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Why take an oath?

DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- When we enter the Air Force we take an oath. When we reenlist, or pin on a new rank (at the individual's discretion), we take an oath. Why do we take oaths? What is the importance of an oath, and why does it seem so important to the members of the military? This is a humble attempt to answer some of these questions and motivate the readers to think about the words they hear and say at reenlistment or promotion ceremonies.

During my career, several individuals asked me to officiate their re-enlistment or administer their new rank oath of office. Interestingly, most were at the personnel office and simply needed an officer to administer the oath. Unfortunately, to most it was merely a box they had to check to receive their bonus, ensure they could PCS, or stay and serve for another four years. Recently, as I participated in more formal ceremonies, I started to break the officer and enlisted oaths down to help people think about the words they say and just what they mean to the profession of arms.

So, what is an oath? An oath is a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one's future action or behavior. This is the reason nearly all professions have oaths; they use these words as a binding contract to hold them accountable for their ethical actions, behaviors, and ... ultimately, their decisions.

For the military, the officer and enlisted oaths share some common phrases; the rest of the oath merely differentiates the roles and responsibilities the three branches of the government agree to place upon officers, or enlisted servicemembers.

To begin, they both start with a statement that says, "I, ... do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States." This is a promise to protect our constitution. This is your personal commitment to safeguard the principles that founded the great nation we call home. To be clear, this is not an allegiance to any one person, government, or entity. This is a promise to uphold the ideals set forth by this country's founding fathers; the ones that laid the foundation of success for this country and, deemed so important to its future that we need people like you to uphold those beliefs.

The oath continues, "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." We are all familiar with the external threats to our country. These are the most obvious. Prior to World War II, it was Japan, Germany and Italy who formed an allegiance who threatened us physically. Today, our country watches nations like Iran, because their actions induce concern in our nation's leaders, and those of our allies. We watch many others closely because they threaten us and/or our allies in some form; including cyber, bombing, sniper attacks, etc. The tougher question; however, is who are our domestic enemies? This question is not easy, because when we think of threats we think of people, organizations or non-state actors who threaten us physically. However, I contend insurgents pose more of an everyday threat to our Constitution than the threats described above.

What is an insurgent, but "a person who revolts against civil authority or an established government." So, who are insurgents today? What form do they take? I cannot answer this question with authority, because insurgents can take many forms. Some believe they are not only domestic grown terrorists, but also hackers, traitors who pass security information or simply perpetrators of a crime. Each one revolts against some form of authority. The question you must ask yourself is, what is a domestic enemy to me?

Once we identify the enemy we can ask, how do you defend against domestic enemies? The external enemies are easy, they are the ones we train to defeat every day. The domestic enemy; however, could be your neighbor, your co-worker or your friend. To defend against domestic enemies, we must hold each other accountable for our actions (or inactions). We are a team, at every level, and we need to foster trust amongst ourselves. We must foster trust that promotes honest, open communication, a willingness to correct each other and a willingness to make those corrections when we are wrong. For most, this is the most difficult of all the promises to make, because the whole burden lies on you to hold your friends, co-workers and supervisors accountable. This is especially difficult when you may be the only witness to something that defies authority and only your conscience guides whether or not you decide to say something.

The oath then proceeds with, "that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same." By bearing true faith, you are placing complete trust or confidence in the Constitution. Notice, it does not simply say "faith" ... but instead "true faith." This special emphasis is placed here to ensure you believe the words and are not simply paying them lip service. And when it says, "allegiance to the same"...you are placing your loyalty or commitment to the Constitution and the words written within.

All of this implies you have done some reflection on whether you believe the words of our country's forefathers; the words in the Constitution. At this point, if you have not read the Constitution, you should. Despite what many think, it is not a large document, but it can be difficult to understand. To help, take some time to think about the timing and sequence of events, which led to its creation. I would also recommend every person who takes either of these oaths, officer or enlisted, have an understanding or an appreciation of the words they place their trust in and the words they are pledging an allegiance to uphold.

For enlisted, the oath says, "and that 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." The clarification, "according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice" placed at the end defines the limits for those orders. It does not say "blindly" obey the order, but places the burden on you to know when you must and when you must not follow orders. I'm not saying you must read the UCMJ, but you should probably know the limits (or boundaries) of what is and is not an appropriate order.

For officers, the oath says "that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter." The oath emphasizes an uninhibited acceptance of the responsibilities entrusted to you as commissioned officer. It further clarifies there is no hesitation or malicious intent in accepting the responsibility bestowed by the President of the United States. Ultimately, this revolves around being a model officer for your Airmen, living by the Core Values and upholding the standard.

Lastly, the oath concludes with, "So help me God." God is the divine witness to the promise made here, and invokes a level of gravity to the oath. This is similar to the practice of placing your hand on the Bible at a hearing and promising to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth...so help me God. Today, some court systems replace this phrase by saying, "under the pains and penalties of perjury."

Regardless, the intent is to help individuals understand the enormity of the event and the words they spoke so freely.

I hope the next time you observe a reenlistment, attend an officer's promotion, present the oath, take or renew your oath you will have a greater appreciation of what it truly means to be in the profession of arms. Your solemn public declaration creates a contract that binds your future actions and/or behavior and unites all of us who serve in harm's way!