Renewing Democracy Through Oath Education at the Air Force Academy
America is experiencing declining trust in democratic institutions and an erosion of the democratic norms essential to maintaining them. The U.S. military, which historically has enjoyed the status of being the most trusted national institution, has seen its trust levels decline in recent years. Some attribute this to the perceived politicization of the armed forces. Others question whether the military’s professional ethos has been compromised to the point where it has become a political actor that increasingly strays from its nonpartisan ethic. Still others point to the over-representation of veterans in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and conclude that the U.S. military may not be relied upon to uphold the rule of law. The status of the American military profession is declining and likely contributing to the armed-forces recruiting shortfalls. One piece of restoring public trust is to examine how we educate servicemembers in the professional norms related to military service in a democracy, starting with their oath to uphold the constitution.
Last fall, James Joyner and Butch Bracknell argued that “this oath is central to maintaining healthy civil-military relations, but it is not enough.” This doesn’t do the oath justice. The oath remains an underutilized tool that, if properly leveraged, could strengthen the democratic ethos essential to preserving the republic. Where the military profession falls short is in its lack of emphasis on educating its members on the meaning of their oaths. We believe that further education can prepare servicemembers to tackle some of the difficult challenges that Joyner and Bracknell lay out in their article.
At the Air Force Academy, we have worked to incorporate oath education into crafting a renewed professional ethos that would keep servicemembers focused on the norms of behavior in a military accountable to elected civilian leaders. Through these efforts, we believe that the military’s current “warrior ethos” can be complemented with an equally important “democracy ethos.” The Air Force Academy’s Oath Project is a cadet-led initiative to improve understanding of the Oath of Office among military students at academies and professional development institutions. This program provides education focused on civil-military norms and the importance of upholding the values inherent in an apolitical military. We encourage military leadership to embrace expansion of the program at other institutions and encourage Congress to support these efforts through increased funding of civil-military education programs.
Creating a Foundational Education
America’s founders gave their citizens a tool to stay focused on preserving the democratic nature of their new republic. When writing the rulebook to govern the nation, the founders set the expectation that those in government and military service to the nation had a special trust to uphold the democratic institutions they had just established in the Constitution. Article 2 of the Constitution requires the president to take an oath of office, and Article 6 requires members of Congress, the federal judiciary, and officers of state legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government to take oaths. With regard to the military, oaths were required at the time of enlistment in the Continental Army. The first act of Congress in 1789 specified the text to be used, which is almost unchanged to this day. The founders were the products of a culture where taking oaths to the monarch was common. What wasn’t common was taking an oath to uphold a document instead of swearing allegiance to a particular individual — even if that individual had been duly elected under the Constitution.
But for the oath to work, the men and women who uphold it also need to understand it. Two years ago, the few cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy enrolled in a political science civil-military relations elective questioned the adequacy of what they learned about the oath in their pre-commissioning education. Even though they were within months of becoming commissioned as 2nd lieutenants in the U.S. Air Force, at the beginning of the course they could not articulate what it meant “to support and defend the Constitution” beyond understanding that military members must obey the lawful orders promulgated by the military and civilian authorities with command responsibility for them. These cadets expressed the need for more education to be integrated into the totality of the cadet experience to help them comprehend the professional norms required to support the constitutional principles inherent in their military oaths. Cadets solicited the help of distinguished professor Marybeth Ulrich, the instructor of their civil-military relations course visiting from the U.S. Army War College, to start a student-led program dedicated to furthering cadets’ understanding of the Oath of Office. This was the birth of the Academy Oath Project.
The experience of these original 13 cadets in their upper-level civil-military relations course informed their ideas for what should be included in a more comprehensive oath education effort available to all cadets, regardless of academic major. They took stock of what education was occurring and identified gaps. They found that the political science department at the Air Force Academy devotes five lessons to constitutional foundations and civilian control of the military in its “Introduction to American Government and National Security” course, which is a core class that all cadets take in their sophomore year. The course begins with an introduction to the framing of the Constitution and the oath through readings from George Washington’s Newburgh Address. This helps establish the constitutional origins of civilian control of the military and provides background to draw upon when analyzing contemporary political events where the roles of military members and civilian leaders is a stake. The class then continues with Samuel Huntington (excerpts from The Soldier and State), Don Snider (“Dissent, Resignation, and Moral Agency”), and David Barno and Nora Bensahel (The Increasingly Dangerous Politicization of the U.S. Military”) among a host of other readings. Cadets must write a paper that analyzes a case study to glean lessons learned pertaining to civil-military relations.
The learning objectives for these lessons center on the importance of civilian control of the armed forces for a democracy, what it means to be member of the military profession, and the need for a nonpartisan armed forces. These lessons help the cadets understand that military officers are trusted in large part because of the non-politicized nature of the service. A strong background in civil-military relations helps officers understand why military leadership is subordinate to civilian leadership when faced with following orders and making decisions in morally complex situations. Cadets must write a paper that applies the civil-military principles learned in the course to a current civil-military relations issue such as the role of military advice in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, retired flag officers’ partisan behavior, and norms surrounding the seven-year waiting period for retired generals to serve as secretary of defense.
However, a few lessons in one course are not enough to lay the foundation needed to develop the professional ethos needed to uphold their oath at difficult decision points in their career when civil-military relations norms will be challenged. A civil-military relations education that integrates themes across the political science, history, law, and leadership core curriculum is needed. Such curriculum reform, when supported and resourced, will take years to achieve. In the meantime, the Academy Oath Project Club provides hands-on experiences for cadets to learn more about the professional norms surrounding military service in a democracy by preparing programs for other cadets and faculty that explain various principles.
For example, the original Academy Oath Project cadets assessed their military training and noted a glaring gap in the lack of any education on the oath of office in basic cadet training. As one of the graduating seniors involved in founding the club noted, “We took the oath of office on our first day at [the U.S. Air Force], but no one explained it to us.” Almost four years from the time he first took the oath, he was lobbying with his fellow cadets from Academy Oath Project to include oath education in basic cadet training. After designing the training under the direction of Professor Ulrich, the cadets enabled their fellow cadets in the direct chain of command of the basic cadets to lead the sessions. The lesson explains the history of the Oath, its link to the preservation of American democratic institutions, its central role in American military professionalism, and the expectation that as members of the profession they will maintain their commitment to the Constitution for life. Cadets meet biweekly through the club to improve programs and plan future projects. In a recent panel, cadets assessed their basic cadet training oath education program and petitioned to move the session to the beginning of the summer training so that the training cadre could discuss the themes introduced throughout basic training. Academy Oath Project cadets are currently developing a workshop to educate upperclassmen responsible for training first year cadets on civil-military relations norms. The club’s faculty and cadets are also in the beginning stages of writing an oath education handbook that could serve as a foundational text for programs and courses seeking to foster a deeper commitment to democratic norms.
In addition, the Academy Oath Project cadets have focused on creating experiential learning opportunities concerning civil-military relations in a democracy. These include planning the Academy’s Constitution Day program; updating the cadet handbook Contrails to include segments and knowledge questions on the oath, Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence; and making a video focused on the Oath of Office to support the athletic department’s National Collegiate Athletic Association civic-education requirement before election day. The hope is that cadets will take these lessons learned with them when the leave the academy and assume leadership roles within the Air Force. The Academy Oath Project Club is providing outreach education through active support of military reenlistments, promotions, and retirements by offering a few words on the importance of the oath during these ceremonies to remind service members that the focal point of military service is one’s obligation to the Constitution.
The club has also reached out to the other academies and some Reserve Officers’ Training Corps units to share their products and ideas. Earlier this year, Professor Ulrich and several cadets from the club traveled to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to speak to all 1,000 seniors on the Oath of Office and the norms of military service in a democracy. They learned about West Point’s curriculum and visited the lesson on the oath in the core capstone “Officership” course taught out of the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. The Army War College’s Civil-Military Relations Center is facilitating the cooperation between West Point and the Air Force Academy as part of its mission to promote civil-military relations education throughout the professional military education system.
While many oath-takers, civilian and military alike, understand the dos and don’ts of appropriate civil-military relations and norms of service, many do not understand the “why.” Members of the Academy Oath Project, through their participation in the program, are increasing their understanding of the meaning and significance of the oath as well as the responsibilities placed upon those who take an oath to uphold the Constitution. They are learning the nuances of civilian control by developing their own lessons, with faculty help, to explain the constitutional foundations of their professional obligations to obey civilians, while also fulfilling their professional responsibility to provide military expertise to inform political leaders’ decision-making. They researched the principle of nonpartisanship and developed a video that was shown to cadets near election day in which they explained to their peers why partisan behavior undermined support for the military profession. The goal of all these efforts it to provide a strong foundational education in civil-military relations so that if military members find themselves in politically charged situations, they will have the intellectual tools to critically assess the situation without partaking in partisan activities.
Joyner and Bracknell argue that expecting military members to discern whether actions by a president or Congress are constitutional is beyond the scope of even the most educated of officers. We counter that a robust civil-military curriculum that extends from enlisting/commissioning through advanced military education would provide military members with the tools to critically think about the constitutionality of orders and requirements.
As Joyner and Bracknell assert, there is a great amount of ambiguity surrounding the lawfulness of following civilian orders of questionable constitutionality. Education and training will lend some clarity and inform the professional judgment essential to help military members think through their actions in politically fraught situations. Consider a handful of examples. Joyner and Bracknell discuss the tendency for military leaders to engage in political behavior to advance their services’ agendas before Congress. The Academy Oath Project’s lessons stress the importance of limiting military engagement with political actors to the provision of expert military advice. Cadets learn that public advocacy for preferred policies may limit the decision space of political leaders, effectively undermining civilian control. Joyner and Bracknell argue that senior uniformed leaders are political actors involved in the struggle over “who gets what, when, and how.” Oath Project lessons distinguish between the providing input on political matters such as resource allocation, which is within the purview of sound military advice, and providing partisan input aligned with particular ideologies. Joyner and Bracknell point out that creating military policy is a complex process involving all three branches of government. In the face of uncertainty, they note that military leaders sometimes strike out on their own, creating policy. Oath Project training cautions against this, emphasizing the importance of adhering to policy created by democratically elected officials who represent the will of the people.
The vaulted status of the American military profession stems from the public’s recognition of servicemembers’ professional expertise and years of education. A deeper understanding of the national purpose and the commitment to preserve the democratic character of the nation through their oath contributes to military effectiveness and will give U.S. military members an edge in future conflicts waged against autocracies. The Joint Staff’s Officer Professional Military Education Policy, a tool that guides the curriculum of military education institutions, should more deliberately foster the development of a democracy ethos by requiring the teaching of democratic civil-military relations norms at every level. In their article, Joyner and Bracknell call upon Congress to enact stronger laws safeguarding civil-military relations. We suggest that the military profession also has the responsibility to provide a comprehensive civil-military relations education to prepare its members for military service in a democracy. Congress, in its oversight role, can require the services to report on how they are achieving this end. Congress could also prioritize funding of these programs and support initiatives such as Academy Oath Project that provide active learning experiences for service members to internalize democratic norms.
Through the Academy Oath Project, cadets learn that as members of the military profession, they are obligated to follow norms that are part of a professional ethos. This ethos includes the bedrock principles of non-partisanship and civilian control of the military. Cadets learn that when they took the oath for the first time, through every promotion and reenlistment, and even after their retirement or separation, they are members of the military profession with responsibilities to uphold those professional norms. Kudos to the 13 cadets from the Air Force Academy classes of 2021 and 2022, now 1st and 2nd lieutenants in the U.S. Air Force for demanding that more be done to prepare them to assume their constitutional responsibilities. Their successors are continuing to make strides to build an oath culture at Air Force Academy and beyond. More support is now needed to institutionalize this effort.
Dr. Marybeth Ulrich is professor of government at the U.S. Army War College, a Scowcroft National Security Senior Fellow at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a Senior Fellow at the Modern War Institute, and the faculty adviser for the Academy Oath Project.
Dr. Lynne Chandler Garcia is an associate professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and a member of the faculty advisory board for the Academy Oath Project.
Cadet Sydney Fitch is a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the cadet-in-charge of the Academy Oath Project.
The views represented in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of the Defense.
Image: Ken Scar