often about the importance of Army Values, the Warrior Ethos/Soldiers Creed, and the Oaths we take. Good luck to this years Commissioning class and all the Cadets who will take this oath in the future.

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