Members of the armed forces take an oath to obey the orders of the President of the United States and their commanding officers, as required by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
There’s only one exception in that code: If the order is unlawful. Service members are taught that if they are ordered to do something illegal or immoral – such as a war crime – they are obligated to refuse.
So soldiers typically ask themselves questions like: What would I have done if my commander ordered me to destroy an entire Vietnamese village?
With Donald Trump as their commander in chief, however, the question of what to do if given an unlawful order has become less hypothetical, says Pauline M. Shanks Kaurin, who teaches ethics at the U.S. Naval War College. (She spoke to me in an individual capacity).
“It’s not an academic question anymore,” she said. “For many people, it feels more present. It’s in the realm of possible in the military – much more than it has been.”
Nothing Trump has done – even sending troops to the southern border at Thanksgiving for political, rather than military reasons – has risen close to that level, she said.
“Let’s say you think it’s a political stunt,” she said. “That doesn’t rise to the level of disobeying a command because it’s illegal or immoral. The disobedience threshold is very high for the military – for good reason.”
(There are, of course, ways of resisting short of refusing an order.)
“I will say that talking to my friends and students and colleagues in the military, people are thinking about this in more practical terms,” Shanks Kaurin said. “In other words, ‘If I get that order, what am I gong to do?'”
How scared should we all be about Donald Trump’s relationship with the military? That’s a question I’m posing to experts in the wake of my Nov. 19 post that listed several reasons for concern. Shanks Kaurin was the first. She wrote a fascinating article in Just Security last year about the growing civilian/military cultural divide.
She told me today that some service members see Trump as outside the normal spectrum of presidents. “They don’t see Trump as a normal commander in chief,” she said.
“But part of military professionalism is that you serve as an agent of the state and you serve whoever the civilian leaders are that represent that state,” she said.
That hasn’t changed dramatically – at least not yet – she said.
What has changed, however, is the willingness of retired service members, particularly flag and general officers, to criticize Trump’s conduct as commander in chief.
“I think for some people, they think Trump is in a different category – that think the normal rules about not being political or not being partisan don’t apply,” she said.
Case in point, the op-ed that Retired Adm. William H. McRaven wrote in August calling Trump a terrible disappointment. Trump fired back with some ridiculous potshots. Retired Gen. Mark Hertling then defended McRaven against Trump’s “jackassery.” Retired Gen. Wesley Clark just wrote that “Trump’s actions and behavior have led service members and veterans to question whether he really understands who a commander in chief is, or what he does.”
So, Shanks Kaurin said, “if you think that, does that change how you think the military should act?”
Shanks Kaurin said her concerns about Trump and the military have actually ebbed since he became president. “I think I was more worried during the election, when Trump was saying, ‘Of course, they’ll waterboard if I tell them to,’ and the military was saying “Oh no, we won’t.”
But she said, “The way he talks – ‘my military‘ — that’s odd relative to how other commander in chiefs talk about that.
“He struggles with what it means to be commander in chief.”