Let's educate service members on professional ethos, not just extremism

Let's educate service members on professional ethos, not just extremism
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In this graduation season for U.S. military academies and commissioning sources, our nation’s newest officers are entering the service amid decreasing trust in the military and increasing discussion of extremism within the institution. Following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in which some participants were veterans and active duty military members, Secretary of Defense Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it China moves quickly to replace America in Afghanistan Harris to travel to Vietnam, Singapore in August MORE ordered a Department of Defense (DOD) stand down to address the growing concern of extremism among military service members. Despite this department-wide training intended to focus on the meaning of military service and the oath we swear to protect and defend the Constitution, some leaders have equivocated on the problem of extremism in the ranks.

Some senior military officers said current processes mean they have no extremists under their command, while others demurred on engaging with the problem amid claims of remaining apolitical. Failing to grapple effectively with the existence and extent of extremism undermines the sacred duty of our nation’s military professionals to the Constitution. 

We contend that the U.S. military has neglected its responsibility to develop in its ranks a professional military ethos focused on service members’ oath to the Constitution. The oath is not to any individual or organization, but rather to the democratic processes and civil liberties that our Founders enumerated in the Constitution. Improved education and training on the meaning of the oath would strengthen service members’ core commitment to the nation and bring into focus behaviors that deviate from the ideals that bind us together as Americans.


Given the requirements of the oath, the professional ethos of military service members must be demanding. Carrying out the obligation requires great familiarity with its constitutional underpinnings. To date, military training on the oath has emphasized legal obligations — the “do’s and don’ts” — but not the “why.” We must imbue our service members with the professional ethos expected of militaries in the service of democracies. The first obligation is to do no harm to the democratic processes laid out in the Constitution. The professional ethos also includes a commitment to refrain from political activities that associate military members with partisan causes. Third, service members must understand that their professional obligation is a lifelong commitment.

Veterans and presently-serving service members who participated in the violent events of Jan. 6, and who continue to participate in extremist organizations, violate this professional ethos through their disruption of constitutional processes and disregard for the civil liberties of their fellow citizens. The DOD maintains security clearance prohibitions against membership in organizations dedicated to overthrowing the U.S. government by force or discouraging others from exercising their constitutional rights. The professional ethos underpinning these same guidelines must define expectations prohibiting any service member from joining or supporting extremist organizations that seek to overthrow the U.S. government, disrupt its democratic processes, or undermine the rights of fellow citizens. 

We must distinguish between service members’ liberties to hold different ideological beliefs and the acceptability of those beliefs in light of the oath and the obligations of the military profession.   

Civilian and military leaders alike must increase the emphasis and energy devoted to educating and training service members on the expectations of a professional ethos, in line with the oath.  Cadets at the Air Force Academy have spearheaded such an effort with the founding of The Oath Project this spring, through which a dozen cadets created a comprehensive program to reinvigorate education on the oath of office. This program is a model for other military educational institutions and units to emulate.

The Department of Defense must clarify guidance and reaffirm expectations that any and all acts of extremism that threaten the constitutional order are in direct violation of our professional military ethos. We must understand the lifelong obligations that the oath asks of us: to protect and defend the Constitution; uphold democratic processes and the constitutional rights of our fellow citizens to participate in them; and refrain from partisan political activities in alignment with existing civil-military norms. If we fail to delineate, educate and train military members on clear expectations for this professional military ethos, our military institutions risk internal fracturing that may threaten the democracy they are sworn to defend. 


Kelly Atkinson is a major in the U.S. Air Force, an assistant professor of political science, and a member of the faculty advisory board for The Oath Project at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  

Marybeth Ulrich is a retired Air Force colonel, the distinguished visiting professor of political science at the Air Force Academy, and the General Maxwell D. Taylor Chair of the Profession of Arms at the U.S. Army War College. She is the co-founder of The Oath Project along with her students.

The views expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or any part thereof.