It was during the second day of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas when our training instructor taught us about the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He quipped just before starting that, until this particular lesson, we could have gotten away with just about anything since we didn’t know the military’s version of the law. There was a lot to learn, memorize and live by after that lesson. Thirty-two years after leaving the military, I still remember Article 92 of the UCMJ, failure to obey an order or regulation.
Twice in my eight-year career, knowing Article 92, I refused to obey a direct order. In the first instance, I believed that obeying the order would improperly endanger people and our mission. In the second instance the order I had been given was directly contradicted by an order from a more senior officer. In both cases I had to trust both my judgment, the chain of command, my fellow airmen and the system. In both cases that trust was well placed.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, the defense secretary fired the Navy secretary for refusing to quash a hearing that would determine whether a Navy SEAL, convicted of a war crime, would get to keep his status. The SEAL’s case had caught the attention of the media, especially FOX News, and President Trump, who tweeted that the Navy will “NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin. This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business.” Gallagher had been convicted of posing with the dead body of a teenage ISIS militant, whom he had killed with a knife. His own colleagues had reported him for shooting at civilians and murdering the militant. He was acquitted of those charges but convicted for posing with the body. President Trump had recently restored Gallagher’s rank which had been reduced as a result of his conviction.
President Trump had also recently pardoned other military personnel who had been convicted of war crimes. In a tweet, Trump said “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” No sir. We train our troops to do their jobs, following rules of engagement, bound by regulations and orders, and when necessary, judged based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Following this whole situation for a while I had wondered whether any of the military brass or civilian leadership would stand up against the president’s actions. Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer did, and now he’s out. In his resignation letter, Spencer wrote “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny time and time again. Unfortunately, it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me, in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline,” he continued. “I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defense the Constitution of the United States.”
Yes, the president of the United States has the power to pardon anyone, to intervene in any way he, or hopefully someday she, sees fit in military justice as commander in chief. President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, much to the chagrin of many and the approval of others. He did so, however, without disparaging the system that had convicted her for leaking classified information.
President Trump’s constant display of disdain for the rule of law, his mocking of those with whom he disagrees, his failure to heed the good advice of those surrounding him, and his impetuous behavior are not only a danger to good order and discipline in our military, they are a danger to the very future of our nation. As members of the House of Representatives return from Thanksgiving, and consider whether they should draft and vote on articles of impeachment for the president’s other reckless behavior regarding Ukraine, they need to remember the oath they took. Even if they don’t think the Senate will convict President Trump, they need to trust the system our founders put in place for dealing with a president who may have committed abuses of power that rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. Former secretary Spencer had it right, the rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. President Trump does not believe that any law applies to him. Members of the House of Representatives at this moment have the only power to tell him and the world that he is wrong.
Craig Wiesner served in the U.S. Air Force as a linguist and intelligence analyst. Today he and his husband own Reach And Teach Books Toys and Gifts on 25th Avenue in San Mateo.