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May 27, 1997

One of the first lessons learned by a new member of the U.S. Army is that there are three ways of doing everything: The right way, the wrong way, and the Army way. The reason is not hard to understand. It teaches obedience. Your own logic means nothing; the Army has its unique methods and you are never to question them. You learn thereby never to hesitate when given a direct order, even if your mind or your heart says something different. Unhesitating obedience to a direct order is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, as someone pointed out, the Army becomes merely an armed mob.

The lesson applies equally to all genders and to all the military branches -- Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and the Coast Guard -- and to enlisted personnel as well as to commissioned officers. It is perhaps the very foundation of military discipline, and it is an historic concept, not a new one, something we just thought up. A raw recruit has it impressed on him/her when ordered by a sergeant to mow the grass around the barracks with only a bayonet as a tool. Whatever comes as a direct order can never be questioned; you respond to it as a reflex action, without thinking. And you don't lie about whether or not you obeyed.

The, military justice system is not the same as the civil justice system. It cannot be any other way if we are to have a well-trained, effective armed force. That means we cannot have a debating society to question the validity of a superior's orders and where personal preferences allow us to challenge ideas and directives before deciding if we want to obey them. Rules that civilians live by don't apply when you swap mufti for military garb.

Everyone in the military must have complete confidence in everyone else's unflinching willingness to carry out orders or else his/her own life could be placed in jeopardy. It doesn't matter if you're a foot soldier lugging the basic Infantry weapon or the pilot of an Air Force bomber with your finger on the trigger of an atomic device. If you were not sure that your partner in a military action was going to perform exactly as ordered, you might start thinking more about covering your backside than searching for the enemy in front of you.

When you cannot concentrate on carrying out your own orders, you become less than an effective part of the system and the whole operation is perhaps fatally flawed. Everyone in the military is expected to understand this. They are not supposed to spend time wondering about the trustworthiness of the one next to them.

Morality is another issue, but not the primary one in the case now engrossing the American public. Some are attempting to focus on that, and yes it is part of the problem -- but only part of it. "This is the '90s," we hear, as if that excuses any aberration or misconduct. Not everyone would agree with that and it should not deflect attention from the charge of not obeying a direct order. A great deal on the aspect of morality is being argued and there are questions that will have to be resolved someday. Attitudes change, but does basic morality?

Not that much has changed in the military chain of command since this nation was founded, at least not to the point where any officer or enlisted personnel can honorably refuse to carry out a direct order and then compound the offense by lying about it.

Early in life, all of us should have learned that there are consequences to be faced if we attempt to challenge the accepted system in any strata of society. If we consciously choose the unacceptable route, we then have to be man enough, or woman enough, to pay the price for our action.