I take the concept of honor and oaths seriously.
There is a curious omission in the Officer oath which implies a serious responsibility. An American Officer does not swear to obey. They are still legally bound to obey orders, but are not morally bound to do so.
Here are the Army Oaths:
The Oath of Enlistment:
“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that 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; 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. So help me God.”
The Officer Oath:
“I, _____ (SSAN), having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or 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.”
Early in US Military History, Officers swore to obey the President and officers appointed above him. This underwent a number of revisions (including the Civil War era oath) and ultimately, the oath to obey was deliberately removed.
Both enlisted men and officers swear to support and defend the Constitution. This means they uphold the laws and judicial interpretation of the Constitution and will defend it against all threats. But only Enlisted swear to obey the President and Officers above them. Enlisted men must carry out the mission, even if they do not understand the objectives.
Article 90, 91, and 92 of the UCMJ require all soldiers to willfully obey lawful orders given by a senior NCO or Officer. This excludes orders which violate domestic and international law or responsibility for carrying out orders you never received. If you obey an illegal order to commit a war crime or crime against American citizens, you will be punished.
Officers in the US Military are morally bound to disobey certain orders. Officers are the protectors of the Constitution and must view all orders with the Constitution in mind. They are not morally bound to obey even the Commander-in-Chief if the order conflicts with the Constitution.
It is the burden of officers, not enlisted, to determine if controversial orders violate the Constitution. What orders and under what circumstances? That’s a unique responsibility.
They must, morally and legally, obey orders which puts their lives at risk. If an officer abandons his duties and refuses orders because they are too dangerous, then he refuses to defend the Constitution and the Government of the USA.
On the other hand, he must never carry out an order which threatens the Constitution. For instance, officers will not carry out a military coup d’état even if ordered by senior generals or the President; those who do are traitors. In my opinion, the so-called militaries of the Third World are little more than dishonorable armed gangs because they would obey such orders.
The Civil War saw the gravest breach of the Officer’s Oath. Officers may not pick and choose whether to remain loyal to a home state or the Federal Constitution. Those who opposed the Constitution after swearing the oath dishonored themselves.
More likely, officers will be given orders which they may find questionable. For instance, the joint chiefs and the President may debate whether or not to invade a country. The Generals should openly voice their concerns and criticisms. The President should not be surrounded by yes-men. Yet if he refuses to reconsider and gives an order they strongly disagree with, it is their responsibility to resign their commission rather than carry out the order. This continues down the chain of command.
Of course, you only know if you were right if many other officers agree with you at your trial. Otherwise, you’re an idiot who’s off to Fort Leavenworth. Most men who disobey orders are idiots. This is an important point to keep in mind.
Disobeying orders should be the rarest of events, but it is something which distinguishes a democratic military from an autocratic military. It’s actually the final line which separates the two forms of government.
If an officer ever utters “I was only following orders,” then he disgraced the uniform.
So, like all soldiers, officers live by the Army Values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage. These cannot be mere words or the military turns into a dangerous armed gang.