Should Former Military Members Maintain Their Military Obligation?1

By: LCDR Andrew Ely

When an individual retires or moves to a job with a different LCDR J. Andrew Ely, USCG employer, there may be limits placed upon that individual's activities in the new position. The former employee may be obligated to adhere to a rule that limits his or her future employment status. A common example is that of federal officials, who are prohibited for a set period of time from working as lobbyists with the same federal office in which they previously served.

This type of limit on what at individual is permitted to do brings up a difficult issue for former members of the military. How long after personnel leave the military should they maintain their obligation to those still on active duty? While serving, soldiers are directed to protect information about specific details of their assigned missions. They are trained to understand that the group's security and safety are the responsibility of every member, and that control of information is the responsibility of everyone who has access to that information. What I want to examine is the obligation that soldiers2 have to one another, and whether that obligation can change after an individual leaves the service.

As citizens of a democracy we expect reasonably open access to information. The line between the amount of information a democracy requires from its government to function, and what the government wants or needs to keep secret, however, is vague and constantly shifting. Too often, secrecy is perceived as an excuse to hide malfeasance or ineptitude. If a former soldier believes that revealing the truth about a mistake (for example, the Pentagon Papers) will strengthen his service and potentially save lives by exposing failures, what is his obligation then? Can we identify a limit to what former members of the military can disclose as bureaucratically as we can define a two-year limit for a former U.S. senator to lobby Congress?

Learning from Others' Experiences

Members of the U.S. and many other militaries enter the profession willingly. While in the service, their actions are guided by an oath, and the individual service's core values, rules, and regulations. Despite these kinds of guidance, the hard lessons of experience in the uncertainty of military operations remain a valuable asset to the soldier who is executing a current mission or preparing for a future one. All human beings have the potential to learn something new or better understand something we already know about, through the recounted exploits of both real people and the fictional characters we admire in novels and films.

Throughout history, soldiers have written moving accounts about their military experiences, a tradition that continues today in the form of books, articles, and blogs. This practice, I believe, is not only a right of the author; it also provides a great benefit to our current and future soldiers, by giving them an opportunity to learn. Through the words of those who have been there, we can safely encounter the mistakes of others, celebrate the victories won through perseverance and determination, and gain a deeper respect for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

I use this type of historical account to teach cadets how they might apply the Stoic principles put forth by Epictetus in 130 A.D. A memoir by Admiral James Stockdale of his time as a POW in Vietnam is an excellent modern study of how to accept the things that are not up to us to change, and focus our efforts on the things that are up to us. Admiral Stockdale embraced his study of Epictetus during his imprisonment, which helped him realize that as humans we are fully responsible for the expression of our emotions. This and other accounts of moral courage, leadership, and the ability to make decisions in seemingly hopeless circumstances teach our young soldiers lessons that will likely influence the outcome of missions they undertake in the future. Similarly, heroic actions such as the firefighters' response to the 9/11 attacks influenced a generation of children, many of whom are my students today. Some of them tell me that their exposure to the horrific events more than a decade ago led them to dedicate their time and talent to national service.

It may even be said that these accounts of soldiers' experiences are necessary for the military organization to improve. Soldiers need to be able to make sense of the past, to learn how those events might affect the missions that they will undertake in the future. The 9/11 attacks demonstrated, for example, that the various military, law enforcement, and emergency response personnel faced unanticipated obstacles trying to communicate with one another. Today, it is readily apparent that these same agencies learned from their experiences and have put the communication protocols, organizational structures, and equipment in place to rectify that breakdown in communication.

The Limits of Freedom

So what is the big deal? Why would I even ask the question: Should former military members maintain their obligation to guard military secrets? While I know that the recounting of a soldier's experiences can be valuable to those who serve now or in the future, there is nevertheless a potential for this useful practice to go a step too far, and become destructive to the service. What if a former soldier's writings unveil sensitive information, such as specific details about the tactics used to carry out a military maneuver? Publishing information like this could jeopardize the lives of soldiers who are still serving on active duty and relying on those same tactics. Does a former soldier owe it to current soldiers and to his nation not to publish these kinds of details, even at personal cost? I believe the answer is yes. More specifically, I believe the former soldier's right to publish is a "bound" right: it is a right that is limited. Such a limit is an aspect of the personal sacrifice undertaken by the individual soldier. Military service obligates its members in a way that limits the same freedom their service is obliged to protect.

If such a limit does in fact exist, what is the basis for it? The oath of service taken by both military officers and enlisted personnel states, "that [a soldier] will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which [he or she is about to enter." In a legal sense, one could argue that this obligation only applies to soldiers while they serve on active duty. This may be true, but is there also a moral obligation to continue to observe the bound rights after discharge? If we agree that such a moral obligation exists for the former soldier, we have to understand why this is so.

The territory of moral obligation is complex, because obligation has different aspects, requiring greater or lesser degrees of commitment or sacrifice.A common concern of the principle of obligation is whether or not an individual determines what he or she will commit to. There are three common categories of human obligation. First, some obligations we undertake appear to be involuntary, that is, they are not self-selected. For example, children do not choose their parents, yet when parents give their child life and then raise and support her, a special relationship forms. That child feels that she owes her parents respect and mutual care in return for the care she has received. Then there are the obligations we take on voluntarily, such as choosing to participate in a local community effort to clean up a beach over the weekend, or observing our wedding vows. We sacrifice a weekend, or a degree of personal autonomy. Between the voluntary and the involuntary, there is a third category of obligation that is partially both. An example of a mixed obligation might be a decision to jettison cargo from a ship during a storm. The agent voluntarily decides to jettison valuable cargo because he feels obliged to save the ship, but it is an involuntary obligation in that the agent does not have a useful alternative if the ship, and by extension his own life, are to be saved. He sacrifices wealth, perhaps even reputation, but these are outweighed by the benefits of his decision.

The obligations a person takes on when he or she joins the United States military are voluntary. To become a soldier involves a conscious act of self-selection. Further, unlike mixed obligations, there is no external coercion (excluding personal circumstances like an overbearing parent) involved in the decision. The initiation of enlistment or acceptance of a commission rests exclusively with the individual.

This brings me back to the question about former members of the military. I believe that not just their obligation to the military, but many of their obligations to family and society as individuals require them to display the moral courage to limit their disclosure of sensitive information to the public, even when it means subsuming their desire for personal vindication or acclaim. Furthermore, such disclosure of information can violate the former soldier's other obligations as a citizen, a member of a family, and a friend. These obligations are multi-layered and often compete with each other. Importantly, such obligations are based on interpersonal relationships. To function well, such relationships require mutual trust and respect. These personal obligations to others are often involuntary; they are often not up to us to select, but they are up to us to maintain and preserve. To disseminate sensitive information without regard for the consequences is not excusable. It potentially endangers those soldiers still on active duty who may rely on the security of this information for their safety, in operations that already by their very nature pose great risk to their lives.

About the Author(s): LCDR Andrew Ely teaches Moral and Ethical Philosophy in the Humanities Department of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.


1. The contents of this article reflect my own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy or the U.S. Coast Guard.

2. Throughout I will use the term "soldier" as a general term of reference for all members of the military services.

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