We cannot go to war on the whim of a single person and automatic obedience by well-meaning men and women who profess loyalty to a Constitution they don’t understand.
Last week I had the good fortune to hear one of America’s leading military officers deliver a thoughtful and inspiring address to a small group—there were about fifty of us—of people who have been concerned about the direction of the country. The meeting was private so I won’t reveal the speaker’s name, but despite my own high regard for him, and the pleasing tenor of his remarks, there was nonetheless a moment in his presentation that was deeply disturbing; it’s not too much to say it was genuinely frightening.
Throughout his talk, the speaker made comments that generally reinforced why he is so widely admired, by me as well as others. He urged young men and women to take the time to engage in public service. He issued a resounding call to honor and uphold America’s great founding values—free speech, a free press, due process. He even mixed his own personal praise for White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis with the observation that it is nonetheless not a good idea to have military officers serving in the highest ranks of what is supposed to be a civilian-led government.
Encouraged by the direction of his talk, I asked him a question: Last July, I observed, the admiral in charge of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific, Scott Swift, told attendees at a security conference that if he were ordered by President Trump to launch a nuclear missile strike aimed at China, then he would do so in keeping with his commitment to the constitutional model of civilian control. It was a stunning comment that revealed a stark lack of understanding of the Constitution that Swift and other military officers are sworn to uphold. I asked our speaker whether he agreed with Admiral Swift that the military would launch nuclear missiles if Donald Trump ordered them to do so; he said he agreed with Admiral Swift and he gave the same reason: loyalty to the concept of civilian rule.