Writing in the January 2017 Military Review, Richard Adams provides an important caveat in relation to my recent post, Support and Defend the Constitution. I wrote that military officers operate within the constitutional chain of command and generally defer to constitutional authorities. When moral conflicts arise, they raise their complaints to the chain of command, take the issue to higher authorities if necessary, and ultimately resign if they cannot conscientiously execute missions or policies determined to be legal under the Constitution.
In Against Bureaucracy (PDF at link), Adams points out the dangers of that approach. Adams writes,
But while ideas of initiative and enterprise resonate in military lore, they have become essentially rhetorical since militaries have grown more centralized, less adaptable, more prescriptive, and more bureaucratic. Honeycombed by legalism, avoidance behavior, and inconclusive language, bureaucracy cultivates irresolution, and excuse. Bureaucracy suffocates personal trustworthiness, which should distinguish leaders, and the independent responsibility that hallmarks effective soldiers. . . . Valued for calculable data, for seeming impartiality, and for the centralization of its control, bureaucracy commodifies people and dissolves moral autonomy.
The U.S. Army is one of the largest bureaucracies in the world. How many leaders will take those next steps, “when moral conflicts arise”?
Adams reminds us that institutions have a tendency to mold people in the image of the bureaucratic machine. Caught in the middle of a vast bureaucracy with a long chain of command, individuals are, consciously or unconsciously, under enormous pressure to conform and perform their assigned functions. Internalizing justifications for the bureaucracy’s actions is almost automatic, a matter of self-preservation. Very few will see their own actions as having any kind of real impact on the system that dwarfs them. Seeking an immediate redress for wrongs seems pointless. In most cases, it takes years – or even decades – for large institution to change or address systemic problems. For those who have come to see their careers as a cog in a machine, “Go along to get along” is practical advice. “Cooperate and graduate” is not just the unofficial motto of too many military schools, it is a way of life in a bureaucracy.
The military officer’s oath does indeed require deference to constitutional authority. Doing so without surrendering one’s moral autonomy is a tricky maneuver. Perhaps that’s why the last phrase of the oath of office is so important to me. “So help me God.”