Military personnel swear allegiance to the Constitution and serve the American people – not one lead

Members of the military take an oath before service, but it’s to the Constitution, not a specific person. West Point professors explain how young officers learn the importance of their allegiance.

By Joseph G. Amoroso Published on Apr 03, 2024.
Graduating cadets at West Point take their oaths to the Constitution and are commissioned as officers in the U.S. Army. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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.

A parchment with fancy handwriting on it.
The Constitution sets the foundation for civilian control of the military. Jonathan Thorne via Flickr, CC BY

The Constitution as curriculum

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.

New West Point cadets take an oath to support 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.

Moreover, we find that by the end of the course, their increased political awareness and understanding corresponds with less cynicism about the state of American politics.

Our course and similar efforts at the other service academies teach future officers to internalize the importance of their oath to the Constitution, especially in the current hyperpartisan political climate.

From students to stewards

We also expect that these lessons will extend well beyond the cadets in our classrooms. When they graduate, they will begin leading soldiers. As stewards of the military profession, officers shape the values and behaviors of all service members throughout their military careers.

More than 80% of the military is comprised of noncommissioned officers and enlisted service members. Most of them do not receive the same sort of instruction on the oath and the importance of a nonpartisan military.

A formal portrait of a man in a military uniform.
Gen. George Washington, here wearing the light blue commander-in-chief sash, insisted on soldiers remaining citizens, and loyal to the nation as a whole, rather than to specific commanders or leaders. Charles Willson Peale/White House Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons

They also take a slightly different oath that has changed over the years as the relationship between the military and society evolved. While both officers and enlisted service members swear first to support and defend the Constitution, enlisted service members also commit to obeying the orders of the president and the officers appointed over them. This added provision could be construed as a weakness, or as a justification for soldiers to prioritize obedience to a person over principles.

We believe concerns about enlisted personnel’s oath to obey the president are overstated, for two reasons. First, in terms of both demographics and political preferences, enlisted soldiers are more representative of the wider society they serve than are the officers who lead them.

This combination of diverse backgrounds and interests among the ranks of citizen-soldiers follows the logic behind the Constitution that we teach our cadets. By encompassing a greater variety of different interests, it is less probable that any group bent on acting outside of the military’s rules and expectations could act together with such strength as to overthrow civilian authority.

Second, the military remains a hierarchical institution, in which decisions are made and resources are allocated by officers in the chain of command. No single officer or elected official can easily direct the military to take actions that violate both rules and professional expectations. This structure underscores the importance of officers’ education about the Constitution. As instructors of future officers, we know that the lessons we impart will not only influence a cohort of officers, but could also shape a generation of service members.

At the dawn of the republic, then-Gen. George Washington influenced the expectations of what it means to be a citizen-soldier. In a June 1775 letter that set the foundation for civilian control of the U.S. military, Washington emphasized that though he was serving in uniform, he was also part of the nascent nation’s democracy: “When we assumed the (role of) Soldier, we did not lay aside the (role of) Citizen.” That principle was later codified in the Constitution and in the military’s professional ethic.

In today’s contentious political environment, we believe that training and educating officers to live in accordance with Washington’s example is more important than ever. As fewer Americans know someone who is or has been involved in military service, we want the public to know that educating officers on their oath to the Constitution is and will continue to be a priority in shaping the future leaders of our military.

The views in the article are those of the authors and not the United States Military Academy, U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

The views presented in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

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