After thinking about Vice President Mike Pence’s remarks last Friday at the United States Naval Academy’s commencement, I found one part of his speech particularly alarming:

Next is orientation to authority. Nothing I have to explain to those of you sitting before me today. Follow the chain of command without exception. Submit yourselves, as the saying goes, to the authorities that have been placed above you. Trust your superiors, trust your orders, and you’ll serve and lead well.

As Phillip Carter, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, quickly highlighted on Twitter, when Pence instructed the new officers to follow orders “without exception,” he overlooked one crucial exception: unlawful orders.

Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice stipulates that:

Any person subject to this chapter who—

(1) violates or fails to obey any lawful general order or regulation;

(2) having knowledge of any other lawful order issued by a member of the armed forces, which it is his duty to obey, fails to obey the order; or

(3) is derelict in the performance of his duties; shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

Because this provision specifies that an order must be lawful, disobeying an unlawful order is not a violation. In other words, service members are not required to obey illegal orders. Moreover, specifically because an unlawful order demands illegal conduct, a service member who follows one may be exposed to criminal liability.

But aside from being legally unsound, Pence’s statement raises other concerns. First, it represents a retreat from a culture the military has worked steadfastly to foster. The military tries to cultivate leaders that know they should act ethically and morally even in the face of external pressures, whether those pressures come from outside circumstances or their chain of command. With incidents such as the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in Iraq, the military places great emphasis on training its members to avoid the moral and ethical lapses that could lead to such atrocities. When I attended West Point, cadets were—for good reason—drilled ad nauseam with hypothetical situations, case studies, and leadership lessons. We were constantly reminded, for example, to “choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” This is the opposite of what Pence said last week. Leaders should not assume that if they blindly “trust [their] superiors” and “trust [their] orders,” they will automatically “serve and lead well.” 

If the current Naval Academy experience is anything like the years I spent at West Point—and I assume it is—the graduating officers certainly understand these concepts, so there’s no need to panic. Pence’s speech cannot and will not undo their training.

But one can’t help but wonder what effect this comment from the vice president might have on graduates who will face precarious situations in the future. Perhaps one of these graduates will become a Navy pilot and receive an order to deliberately bomb a civilian target. Maybe another graduate will become a Marine infantry officer and receive instructions to physically strike detainees during tactical questioning. Inevitably, some of these officers will wrestle with the tension between doing what’s right and doing what’s expedient. Any one of them might need to reconcile the duty to accomplish the mission legally and ethically with the competing desire to go to any lengths to save American lives. Might Pence’s “without exception” phrase linger in their minds and tip their judgment in the wrong direction?

Second, Pence’s comment undermines the very commissioning oath that his audience took as new military officers—to “support and defend the Constitution” and “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Military officers—current and former—readily and proudly note that they did not take an oath to any particular president, administration, political party, or person. Military service transcends devotion to such entities, and the loyalty that it necessitates rests ultimately not in the human chain of command but rather in the Constitution. Pence was simply irresponsible to discuss “orientation to authority” only in relation to the chain of command, without also emphasizing the document that is central to military service.

Third, and perhaps most worrisome, is the context in which Pence delivered his guidance. He told the brand new officers to follow orders without question after Donald Trump has suggested illegal military conduct, such as intentionally targeting terrorists’ families, torturing detainees, and stealing Iraq’s oil. He has also made various comments since becoming president that risk politicizing the military and the intelligence community. And of course, he reportedly demanded personal loyalty from FBI Director James Comey before firing him. Together, these incidents beg the question: What overall effect could the Trump administration have on respect for the law and the nonpolitical identity of the military? And are Pence’s remarks to the Naval Academy’s graduating class part of this erosion of norms?

It is entirely possible that Pence may not have intended these effects, and admittedly he may have meant only to convey that the graduates should follow legal orders. Yet his guidance to these new Naval Academy graduates is nevertheless dangerous because of how it might be interpreted. And as vice president, he should understand the magnitude of his words. Pence will presumably speak at another service academy’s commencement next year, and perhaps before doing so he should read some of what Defense Secretary Robert Gates said to my West Point graduating class in 2009:

To take that stand – to do the hard right, over the easier, more convenient, or more popular wrong – requires courage . . . The hardest thing you may ever be called upon to do is stand alone among your peers and superior officers . . . One of my greatest heroes is George Marshall, whose portrait hangs over my desk in the Pentagon. As I said here last April, Marshall was probably the exemplar of combining unshakeable loyalty with having the courage and integrity to tell superiors things they didn’t want to hear – from “Black Jack” Pershing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As it turns out, Marshall’s integrity and courage were ultimately rewarded professionally. In a perfect world, that should always happen. Sadly, it does not, and I will not pretend there is not risk. But that does not make taking that stand any less necessary for the sake of our Army and our country. The moral principles of leadership I’ve just discussed are timeless – they apply to any military leader in any generation.

It was eight years ago, but I still remember Gates’ message: The greatest acts of courage can sometimes require defying your superiors.

Image: Getty/Win McNamee