Marine Corps Base Quantico -- Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson willingly disobeyed a commander’s orders and even threatened to open fire on American troops when he saved the lives of at least 10 Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai Massacre.
Not only was Thompson never punished for disobeying orders, but he was later awarded the Soldier’s Medal for his courageous actions.
If the orders given that day had been lawful he could have faced court martial or even charges of treason under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The My Lai Massacre was not the first or the last time a military force would be misused or corrupted. This type of power abuse is what the UCMJ and Oath of Office were designed to prevent and also what allowed Thompson to do the right thing without punishment.
There is an important difference to understand when reading the Officers' Oath of Enlistment compared to the Oath of Office.
Both officers and enlisted service members swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, but in the Oath of Enlistment, service members swear they will “obey the orders of the president of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over [them], according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Officers do not include this in their Oath of Office.
Instead, they swear to support and defend the constitution and “well and faithfully discharge the duties of [their] office.”
Why are the two oaths different and what does it mean that officers do not swear obedience to the president or higher ranking officers? This concept traces back to the intentions of the Founding Fathers who created our governing system with a separation of powers and series of checks and balances between the three branches. This ensures no single branch or person gains too much power and becomes corrupted. By swearing allegiance to a set of ideals and laws, our military is not bound by the orders of a single person, but are dedicated to the defense of the people and their way of life.
Despite disobeying orders and even threatening to open fire on American troops, Thompson’s actions prevented further war crimes and defended the lives of noncombatants in Vietnam. This is the purpose behind the Oath of Office allowing for the disobedience to unlawful orders.
The obligation and responsibility to act against unlawful orders is not exclusive to officers. Article 90 of the UCMJ states that service members are only obligated to obey lawful orders. This gives authority to small unit leaders and even riflemen to use their judgment to serve honorably and disobey orders when they do not uphold the moral standards of our service. Not only does this act as a safeguard to corruption and abuse of power, but it also develops a sense of responsibility and leadership at all levels of command.
If this is the case, however, then why is the distinction made between the two oaths when both enlisted and officers are not obligated to follow unlawful orders according to the UCMJ?
Officers, especially at higher ranks, have a unique position of authority and influence within the organization that could be taken advantage of for political gain. Swearing loyalty to the Constitution instead of the president or any other person means that officials cannot manipulate officers in order to gain control over the military and become dictators.
The intent is to ensure our military fights in defense of the people and their way of life instead of being misused for political gain. Article 90 of the UCMJ allows for legal disobedience of unlawful orders for both enlisted and officers.
The officer’s oath acts as another safeguard against power corruption by not swearing obedience to the president or other officials, but rather to the Constitution. As a result of these two, our military is capable of having people like Thompson, who can correct situations where the military is being misused without fear of punishment for their actions.
Giving the individual Marine responsibility for judging orders as right or wrong keeps our service members accountable and helps keeps our honor clean as a professional warfighting organization.