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Recently an article was published in Naval Institute Proceedings magazine that explored a subject that is central to service in the military but does not receive the attention it deserves (“The Oath as a Sacred Covenant”, Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2017).  While a student at the Naval War College some years ago, after a particularly bad experience with a commanding officer who was eventually relieved for ethics violations, I wrote a leadership essay on the role of personal loyalty in the military.

The thesis of the essay was that personal loyalty – that is, loyalty to the person themselves – is a dangerous element within the chain of command, and my research led me back to the same oath that Lieutenant White writes about so well in the article mentioned above.

Punching the dictionary, a good working definition of “personal loyalty” is to be loyal and faithful to a person to the point of undeviating attachment and tenacious adherence to that person.  The specific requirement for loyalty within the armed forces of the United States is embodied in the oath discussed at length in the article mentioned above.  The core of this oath requires all officers to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”   There is no mention of loyalty to any person.  The oath also requires the commissioned officer to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the Constitution, thereby stating unequivocally that an officer’s only loyalty is to the nation as defined by the Constitution. 

The Constitution empowers Congress “to make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval forces.”  It was with the powers granted to it by this clause that Congress created the oath, as well as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  The UCMJ governs the bounds of the relationship between superior and subordinate, in significant part through a series of punitive articles.  These punitive articles cover a range of issues and in general require members of the military to be respectful to their superiors, obey their lawful orders, not show contempt to them, not assault them, and not plot to undermine their military authority.  While the cumulative effect of these articles is to reinforce the rule of law and authority of superiors, they do not require personal loyalty to superiors as individuals.

One theory about loyalty is that there must be a third party involved that is in competition for the individual’s loyalty. The implication is that loyalty is a zero-sum game when tested: one can not give their allegiance to two different parties.  By requiring an oath, the framers of the Constitution and Congress wanted to ensure that key members of the government are loyal to one object, the Constitution, and nothing else.  If tested, our loyalty is to the nation as defined by the Constitution, not to an individual.  A recent example of this conflict, albeit from the civil service and not the military, was Acting Attorney General Yates’s decision to not support the President’s travel ban executive order.  In her assessment, the order was not lawful under the Constitution, and she decided she could not support it.

Effective leadership is based on personal communication between superior and subordinate.  Positive leadership attributes can and should lead to mutual respect and admiration between superior and subordinate.   However, a superior should never demand personal loyalty from their subordinates, and subordinates should guard against following a leader out of a sense of personal loyalty to that person.  It is our military duty to faithfully execute our boss’s lawful orders and support their effort to lead the command, but our loyalty and our allegiance are to the Constitution.


Captain Anthony Cowden, USN, is a Surface Warfare Officer on active duty in the Navy.  The contents of this article represent his views alone and not those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

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