Oath, Honor, and Duty
For the first time in my life, at eighteen years of age, I made an adult decision. What I mean by that is that I acted entirely independent of the influence of my parents. They had raised me to take my promises made to others seriously. And as a brand new adult, standing in a room full of other young men, I raised my right hand and swore an oath before all of them and God that I would fulfill my promise to serve the country I dearly loved. I swore to defend her against all enemies foreign and domestic and uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, and was willing to surrender my life in her defense if called to do so.
When my four-year enlistment in the Army ended, I entered into police work and swore another oath that was very similar to my military oath—only this time I also promised to uphold the laws of the State of California (where I lived and worked) while upholding the Constitution. Instead of a rifle, I was issued a badge and pistol. My mentors and superiors instilled in me that wielding power came at a very heavy personal cost. Just as in military life, that oath might require the surrender of my life in the service of others. And in reverence of the oaths I swore both as a soldier and a police officer, such oaths were not to be taken capriciously. In other words, once I swore an oath, I could not unswear it because honor was at stake—my honor, my country’s honor, my God’s honor. I could not merely call a time-out whenever circumstances were unpleasant and opt-out of my oath.
In examining those public oaths, I recognized a duty to God, my country, and the people protected by the rule of law under our Constitution. I am not an idealist. I have always been a realist: God is real, the Constitution is real, and the people I served were real. My oath bound me to the honor of serving, and honor bound me to my duty. But it was the trust of the people I served and the accountability to God, whom I swore my oath to, that made oath, honor, and duty sacred to me.
The oath of public service, then, is not simply an utterance dressed in auspicious occasion and ceremony. It is nothing like being a graduate, in an atmosphere of celebration where degrees or certificates are bestowed and titles inferred. It is not like a speech given at the dedication of a bridge, a thought-provoking (or boring) invocation before a gathering, or a contrivance of tradition. An oath-taking ceremony is a solemn moment of paramount importance where those accepting public service cross a deep divide between that which is common and that which is not. And anyone taking an oath should be held to a higher standard of conduct than the average citizen because of the promise given.
Oath-takers become servants. They set aside personal gain and private enterprise to embrace self-sacrifice and a measure of devotion beyond the ordinary demands of daily life. Servants are never to be foisted higher than those they are sworn to serve. Power is something granted by consent of the governed, not a weapon to be grabbed in utility and used with regularity against those being served. Power must be constrained and limited; to be held lightly and wielded only when absolutely necessary. And those who serve must be willing to surrender that power for the good of others, especially if they become corrupted by the taint of power and dishonor themselves in the process. That is why public servants (like presidents, members of congress, governors, judges, military personnel, peace officers, etc.) are required to take oaths. It should remind them always of their accountability before God and others.
The honor of serving is sufficient cause for keeping one’s oath. When I wore the uniform of the United States military, I walked on hallowed ground. For every soldier, sailor, marine, or airman whoever served before me, serves now, or will ever serve in the future shares in that same common bond of camaraderie and distinction. I am honored as a veteran to be counted among them, though my service was small by comparison. Anyone in those esteemed ranks whoever kept their oath and upheld their duty remains a member because of honor. And America remains a free country in large part because of the sacrifices made by men and women who served with honor and distinction through military service.
The same is true of anyone in law enforcement who has kept their oath intact, and their badge and life unsullied. They, too, were and are honor-bound by service to others. The enforcement of laws and the prudent administration of justice under our legal system is a difficult balance between upholding the law and maintaining the public trust. The expectation of the public that law enforcement will protect every citizen and respond in time of emergency and greatest crisis is higher than it has ever been in recent history. Yet, when the press sensationalizes a breach of public trust whenever a peace officer abuses his or her authority, the entire law enforcement community suffers the dishonor publicly. Those who dishonor the badge deserve no quarter and should be discharged from the ranks. By and large, we should remember that our peace and well-being within our own communities is being maintained by peacekeepers (our law enforcement community) with honor, as our military serves to protect our greater freedom abroad. And it was an honor to serve both in the military as a soldier and as a peace officer in the community.
Though the duty was quite different in both professions, duty came with the oath and the honor. It was not merely a set of mundane tasks with attached deadlines. Duty was not filled with endless glory nor beaming with boundless rewards and benefits. Cash bonuses were never awarded for outstanding duty. Occasionally, a medal or ribbon (or in law enforcement a plaque or certificate) might be bestowed to commemorate distinctive duty—and that was the honor bestowed and received. Even more rare was a promotion in rank. Anyone considering the military or law enforcement in order to “get rich” should look elsewhere for employment. And anyone currently in our government who awards or receives cash bonuses just for doing a good job should be ashamed of themselves.
Duty was driven by purpose and defined by the mission. The purpose has always been to serve others; to maintain trust; to use resources prudently; to save and preserve life; and to respect the uniform and the responsibility that comes in donning it each day. The mission is the tactical aspect of duty; the manner in which conduct is defined; the performance of duty in the field; the objective to be ultimately gained and secured; to succeed, survive, and continue to keep the oath faithfully intact.
And as I reflect upon oath, honor, and duty, I am reminded that I am bound in the same way by faith to my God. Everything I do as a Christian man is bound by faith to God—bound by oath, bound by honor, bound by duty—and I am accountable to God for the life He has granted me in trust. How I keep my promises to others reflects upon my devotion to God. How I treat others determines how I honor God. And how I carry out the purpose and mission of Christ defines my duty to God. Though I am only human, and prone to failure, I shall do my best to remember my oath to God and serve Him with honor in the duty set before me until He calls me home.
And I pray that you, too, will exercise your faith and choose to serve God. He has promised to give us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness far beyond what our Declaration of Independence could promise or our Constitution secure. In the truest sense of the Marine Corps motto, God is the ultimate “Semper Fi.” God exemplifies oath, honor, and duty in the service of others (you and me.)
God Bless You. God Bless America. And I hope you may celebrate freedom not only on July 4th, but one day for all eternity.
(copyright 2013, Gregory Allen Doyle)