I can imagine you now — 2016 fresh in your rearview mirror and one more notch lost off your belt. On Nov. 7, I sat worrying over what will happen the next day as we prepared for the U.S. election results. Because of the deeply divided nature of this election, my words will remain unedited until you read them because the Republic stood long before any of these candidates were born, and it will stand long after they’ve gone. Whether the first female or first billionaire president is elected, I will respect the decision of the people because I am a U.S. Army officer, and I have sworn to do so.
Americans will openly express their pleasure or frustration in the election results. Some will even rebuff the new leadership. That is their right. Military members do not have that luxury. They are expected to respect and support the winners regardless of their personal preferences. That may not seem fair, but it is true and necessary. U.S. military members are more than simply citizens; they are the defenders of the Constitution.
Article 88 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice states that “any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense or of a military department, Secretary of Transportation, or Governor or legislature of any state, territory, commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” Though it specifies officers, it has historically been applied to all ranks and can even include military retirees.
But “contemptuous” is an illusive and ill-defined term, leaving an element of ambiguity that makes some statements contemptuous by virtue of circumstances. Punishment under Article 88 “requires line-drawing,” one author writes in a July 1999 article in The Army Lawyer. “Subtle differences of language, tone, setting and audience may put a case over the line.” In theory, but not always in practice, the article notes, it has been considered “beneath the dignity of the government” to prosecute an officer or soldier for engaging in political conversation.
We all have things to say and want to express our feelings. That’s good, healthy and why our freedom of speech is protected. But the freedom to say some things does not necessarily equate to the need to say them. For a military member to state that he or she will not obey the president is no different than saying he or she will not follow a direct supervisor’s orders. Those kinds of statements invite the possibility of dissension, disobedience and mutiny. They induce doubt in our political system and possibly even encourage a coup d’etat that would effectively kill the crazy dream that founded this nation. The very fabric of the military begins to tear apart when members are allowed to choose who they will follow and which orders they will obey.
I joined the military because I felt the greatest gift I’ve been given was to be born in the U.S. That feeling has only grown as I’ve traveled the world. I owe it to my children to defend what has made this nation so great. It is our duty as officers and leaders in the U.S. military to uphold and defend the Constitution. When our nation is so divided along lines of race, religion, social standing and service, we should be a beacon of tolerance, leadership and unity.
If your preferred candidates won, be humble. Understand that many Americans don’t share your excitement. If your candidates lost, be comforted to know you’ll be back in the ballot boxes in fewer than two years. No matter what, hold them all to their promises and always remember that hoping for your government to fail is like hoping your pilot will forget how to land.
We may all have different ideas on the future of America, but we all simply want to hand our children a nation in which hard work is rewarded, freedom is cherished and our citizens are safe. Let us no longer be Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches, split by petty intolerances and ridiculous claims that one way is the only way.
“The Sneetches got really quite smart on that day, The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches. And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches. That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars, And whether they had one, or not, upon thars." —Dr. Seuss R&WI