Just over 26 years, 5 presidents and 14 congresses ago, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. The martial aspects of “support and defend” are obvious. The Army is prepared to use military force at the direction of constitutional authorities to protect the nation.
Soldiers, however, are not the only people who promise to support and defend the Constitution. Federal civilian employees take essentially the same oath as military officers. The oath for both is prescribed by 5 U.S.C. §3331. Apart from the use of armed force, what does “support and defend” mean? Here is how I interpret it in my setting:
I will, to the best of my ability, accomplish the missions given me by the chain of command headed by the lawfully elected President of the United States, the constitutional Commander in Chief of the Army, in a manner consistent with the orders, regulations and policies established by those in command over me, under the authority of acts of Congress signed into law by the President, determined to be lawful and consistent with the Constitution by the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Army exists under constitutional authority. As an individual member of the Army, I support the Constitution by working within the legal framework established by the Constitution. I assumed that duty when I took my oath of office.
I do not have the freedom to determine for myself the meaning of the Constitution, the legitimacy of elected or appointed leaders or the validity of the laws, regulations or orders under which the Army operates. The Constitution provides a means for determining those matters.
The members of the Army must presume the acts of legislative branch and the decisions of the executive branch to be constitutional unless they are overruled by the judicial branch. In the end, the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says that it means.
There may (theoretically) come a day when I cannot conscientiously execute an order given me or follow an established policy. If I believe it to be unlawful, my duty then would be to insure that I understand the commander’s intent correctly and make my objections known. If necessary, I can elevate my concern to the next level in the chain of command. If, however, I cannot conscientiously execute the constitutionally lawful missions and policies established for the Army by Congress, the President and the chain of command, it is my duty to resign my commission.