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What’s in an Oath?

The military could serve a key role in addressing shortfalls in Americans' civic education.

Words: Johanna Mendelson Forman and Michael Wright
Pictures: Master Sgt. Scott Thompson/US Air National Guard

As each day passes, we are learning more about the men and women who participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Many were believers in former President Trump’s conspiracy theories about a stolen election, all of which have been disproven by top members of his administration. Others were white nationalists who represent the racism that divides and polarizes our electorate. But what the majority had in common was a deep distrust of our government. Unfortunately, according to a Pew poll conducted just before the November election, just 20% of Americans trust the government to do the right thing. Beyond this distrust in government, however, the insurrection can be viewed as the culmination of a generation’s loss of civic education. A recent report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that most Americans do not even know the functions of our three branches of government. And the military is not immune. Like other citizens they, too, have become increasingly less aware of the contours of their democracy.

Defense Secretary Austin’s “stand down order” has asked for a review of what the armed services have been doing to weed out domestic terrorists and violent extremists. This order could not be timelier, since at least 37 of those arrested were current or former military members. This is roughly 12% of the total people arrested and double the approximately 6% of veterans in our total population. But how do we go beyond that order to ensure that our military is prepared to operate in a world of polarized and easily manipulated opinions? How do we supply citizen volunteers with an understanding of the basic principles of democratic governance?

The Jan. 6 uprising calls for urgent solutions. It presents an opportunity to provide better training in the armed services for both new volunteers and current members of all forces. All Americans must learn about the Constitution, our three branches of government, the role of elections and voting. We know from our history that if prepared and properly led, education can instill in young people the ability to critically assess, engage, and rebut extremist ideas. We may not be able to immediately correct the problems of our K-12 education system when it comes to civic education, but we can address some of these deficits right now in the training of our armed forces.

We are fortunate to have a volunteer citizen soldier military. Most of us think of our military personnel as young people being educated in warfighting skills while developing the character, competence, and commitment to protect our national security with their lives. What is not as clear is what, if anything, has been done to remedy a known lack of civic education during basic training.

We know from our history that if prepared and properly led, education can instill in young people the ability to critically assess, engage, and rebut extremist ideas.

Our all-volunteer military is the right audience to get loyalties to our country right. Citizen soldiers may learn about how to use a weapon, or about teamwork, but they should also learn about the principles for which a nation fights when it is attacked or called to war. Taking an oath to the US Constitution is devoid of meaning unless every recruit understands the plain meaning and personal ramifications of its words for his or her behavior in a free society bounded by clear laws of governance.

Looking back at the tragedy of Jan. 6, many who participated demonstrated a basic lack of knowledge and a corresponding disregard for democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution. Egged on without fear of accountability, patriotism became defined by dangerous falsehoods about the election processes, bordering on absurdity, that were promoted by the former president and amplified by social media. Those absurdities stemmed from the active exploitation of a lack of knowledge about governance among those in the crowd and their internet tribal counterparts by people in positions of power.

The perpetrators were poised to inflict harm on members of Congress and the then-vice-president of the United States. By making enemies of our elected representatives and the law enforcement officers charged with protecting them, the Jan. 6 insurrection amounts to an attempt to redefine patriotism by turning it on its head.

To address these problems, Secretary Austin and his officers will have to do more than a “stand down” exercise. They will have to review what needs to be added to the current basic training curriculum so that active members of the armed forces become citizens who understand the principles of democracy. They will also need to ensure that this education continues until these servicemembers are discharged.

Starting with basic training, all volunteers must understand the Constitution and the responsibilities of citizens to the principles of the rule of law and elections. They must understand that the oath they take asks them to risk their lives for the principles underlying those sacred words to protect us against all enemies foreign and domestic.  Providing civic education in the military does not require new funding or legislation.  The Department of Defense already spends over $15 billion annually for all forms of training, the largest training budget in the federal government.

Here are three things we believe must be done going forward:

First, we must find ways to effectively allocate and use that training budget from the outset to enable civic education training for every new soldier, airman, sailor, marine (and preferably everyone directly employed in the defense of this country) to disrupt the divisive hijacking of our citizens, especially those who have chosen the military as their place to serve.

Second, refresher programs should exist at every stage of service, with testing and practical exercises developed to combat the distribution of big lies and to deter external malevolent manipulations. This means giving those serving in all branches of the military access to points of views while allowing none to dominate, much like the new policy of the Army & Air Force Exchange Service to show sports rather than Fox News all day long due to its divisive political nature. This may not resolve all the cultural issues of disinformation, but it is an important first step in preventing only one media outlet from dominating the airwaves at military installations.

Third, services should require the separation process to include a refresher course in civics, with information about opportunities for public service provided to every person who departs honorably. Citizenship requires more of us than just waving our flag. It requires an ongoing commitment to preserve our democratic way of life and the institutions that protect it.

As John F. Kennedy pointedly reminds us, we will always “struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” If we are to ensure that our investment in national security is one that inexorably serves “we the people,” then we must start with civic education for everyone who serves.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is an expert on civil-military relations and conflict. She is a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center, and an Adjunct Professor at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC.

Michael Wright is a former global semiconductor materials and equipment executive at scale and is the co-author of ‘The Exponential Era’ and ‘The New Business Normal,’ founding partner of  Intercepting Horizons, LLC  and a Sr. Fellow at the University of Minnesota.

Johanna Mendelson Forman and Michael Wright

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