Best Defense

A lieutenant responds to the colonel about whether she would have balked at Hitler

Army officers swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States. Unlike non-commissioned officers (who swear an oath to the President) officers are directly beholden to the Constitution. This document is our supreme authority figure.

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By 2nd Lieutenant Lindsay Gabow, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest respondent

The final sentence of Colonel (ret.) Robert Killebrew’s piece implicitly recommends that I, as an active duty Army officer, read my oath again. I did.

Army officers swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States. Unlike non-commissioned officers (who swear an oath to the President) officers are directly beholden to the Constitution. This document is our supreme authority figure.

The text of Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: “Failure to Obey Order or Regulation” precedes the word “order” with “lawful.” Officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers are not bound to follow unlawful orders. In fact, we are legally bound not to do so. The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) governing conduct in war (otherwise known as jus in bello) clearly orders us not to break laws deriving from international and domestic traditions. This evidently includes the Constitution. It also includes the Geneva Conventions. These treaties govern, for example, how we must engage different types of combatants and how we must treat civilians and consider collateral damage.

The information above, while by no means comprehensive, provides insight into how and why military personnel are bound to authorities other than the President of the United States.

The information above also renders Colonel Killebrew’s parallel between U.S. military officers in 2017 and Wehrmacht officers in the 1930s suspect. Colonel Killebrew explicitly sympathizes with them, arguing that prevailing historical narratives surrounding these officers are too punitive. He poses the rhetorical question, “At what point should the German officer corps have rebelled? When their budgets kept going up? When the new hardware, long sought, started coming into the field?”

The above considerations are short-sighted and, on a hierarchy of concerns today, fall well below the domestic and international laws governing the conduct of soldiers (particularly officers) in the United States Military. World order after World War II is quite different than before. Today, international institutions, laws, and norms govern the conduct of states (and their militaries) like never before. For example, there is a universal definition of the word “genocide,” which was established in 1948.

One could argue that as a U.S. Army officer in 2017, I cannot stand in the boots of a Wehrmacht officer. I cannot promise that I would have rebelled after the establishment of Dachau in 1933, or the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, or the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938. I do not know definitively if I would have rebelled against Hitler as he laid the foundation for the systematic murder of six million Jews – some of whom were my ancestors.

But I hope that I would have possessed the moral fortitude to do so — something millions of Wehrmacht soldiers lacked.

Lt. Gabow is a military intelligence officer from Pelham, New York. She graduated from the United States Military Academy last year. The opinions expressed here are her own and are not those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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