As soldiers, we are called to respect and obey our commander-in-chief, but not if he issues unlawful orders. This moral commitment is one of the things that keeps soldiers from becoming barbaric in the most barbaric of circumstances—war. It also is a constant reminder that no man stands above the law he serves.
When questioned on how he would make a nation, group, or person do what he demands, Donald Trump often replies with something menacing, along the lines of “They will—” with an implied “or else.” The Mexican government disagrees with him on who will pay for his wall, so now it’s ten feet taller. House Speaker Paul Ryan expresses reservations about Trump’s KKK equivocations, and Trump concludes they’ll get along, or Ryan will “pay a big price.”
In last week’s Republican primary debate, Donald Trump used the same veiled threat toward the military if it refused his unlawful orders to torture captured terrorists and target their families. He repeatedly insisted that they—we—would do what he said. Of course, confronted on his comments afterward, he was forced to rethink his answer and backpedaled. It’s hard to take such an immediate 180-degree turn seriously. He was given numerous opportunities to correct himself during the debate and didn’t do so.
A Presidency Too Far
Since his initial comments are more in line with his previous statements, which is why he was asked the question, I take them seriously. As a soldier, I expect commanders to say what they mean and not play political games. My response to Trump’s position (as best we can determine): Hell no, sir.
You have repeatedly belittled our former commander-in-chief, President George W. Bush, whose unequivocal response to 9/11 was the reason so many of us joined the military. You claim—with no evidence—that he lied about Iraq. You can fault the intelligence that Bush, both Clintons, Barack Obama, and most of Congress believed, but you cannot fault the moral integrity of the man.
In fact, that was why many of us took our oath of offices under his presidency—you could question his policies, but you could not question his principles. We knew President Bush would give us the tools to fight a cause he earnestly believed in (and many of us did, too), and that he would try to get us out with minimal casualties. Yet you called him a liar.
While lambasting the ethics of our former commander-in-chief, you seek to go beyond his enhanced interrogation techniques to the use of outright torture. You seek to go beyond his discriminate targeting of terrorists by illegally and inhumanely targeting terrorists’ families. You must have a low view of our military to think they will mindlessly abide the dictatorial edicts of a man who pretends to stand above the Constitution they pledged to defend.
American Soldiers Need a Strong Conscience
You said last Thursday that not only would you favor these policies as commander-in-chief, but you would make sure the military did what you said. You not only doubt our mental faculties and moral character, you doubt our moral fortitude in refusing your unlawful orders. You play to the progressive stereotype that soldiers are nothing but pre-programmed kill machines.
As a chaplain, much of my job is to counsel soldiers, because they are the exact opposite—they are spouses and parents, called to leave their families behind to preserve the country they love. They see horrendous things, including the weaponization of children, but bear the moral weight of such a sacrifice for the greater cause they carry. Moral conscience and moral fortitude are the chief characteristics of each soldier. These characteristics enable them to endure the sick and sadistic for the sake of greater things—country, freedom, values, family, and the battle buddy alongside them.
It is also these characteristics that separate soldiers from terrorists. We are not mindless, human drones that can be deployed through whatever means to any sort of immoral end. We represent moral ideals (the Constitution), moral causes (defending home and hearth), and bear moral discretion in defending these ideals and causes. A U.S. soldier is a soldier specifically for these reasons.
I shouldn’t have to instruct you on the basic nature and tenets of the military, for you are dangerously close to controlling this venerable force. You should have listened to General Hayden’s warning that we would not abide your unlawful orders. Our moral conscience, which makes us soldiers, commits us to a moral purpose higher than your megalomaniacal ambitions for our use.
So now a low-ranking young officer in the Army Reserves is telling you what hundreds of thousands of other soldiers will echo: “Hell no, sir.”