These Military Lawyers Are Joining Forces to Help Troops Stand Up to Unlawful Orders

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President Donald Trump walks from the gates of the White House to visit St. John's Church
President Donald Trump walks from the gates of the White House to visit St. John's Church across Lafayette Park Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Retired Maj. Gen. William L. Enyart's nearly 36-year military career included active-duty service in the U.S. Air Force and nearly 30 years in the Army National Guard. He culminated his service as adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard from 2007 to 2012.

Upon enlisting in the United States Air Force at 19 years of age, I swore an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

I made the same commitment upon becoming an officer in the Illinois Army National Guard. It says everything about our democracy and our nation of laws that military officers swear allegiance to our founding legal document -- and not to a political leader.

For veterans, taking that oath is a lifetime commitment. That oath requires that service members obey the LAWFUL orders of their superiors. There may come a time when it's not clear to a young soldier, or even to an old one, whether an order is lawful and thus subject to obedience. This is why I'm proud to support the Orders Project's creation.

The Orders Project is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit rule of law initiative that works to connect military personnel with experienced civilian attorneys for advice on issues relating to the lawfulness of orders they receive. The Project is a temporary initiative focused on protecting the integrity of the military during the 2020 presidential election, led by volunteer lawyers Eugene R. Fidell, Brenner Fissell, Phillip D.Cave and other military justice experts, with a goal to provide a resource that will supplement existing internal resources available to military personnel.

During this fraught moment in our history, witness to protesters and uniformed troops meeting in the streets and unprecedented noise from social media driving Americans apart, the "members of the Joint Force -- composed of all races, colors and creeds -- embody the ideals of our Constitution."

These are the words of Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the most senior uniformed member of the United States military. He issued his clarion call to obedience to the Constitution -- rather than to unlawful orders -- soon after members of the military were ordered to disperse peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, next to the White House, as military helicopters flew low over neighborhoods across Washington, D.C., this summer.

It was an important reminder from the most senior reaches of the military that peaceful protests are an American right -- and a clear note of regret from the general himself, criticizing his own appearance near Lafayette Square as a breach of the American military's commitment to nonpartisanship and obedience to the Constitution.

During my nearly 36-year military career, I served in a number of posts, both overseas and at home. Afterward, I served in Congress, including membership on the House Armed Services Committee. I may live in Belleville, Illinois, but my wife will tell you that the military is my home. It is hierarchical and intensely mission-driven, with order and discipline built around a chain of command. There's little room for monkey business when the stakes -- the national security of the United States -- couldn't be higher. The success of our military depends on commanding officers issuing orders, and troops obeying those orders.

But our oaths forbid blind, unreasoning obedience.

"I was just following orders" is no defense to an international war crime, as countless Nazi war criminals learned at the end of World War II. Nor is it a defense to obeying illegal, unconstitutional orders. Finding the right balance, and getting the right guidance, is key.

The launch of the Orders Project is an important way to serve our troops and honor Gen. Milley's call to constitutional order. Ensuring our troops stay vigilant and in support of our Constitution is vital for our republic's long-term security.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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