Our Military Code of Conduct and the 2020 Election

Published by Gerald Benjamin on

When I volunteered for military service in 1961 I was required to memorize the six elements of the Code of Conduct for American soldiers, keep a copy of the Code on a card in my pocket and be able to recite them on the spot if commanded to do so. To this day, it shapes who I am at what it means to be a citizen, as well as a soldier defending our nation.

The first provision told me that as a member of the U.S. fighting forces my job was to defend “my country and our way of life” even at the cost of my life. The fourth reminded me of my obligation to “obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me.” And the sixth told me to “never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free.” 

As an 18-year-old ROTC cadet, and later as a junior commissioned officer on active duty, it never occurred to me to question the order of a commander. But in retrospect, it seems remarkable, and extremely important, that the members of our armed forces were required to memorize that they were fighting for specified values – freedom and a way of life – were personally responsible for their actions, and were required to follow only lawful orders.

I served during the Vietnam War era, but was not in the infantry, was never deployed, never had to make hard choices under the extreme pressures of combat. Many others did, and did so honorably. But not all. I was in advanced officer training at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas when news of the My Lai massacre riveted the nation. In 1968, under the command of Lieutenant James Calley, a company of American soldiers killed more than 500 civilian villagers – mostly women, children and old men, and burned their village. Many were shot by Calley himself. 

If I were in Calley’s shoes, had experienced the bloody Tet offensive, led a unit that had lost 28 of its soldiers, and was on patrol in an enemy dominated province, I asked myself, what would I have done? If Calley were my commander, would I have followed his orders? (Not all in the unit did, and some civilians were saved by the intervention of an American helicopter pilot and crew.) Or would I have refused, based upon the nation’s values, my upbringing, my training and the principles specified in the Code of Conduct I had been required to memorize? I hope the latter, but I was never tested.

The peaceful, orderly transfer of power has been a hallmark of the American political system. It is a core element of our “freedom and way of life.” We have a Commander in Chief standing for reelection who repeatedly has said that he might not accept the outcome, and is unabashedly actively seeking in advance to manipulate and delegitimize the voting process. General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our highest ranking military officer, told Congress in August that “The Constitution and laws of the US and the states establish procedures for carrying out elections, and for resolving disputes over the outcome of elections … I do not see the US military,” he said, “as part of this process.” Maybe General Milley should go a step further, and order a universal “Code of Conduct Day” in mid-October, a day on which every person in our military on active duty is required to take that card out of their pocket, and read it to be reminded of their personal responsibility to obey only lawful orders in support of our freedom and the American way of life.

Article I: 

I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.[5] 

Article II: 

I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.[5] 

Article III: 

If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.[5] 

Article IV: 

If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.[5] 

Article V: 

When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.[5] 

Article VI: 

I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.[


1 Comment

Ted Clark · October 6, 2020 at 3:34 pm

I read with intense interest your statement on the Code of Conduct. I was in the Navy from 1960-1964 and like you Gerry, it was during the Viet Nam era but I was never in harm’s way because I was stationed on the 6th Fleet Admiral’s flagship in the Mediterranean sea with a primary mission of promoting the US and providing humanitarian aid when necessary. Your idea of reminding the members of our military of their obligation is a damn good one. Thank you for your thoughts.

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