An Officer's Oath

Author:Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Reese


You have held personal safety and comfort above duty, honor, and country, and, I" so doing, hsve deliberately violated your oath . . . as an officer of the United Ststei Army.,

These words of reprimand were imposed upan an Army lieutenant colonel by Lieutenant General Robert N. Young, then Commanding General, Sixth US Army, on 21 February 1956.

Considerable concern arose in the minds of military officers of the United States who read General Young'a words. Questions of unsure iayaity, divided loyalty, and the meaning of an officer's oath were voiced by some commissioned officers. Others stated: "In many years of active service in the Armed Forces of the United States I have never been reminded, in training, of an officer'a oath, nor heard a discussion of its meaning.''

The wards and thoughts are intriguing and indicate a crucial situation that exists in the officer corpa of the Armed Forces of the United States. That is to say, there is not a general realization of the obligations entailed in the Solemn oath of allegiance to sup-part and defend the Constitution of the United States against ail enemies and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.

The framers of the Constitution professed concern for the nation and if we admit to ourselves that the Constitution is "intended to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted ta the various crises of human affairs"z we too must profess the same

'This artnle was adapted from a them presented to the L' S. Army War College, Carhale Barracks. Pennrylvania, while the author *ai a student there. A short adaptation of the thesis WBQ publnhed ~n the Janvary 1984 isme of Miiitarv RIVZCW. The omnmni and concluilona Dreaented herein


are those of the suthor and do not neeensaniy represent the view8 of the U. S. Army War Callege, the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College,

The Judge Advocate General's School, or any orher governmental agency.

**JAGC, U. S. Army; Deputy Staff Judge Adroeate. Headquarters Field Command, Defense Atomic Supply Agency. Sandia Bale, Albuquerque, NewMeneo: B.S., 1842, University of Utah, LL.B., 1948, Univermty of rtah: Member of the Bar a i the State of Utah, and of the United States Supreme Court and United States Court of Military Appeals.

1 Go". CourtMartial Order So. 14, Hq. Sixth U. S. Army (21 Feb. 1956).

2MeCulloch V. Maryland. 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 415 (1818)

*co DOliB 1



Let us take a view of an officer's oath, unhindered by the cynic and his doubts and with the hope that .a look at the past will provide a partial guide far today and a pattern far the future.

Accordingly, it is the purpose of this study to endeavor to define the meaning and function of the military oath of office, to present for consideration the evolution of the statutory enactments, to point out some historic and current conflicts of unsure and divided loyalty to the Constitution, to indicate the problem of an officer's oath in an integrated international military command, and to put in proper perspective the preparation needed to educate commissioned officers regarding an officer's oath so that they may be prepared to say :

instead of:

Where's the eoward that would not dare to fight for such B land.8

Dear friends. we, sli p ~ m ~ n m , solidly zppesl to you a& fallows: the

armed intervention m Korean infernal sffsirs II quite B barbsrirtic, aggressive action to protect the benefit af the capital monopolists of the U S.A.4 11. OATH OF ALLEGIANCE-ITS YEASING AND FUNCTIOS

If B man . . . wear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his ward, he shall do according to sli that proctedeth out a i his mouth 5

Webster's Third Yew Internetiom1 Dictionwv states, in part,

Oath B solemn . . , formal calling upon God or a god to ~liness ta

the truth of what m e says 01 to witness to the faef that m e ilneeiely intends ta do what one e8y8.

Mr. Justice Field, speaking far the Supreme Court of the United

By allegiance 18 meant the obligation of fidelity snd obedience whlch the individual owes to the government under which he iwes or to his soverewn in return for the protection hr reeswes. It may be an sbralute and permanent obligalmn, 01 it may be a Qualified and temporary one. The citizen or subject owel an sbrolute and permanent ~llegrsnee to his

as follows:


States, observed that:

. .

*Sir Waiter Scott. ,Marmion, Canto IV, Stanza 30, an quoted in B A R L ~ , FAM~LIAR SO1 (11th ed., Mlorley ed 19401.


EVERY WAR BUT ONE 28 (1959) (The words quoted are

attributed to an American officer 48 houri after hx ea~tuie by the enemy in Korea.)


he renovnees and becomes a citizen 01 ivbiect of another govemmeiitor anothei sovereign.6The origin of the oath of allegiance must be sought in feudal times. History reveals, to a considerable degree, that the oath as used today in legal institutions reached us through canon law. which in turn had three distinct yet intervening sources: prereligious culture, the law of the German tribes, and ancient Roman law.' In each of these stages, however, the oath played a substantial part even from the earliest times: thus, we find Lycurgus eaying to the Athenians: "An oath is the bond that keeps the state together,"8 and Baron de Montesquieu attributing the strength of the Romans to their respect for an oath in these words:

There is no nation, says Lwy, that has been longer uncorrupted than the Romans: , , , .

Such was the influence of an oath among those people that nothing bound them mnre atrangly to the laws. They often did mope for the observanceof an oath than they would ever have pelfarmed for the thirst of glaryOF far the love of their eountry.0An oath in a pledge to perform an act faithfully and truthfuliy. The pledge is any form of attestation signifying that the one exe-cuting the oath is bound in conscience to perform faithfully and truthfully. The attestation involves the principle of invoking Gad to witness that which is announced as the truth, and implied is the invocation of His vengeance, or renunciation of favor, in the event of falsehood.

The ancient Scandinavians and Teutons swore by their gods and laid their hands on some object of veneration--a bloody ring held by the religious leader, their weapon, or their beard while subscribing to their oath. In ancient Rome, the military oath was between the commanding general and his troops. Initially, the legates and tribunes took the oath and then it was administered to the troops in the fallowing manner: after one soldier from each legion had taken the complete oath, the remainder of the legion came forward one by one and said, "Idem in me." That is to say: "The same holds good for me.'' The oath was effective for only the current campaign and binding only as to the general an whose behalf it was executed-a new general, a new oath. This changed, a csrilaie V. united states. a3 U.S. (16 wail.) 147 (1872)_______~

7 Silumg, The Oath, 68 YALE L. J. 1343 (1858).s"0raria in Leaeratem" as quoted by Chief Judge Vsnderbilt I" his apman in Imbrie Y. Marsh, 3 N.J. 578,681, 71 A.

2d 352,363 i1960).


DES LOIS, Bk YIII, ch. 14, at 55 iliugent tranrl. 1949). (Quoted differently ~n Judge Vanderbllt's opinion in Imbrle Y. Marsh, w~~notD 8.)


however, in about 100 B.C. when Marius introduced military serv-ice for a term of 20 years. Thereafter, the entire command was required to take the oath all at the same time and for the complete period of service in the name of the state, or the emperor. After the advent of Christianity, it was preferred that the oath be taken in holy places-particularly near the altar whereupon had been placed holy relics.1o

Warriors and liegemen, facing battle, were pledged to remain true to king or cause, even if captured. Treason brought retributive justice. The mark of Judas was upon that person who broke a trust or delivered a friend to the enemy. The code of the fighter was limited to knightly concepts of duty, honor, country, loyalty, honesty, trustfulness, courage, and bravery. Military knighthood in the days of chivalry was subject to much form. Xanly arms were never received without the pomp and ceremony of investiture and many of the orders had their own oaths.

It developed that the Jew when taking an oath desired to be sworn on the Pentateuch or Old Testament, with his head covered; a Xohammedan, on the Koran; or a Chinese by the burning of joss. stick.''

Of course, none of these formalities are essential to the taking of an oath as long as the form used meets the requirement of appealing to the conscience of that individual to whom the oath is administered. He must possess a realization to speak the truth.

The purpose of the oath, here being considered, is to express the solemnity of the occasion and to recognize and reveal derotion to the government. The oath is the tie that binds the individual to the government, in return for the protection received.

This being so, from what ~ource came the military oath of office taken by an officer of the Armed Forces of the United States?

10 Oath, Yihtoid, 20 EXCYCLOPEDIA AWERICASA 564 (1956) : 20 EXCYCLO-PEDIA AMERICAFA 532 (1952) (An interesting story 1s toid ~n rbe 1ar:ei reference regarding William the Conqueror and hi.prmr co making Harold rnear ta be B supporter inthe throne of England, secretly deposited some rmartyrs under the aitar where the ceremony wauid take place. A i m the oath swearing had been accomplished. Haraid was enjoined to remember h a obligation of fidelity and obedience which he had taken "pan himself under the anspieee of religious sanction.)

'LSee, B.P., State V. Chyo Chlagk, 92 Dlo. 395, 411, 4 S.W. 704, 709 (1887)

1 *GO 80178



Article VI, Clause 3, of the Constitution of the United States provides in pertinent part as follows:

, , , all executive . , . officers . . . a i the Umted Stater . . . ahali be bound...

To continue reading