Military officers must uphold higher standards

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:55 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Bill Wickersham of Columbia is an adjunct professor in peace studies at MU and a member of Veterans for Peace and a member of the national steering committee of Global Action to Prevent War.

In the mid-1980s, I had the good fortune to meet and befriend Robert Bowman, president and founder of the Institute for Space and Security Studies and former director of advanced space programs development for the U.S. Air Force during the Ford and Carter administrations, when those programs were still secret.

Bob, who is also a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, holds a doctorate in aeronautics and engineering from the California Institute of Technology and was the recipient of the Eisenhower Medal, the George F. Kennan Peace Award and the President’s Medal of Veterans for Peace.

Upon retirement from official duties with U.S. space programs and other defense research, he emerged as one of the early public critics of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. “Star Wars”). As a guest on the then “The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour,” he called SDI “the ultimate military lunacy, easily overwhelmed and vulnerable.” Also, for well over 20 years he has been warning U.S. leaders of the utter insanity of placing offensive weapons in outer space, especially those using laser technology which would be powered by nuclear reactors.

Our first meeting was in Washington, D.C., at a congressional sponsored gathering on Capitol Hill, which offered panel presentations on topics related to the peaceful uses of outer space. At that meeting, Bowman served on a panel with noted writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke and Carol Rosin, president of the Institute for Cooperation in Space.

Over the years, Bowman has edited an excellent publication titled “Space and Security News,” which has recently been renamed “Patriot News.” In the April 2008 edition of that publication he included an article titled “Duty, Honor, Country 2007: An Open Letter to the New Generation of Military Officers Serving and Protecting Our Nation.”

In that letter, he says of recent U.S. foreign and military policy: “We are seeing our government going down the wrong path and all too often ignoring military advice and heading toward great danger. And, we look to you who still serve as the last best hope for protecting our nation from disaster.

“We see the Iraq War as having been unnecessary, entered into under false pretenses and horribly mismanaged by civilian authorities. Thousands of our brave troops have been needlessly sacrificed in a futile attempt at occupation of a hostile land. ... The National Guard and Reserves have been subjected to tour after tour, disrupting lives for even the lucky ones who return intact. Jobs have been lost, marriages have been destroyed, homes have been foreclosed, and children have been estranged. And for what? We have lost allies, made new enemies and created thousands of new terrorists, further endangering the American people.”

In describing the role of the U.S. military in a democratic society, Bowman says: “We in the military have always had a subservience to civilian authority ... (but) our oath of office is ‘to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ Might I suggest that this includes a rogue president and vice-president?”

He goes on to say that while military officers are bound to obey and carry out the legal orders of their superiors, they are also obligated under international law to disobey illegal orders. In support of that obligation, he says: “The Uniform Code of Military Justice which binds all of us, enshrines the Nuremberg Principles which this country established after World War II. ... One of those principles says that we in the military have not only the right but also the duty to refuse an illegal order. It was on this basis that we executed Nazi officers who were ‘only carrying out orders.’”

In speaking of international law Bowman reminds all U.S. military officers that the U.S. Constitution that they are sworn to uphold “says that treaties entered into by the United States are ‘the highest law of the land,’ equivalent to the Constitution itself.” Additionally he points out that the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Conventions are two such treaties that military officers are bound to obey. As an example of that obligation, Bowman contends that, if in the future, U.S. officers are ordered to initiate a nuclear attack on Iran, they should “give consideration to arresting whoever gives the order as a war criminal.”

In making that suggestion, Bowman states: “We in the U.S. military would never consider a military coup, removing an elected president and installing our own,” and “if ‘detention’ of executive branch officers (is required), we will not impose a military dictatorship. We will let the constitutional succession take place. This is protecting the Constitution. ... This is what is meant by ‘Duty, Honor, Country.’”

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