17 June 2007

Taking Oaths and Defending the Constitution

This past weekend, I was sitting in a coffee shop getting into a new book (new for me, anyway) called Blood and Belonging. As far as I can tell, as I’m only ten pages into it, it deals with nationalism and allegiances. In those first few pages, though, I began thinking about the times that I have taken oaths as part of my military service. If memory serves me correctly, I think I’ve taken some form of oath regarding military service six times. It may be more.

Like every other oath of office in the US, the oaths I took were based on the foundation that I would “support and defend the Constitution of the United States”. This is profoundly important for a number of reasons, some of which are:
- the Constitution is a document, not a person,
- the Constitution is, on the whole, an unchanging document,
- the Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, has no other man-made peer.

When I, as a military member, swore to defend the Constitution, I understood that was a departure from military oaths taken in the past. Not all that long ago, soldiers swore oaths to their generals, to those who were in charge of them – or more appropriately, those who paid them. As might be expected, this system did not necessarily enhance the stability of the state. Soldiers became susceptible to the whim of their commanders. But by swearing to defend a document, the supreme law of the land, military personnel give their allegiance to the lawful operation of the state as dictated by the Constitution.

As the Constitution is, by and large, an immutable document, it is not susceptible to the sudden passions of our leaders, the media or the public. While those winds may buffet the ship of state and turn it some to the right or left, the Constitution is supposed to be a large rudder, steadying the course.

As defenders of that rudder, all those who take the oath should understand that the Constitution is therefore not a “living, breathing document,” as some contest that it is. Changes to the Constitution are set out in the amendment process, which is rightly long and arduous. If it is too easy to change it, then the ship of state becomes misshapen with the additions and subtractions of the short-sighted and ill-informed. The danger of a “living, breathing” Constitution is not that one law or another will change. The real danger is that, contrary to the imagery of a “living, breathing” document, the Constitution becomes a dead, hollow document, used simply as a tool by those who have the position and will to warp the state to their own liking. And in this guise, defenders of the Constitution are really just defenders of the powerful.

The Constitution, therefore, does not truly live through change. It endures through our understanding of it as it was written and our ability to let it guide the country through decisions, easy, uncomfortable or otherwise.

Lastly, as the supreme law of the land, the Constitution must necessarily not have a peer in a legal sense. Those who wish to apply “international standards” or such on the Constitution seem to misunderstand this basic principle. There must be, at the end of the day, a trump in the deck, and for the United States, that trump is the Constitution. Just as the US Constitution is not the law of, say, Switzerland, “international standards” do not and must not override the Constitution in the US. It is by us and for us.

Maybe this is all just simple civics, but it seems important to me to get down to the basics of things. We are all susceptible to being swept up in the day-to-day machinations of the world around us, the subtle (and not so subtle) spinning of those who wish to influence us, and the distractions of entertainments which beg us to not think. But the words that we speak, the oaths that we take, the things we defend are much more important than all of these ephemeral provocations. Considering our words and oaths carefully and understanding our convictions is vital to defining ourselves and our culture. And if we continue to reflect, from time to time, about the basics of things like the Constitution, perhaps we can better resist being swept up in the chaos that is pressed upon us by those who wish to define us in their image.

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