An Officer’s Identity: It’s Important to Maintain Trust, Authority, Other Key Traits

An Officer’s Identity: It’s Important to Maintain Trust, Authority, Other Key Traits

Saturday, April 30, 2022

I took a course on constitutional law as a cadet and have led multiple officers through the recitation of the oath of office at promotion ceremonies. However, I did not think deeply about the Constitution, the commission or the oath of office for most of my 30 years in uniform.

That changed when my brigade commander gave me a copy of The Armed Forces Officer after our 2012 deployment to Afghanistan. The book is available in a new edition published in 2017 by the National Defense University Press. The authors, Richard Swain and Albert Pierce, succinctly state, “The commission and the oath constitute an individual moral commitment and common ethical instruction. … They are the foundation of the trust safely placed in the Armed Forces by the American people. The commission and oath unite all Armed Forces officers in a common undertaking of service to the Nation.”

This article is designed to help commanders, ROTC, Officer Candidate School and West Point instructors lead meaningful discussions on the unique role of commissioned officers in the Army profession.

Commission Origins

Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution directs that the president “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States.” The president delegates executive authority to commissioned officers.

The commissioning ceremony and every subsequent promotion is confirmation that the president “has reposed special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities” of that individual officer, as promotion orders say. The president, the American people and the chain of command rightfully demand that officers display exceptional moral leadership while fulfilling the trust that accompanies their commission.

Article VI of the Constitution explicitly demands that “all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.” Air Force Lt. Col. Kenneth Keskel describes the evolution of the oath in his article “The Oath of Office: A Historical Guide to Moral Leadership” in the Winter 2002 edition of Air and Space Power Journal. He provides context on the original oath from June 1789 and the subsequent changes during and after the Civil War. Department of the Army Form 71: Oath of Office-Military Personnel, dated July 1999, includes the most current version of the oath of office:

I, (First Name, Middle Name, Last Name) having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, … 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; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation 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.

While Congress has modified the oath of office over the past 233 years, there remain immutable truths. Commissioned officers make this oath publicly and freely. Officers swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This oath purposely does not mention a person or leadership position. The oath is intentionally apolitical and nonpartisan. When officers recite the oath of office, they make a public promise that consummates their commission.

I taught a three-credit course on officership to West Point cadets from 2014 to 2019. We started every class by having a student lead the entire class (and me) in the recitation of the oath of office. The readings, papers and discussions focused on the uniqueness of commissioned officers by highlighting themes of trust, authority, responsibility and accountability. It brought me profound joy to participate in the bar-pinning ceremonies that followed West Point’s graduation. It was an honor to lead newly commissioned second lieutenants (who I had watched develop and grow as cadets) in the public recitation of the oath of office in front of their family and friends. During the ceremonies, I explained to the audience the immense trust and confidence that West Point, the Army and the nation have in their loved ones. I closed my comments by challenging the newly commissioned officers, in front of their families, to be the selfless leaders our soldiers deserve and the nation demands.

A Matter of Trust

Chapter 6 of The Armed Forces Officer is titled “The Officer at Work: Command.” It introduces the central themes of trust, authority, responsibility and accountability. My own experiences leading in garrison, in combat and in the classroom have further refined these concepts as they relate to the professional identity of a commissioned officer.

Commissioned officers (and leaders regardless of rank) must demonstrate exemplary decision-making and behavior, professional competence and sound judgment to earn and maintain the trust of multiple constituencies. This begins with the American people. Do parents and families have sufficient trust in the Army to send their sons and daughters into its ranks? Do elected officials, especially the president and members of Congress, trust that the officer corps will defend the nation and steward the Army profession? Do your chain of command, peers and subordinates trust that your unit will accomplish myriad and difficult missions with the resources allocated? Do the Army’s joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational partners trust that soldiers will follow through on commitments and promises? The past 20 years of combat have proven that units cannot and will not successfully accomplish missions without trust.

Person of Authority

Authority is the delegated power to judge, act or command. Several sources provide commissioned officers with the authority to execute their duties and responsibilities. These include (but are not limited to) U.S. Code Title 10, Army Regulation 600-20: Army Command Policy, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, unit policies and operations orders.

Commissioned officers (and their subordinates) have the authority to strike and kill the enemy. An officer must be prepared to make life-or-death decisions, often with limited time, intelligence on the enemy or combat experience on their side. Can I strike and kill the enemy? My own experience is that, 9 out of 10 times, my unit had the assets available to kill the enemy.

The more important question is, should we strike the enemy? I found that my unit was only able to do this three of those 9 times. The law of armed conflict, the rules of engagement, the commander’s guidance for fires, hostile intent, hostile act, patterns of life, uninterrupted patterns of life, risk estimate distance, concerns with civilian casualties, the risk of damaging protected areas and concerns with proportionality all influenced my decisions and the decisions of countless leaders. An officer can only make these difficult decisions (and live with them) by having a strong moral and ethical  background that matches their professional competence.

Sharing Responsibility

Officers must faithfully execute the oath of office; however, they share most responsibilities with their NCOs. These leader teams, at echelon, must accomplish missions and achieve the intent of higher headquarters. Leader responsibilities include:

• Setting and enforcing standards of training, discipline and conduct.

• Developing leaders.

• Building cohesive teams through mutual trust.

• Ensuring good order, discipline and safety.

• Demonstrating stewardship of all resources (equipment, money, time).

• Maintaining and upgrading special skills (lifelong learning).

• Protecting lives (American soldiers and citizens, allies, partners, innocent civilians).

• Identifying and, where possible, mitigating risk to the mission and soldiers.

Accepting Accountability

Accountability means that officers accept the consequences for all decisions, actions and inaction. Leaders, especially officers, must be prepared to accept full responsibility if their decision results in a bad outcome. I often asked myself if I would be able to explain my decision, regardless of the outcome, to my boss or my family. This demands that officers demonstrate exceptional discipline and judgment to build, maintain and repair trust relationships.

Tying This Together

The July 1964 issue of Military Law Review included the article “An Officer’s Oath,” by Lt. Col. Thomas Reese. The author quoted retired Adm. Arleigh Burke, the chief of naval operations from 1955 to 1961.

In the article, Burke emphasized that, “There are many pressures in this world of ours today which dictate against a solemn and intensive contemplation of the oath an officer takes. But I do think that more attention should be devoted to the indoctrination of young officers especially, of the obligations they as individual officers assume when they recite the oath. It is a responsibility that should not be taken easily. And its phraseology is disarmingly simple. When an officer swears to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic’—he is assuming the most formidable obligation he will ever encounter in his life. Thousands upon thousands of men and women have died to preserve for him the opportunity to take such an oath.

“What he is actually doing is pledging his means, his talent, his very life to his country. This is obligation that falls to relatively few men. And it should be considered as a sacred trust.”

Commanders and officers at all levels should periodically review the Constitution to remind themselves of their commission and oath. It will help them answer “why” they serve. This clarity of conviction will help officers fulfill their sacred oath, accomplish all missions and reward the trust that the president, Congress and the American people grant them. 

Col. Scott Halstead, U.S. Army retired, is director of the Association of the U.S. Army’s Center of Leadership. He retired from the Army in 2021 after serving as an infantry officer and deploying during Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Resolute Support. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, in 1991.

This article was originally published in Army Magazine.