In a remarkable display of arrogance, Donald Trump on Thursday night at the Fox News debate in Detroit declared that if he ordered the U.S. military to kill terrorist families or carry out acts of torture, they would do it. The question came from Bret Baier, who recited a list of Trump’s various public statements about torture and interrogation techniques and asked Trump if he was sure the military would carry out orders to that effect.
“They won’t refuse. They are not going to refuse me, believe me,” Trump said before going on to emphasize that he’s a great leader and nobody refuses to do what he tells them to do.
Trump is running for the presidency of the United States. The president is the commander in chief of the military, the military is a part of the executive branch and is responsible to the president and to Congress, which funds it and imposes restrictions on it through laws like the Uniform Code of Military Justice and other portions of the federal code, and treaties the Senate ratifies and makes the nation a party to.
This power structure that governs the military comes directly from the Constitution of the United States.
Officers in all branches of the military take an oath to uphold the Constitution. Like the president himself, they are responsible for fulfilling their duties in accordance with the Constitution of the United States. The officer oath reads in part:
“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 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.”
Enlisted military members, for their part, swear an oath that reads: “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. So help me God.” [Emphasis added]
Both officers and enlisted Soldiers may refuse to carry out an order if it is an unlawful order. Just because a member of the military disagrees with an order does not make it unlawful. Lawful orders may cost lives, lawful orders may require the destruction of enemy material, lawful orders may involve extreme discomfort, danger, injury and loss of life. They may seem stupid, pointless, unnecessary, inconvenient, unwise, even irrational; but as long as the order does not violate the Constitution of the United States, the UCMJ, any regulation governing the use of force or any treaty the nation is party to, the order is lawful.
Unlawful orders would include the killing of innocent civilians – families of terrorists are not combatants, they are innocents – the killing of enemy prisoners of war, and the carrying out of torture, among other prohibited acts. If a military leader at any level issued an order mandating or requiring such conduct, subordinate leaders and military members would be allowed to ignore that order.
The ability to refuse compliance with an unlawful order is an essential part of the military’s culture, a key tenant of the ethics that govern the development and employment of services with the capability to kill the nation’s enemies. The normal due process protections that limit how the government can punish criminals who happen to be citizens don’t apply in warfare. There is no trial, no finding of fact for each individual enemy engaged; once Congress has authorized the president to use military force, within the rules of engagement those forces have the power to take human life and wreak havoc and destruction.
A force powerful enough to make war is a force powerful enough to seize control of the government, bend popular opinion to its will, and squelch civil liberties. For all of the varied missions it can and does fulfill, the military is raw power applied through different tools and systems in different ways. In our Constitutional Republic, that power is controlled by a system of checks and balances including the oath that members of the military swear to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States.
Donald Trump does not understand our system of government. He lacks even a basic grasp of civics. To him, might makes right, and titles bestow all the credibility and moral authority needed to enforce edicts. That kind of a mentality, that worldview, may be entertaining on television, but it is the mark of a despot when backed by force.
On Friday, Trump’s campaign walked back his remarks about supporting the killing of innocents related to terrorists and other war crimes. Let’s hope his issued statement finds its way into his future debate appearances.
The consequences of a military that mindlessly executes orders up to and including ones that result in war crimes are permanent. Today’s Army leaders still look at the case of the My Lai Massacre in March 1968 amid the swamps of South Vietnam as a warning beacon for what happens when moral bankruptcy meets opportunity on the field of battle.