As a young man, I took two oaths early in my life. The first one was to support and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, and to obey all orders of the officers appointed over me. That oath was tempered by a requirement that I do so according to the regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and in that context, I was required to only obey lawful orders and in fact was required to disobey an unlawful order, and to know the difference. The second oath was the oath of office for officers and it said the same basic thing, which is that I would support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.
The first test of these oaths was while I was a missile launch officer in Montana, 341st Strategic Missile Wing, 12th Strategic Missile Squadron. This was during the time when the president (Nixon) was becoming very unstable as he faced possible impeachment. My superior officers, worried that the missile force might not recognize a valid command or might be afraid that the president was issuing illegal commands, made a point of telling us that the chain of command would not allow an illegal command to reach the field. They were assuring us, the pointy end of the missile spear, that any orders we received would have been vetted by our superior officers, and that we should do our duty under the law.
Scary times indeed, and in the context of the My Lai massacre (1968), sobering to say the least. We knew from the Nuremberg trials that the claim that “I was just following orders” did not carry weight in a court of law.
My second run in with the need to be fully “woke” to my responsibilities was while I was conducting clinical trials (cancer trials). I was trained and required to apply protections to ensure that human patients who were part of studies were enrolled with their full informed consent, and the Institutional Review Board was the enforcing agency. During the training for this responsibility, we studied the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (1933-50), the behavior of the Germans in the extermination camps, the behavior of the Japanese in Shanghai and Korea, and our own behaviors throughout history. Sober reminders that people in power sometimes forget that their responsibility is to the people they are protecting, and especially to people who are otherwise powerless.
When I finally retired for the second time, 2014, I was ready to enjoy retirement. But the political turmoil around climate change forced me to go on offense, so it was that in 2015 I became active in Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), in part because they promised to bring a bipartisan solution to climate change. I had first encountered climate models back in the 1980s, as chief scientist for Headquarters Strategic Air Command/Intelligence, so when I started seeing them being used in global warming discussions, I trusted the models. This put me at odds with most of the Republican Party, so I became active both within the party (to try and spread the math) and within CCL (to work for their attractive bipartisan plan for a carbon fee and dividend).
After the 2016 election, it became apparent that my oath to defend the Constitution was being triggered by events that threatened to tear apart my beloved country. I was not the only one that felt this way, and the pundits went into overdrive trying to figure out what happened in the 2016 election.
One organization that formed out of that chaos was Braver Angels. Braver Angels is an organization dedicated to helping heal the divide between our two parties by using well-tested family counseling techniques. Since 2016 I’ve been active in both Braver Angels and Citizens’ Climate Lobby, in part because I fear that if we don’t solve our political divisions then none of our other problems will be solvable.
Watching the events of 6 January re-awakened my dedication to those oaths. As I watched the people in DC attempting to rewrite the rules in the middle of an otherwise undisputable election, it became clear that our Constitution, and the rules of law it provides, are being attacked from all sides. Social media, using the same maths that I used to teach, threatens to turn all of our politics into lynch mobs. My oath(s) will not let me stand by and leave the fate of the Republic to the next generation.
The Republic (if you can keep it) is at risk, and it will take strong non-partisan actions to clear the field of those who would raise political walls and replace those partisans with people who can disagree without becoming disagreeable, who know that partisan solutions are divisive and who recognize that partisanship has a long history of not ending well.
This work is hard, and is becoming dangerous. But it is a work of love and dedication to an ideal.