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Military personnel swear allegiance to the Constitution and serve the American people – not one leader or party

Joseph G. Amoroso, United States Military Academy West Point and Lee Robinson, United States Military Academy West Point, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

In general, Americans don’t trust their government institutions as much as they used to – and that includes the military.

In part, that’s because the military can be used as a tool to gain a partisan advantage rather than as a professional group that should be trusted by both parties. For instance, the day he was inaugurated as president, Donald Trump spoke at a luncheon and pointed to retired Marine four-star generals John Kelly and James Mattis, who were serving in his cabinet. “See my generals,” he said. “Those generals are going to keep us so safe.” This was the first of many times that he referred to top-ranking military officers, whether active-duty or retired, as “my generals” – rather than as military leaders who serve the nation as a whole.

The former president’s actions, while perhaps gaining the most attention, reflect a trend among recent presidential candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, who emphasize their connections to the military.

President Joe Biden has claimed he had support from numerous four-star military officers and cited his years of interactions with retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as justification for a congressional waiver for Austin to serve as secretary of defense.

We are active duty Army officers who teach at West Point and instruct a mandatory course for cadets on the Constitution and American politics. We are concerned about the implication that the military somehow owes allegiance to specific individuals. Military officers do take an oath upon commissioning – but not to a person. Our oath is to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The foundation of what we teach at West Point is that the military’s allegiance is to a system of government codified in the Constitution. Article I of the Constitution says that Congress declares war and funds the military. Article II of the Constitution makes clear that the military must follow the orders of the democratically elected civilian president. The Framers of the Constitution shared authority over the military among elected officials to ensure no one person has unchecked power to direct the military, and that the actions of the military are beholden to the public it serves.


The course we teach provides context and depth for cadets to understand their oath. On their first day at West Point, cadets take an oath to the Constitution. When they graduate, they take a similar oath, also to the Constitution, as they transition from cadet to military officer. Graduations, promotions, reenlistments and other major milestones are commemorated by service members reaffirming their commitment to the Constitution.

We are West Point graduates ourselves and have been taught, as we now teach, that our oath forms the basis of a nonpartisan ethic. In the U.S., unlike in many other countries, the oath implies military leaders should be trusted for their expertise and judgment, not for their loyalty to an individual or political party. We emphasize to cadets the rules and professional expectations associated with this profound responsibility.

We explain that they will likely face challenges that cannot be addressed by the text of their oath. We teach cadets that when the rules are vague or inadequate, they should live and lead without political partisanship and in ways that will maintain the trust of the elected leaders and the American public they serve.

Our assessments of students’ learning provide evidence that our lessons are working. Among the concepts taught, cadets demonstrate the largest growth in understanding the Constitution’s provisions for civilian control of the military and the expectation of nonpartisanship.


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