Because I served in the Marine Corps many years ago, people sometimes ask my opinion on military issues. Lately friends have been asking me about the proper response of military officers to President Obama’s order that all military personnel be supportive of open homosexuality in the ranks. How should high-ranking military officers who are responsible for ensuring the effectiveness of military units and for protecting the morale of the troops in these units respond to the president’s order? I attempt to answer this difficult and complex question herein.
First, some background. When I served in the Marine Corps many years ago, one of the first things we learned was our obligation to obey all “lawful” orders. Disobeying a lawful order was not just frowned on, it was a court-martial offense. But what happens when an order, though lawful, is unethical, unconscionable, or just ill-advised? Should military personnel obediently carry out such orders? Should they try to speak up on behalf of what is right? Should they simply refuse to obey? What is the right course of action? How high-ranking military officers answer this question depends on their priorities and convictions.
Military personnel who put their careers above all else will obediently fall into line and carry out orders, no matter how unethical or ill-advised they might be. Further, they will punish those who do not immediately obey. Colonel David Hackworth—a courageous warrior and a man of deep convictions—called these self-serving politicians in uniform “spineless, career consumed, perfumed princes.” This is an apt description, and anyone who has ever served in the military is familiar with this type of officer.
The middle-ground position is for officers to speak up and try to influence a bad decision before it is made or reverse an ill-advised order that has already been given. Officers who choose this option are better than the “spineless, career consumed, perfumed princes,” but in the long run—when push comes to shove—they typically opt for career over conscience and begrudgingly fall into line. Several of the military’s highest ranking officers chose this option when President Obama first announced his intentions to eliminate the military’s “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy. They grumbled a little, but quickly fell into line.
The final option is to make a statement by disobeying the unconscionable order. This option takes courage because it inevitably brings severe consequences, and those who choose this option must be willing to accept the consequences. An example of an officer who chose conscience over carrying out an unethical order is Lt. Gordon J. Klingenschmitt, a Navy Chaplain. Pressured by his superiors to offer generic, nonsectarian prayers during Navy ceremonies, the Chaplain stood his ground and said no. Klingenschmitt knew there would be consequences, but he was willing to accept them to shine a light on the secularization of religion in the military. He has a higher calling than the military and a higher purpose than getting the next promotion.
Lt. Klingenschmitt entered the Navy as an Episcopal minister, a Chaplain whose job it is to minister to sailors on the basis of the Word of God and to provide comfort to those who are suffering in the name of Jesus. But with Barack Obama in office, “Christianity” has become a bad word and the “spineless, career consumed, perfumed princes” are falling obediently into line behind the president. Further, the politicians in uniform are turning courageous officers who stand on principle—officers like Chaplain Klingenschmitt—into martyrs. When backed into a corner by President Obama’s obedient minions, this dedicated Chaplain decided to stand up for what is right and take the consequences. He has been court-martialed and fined, but he may get the last laugh yet. Chaplain Klingenschmitt plans to leave the Navy rather than submit to the secularization of religion. His departure will be a loss for the Navy, but a gain for people of principle.