American exceptionalism, revisited

“We are unique among militaries,” [Acting defense secretary Christopher] Milley said in a Nov. 12 speech at the new National Museum of the United States Army. “We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or a religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.”

This claim is very easy to fact-check. It takes seconds to find these examples:

  • Germany: “I swear to loyally serve the Federal Republic of Germany and to courageously defend the right and the liberty of the German people, so help me God.”
  • France: “I swear to fulfill my duties well and faithfully, to observe the duties and the reserve they impose on me. I will strictly comply with the orders received with respect for the human person and the law. I promise to demonstrate dedication to the public good, righteousness, dignity, prudence and impartiality. I undertake to make only legitimate use of the force and powers entrusted to me and not to reveal or use anything that will be brought to my attention during the exercise of my functions” (for reservists).
  • Israel: “I swear and obligate myself on my word of honor to remain loyal to the State of Israel, its laws and its legitimate administration and to devote all of my strength, and even to sacrifice my life, in the defence of the homeland and the freedom of Israel.”
  • Finland: “Everywhere and in every situation, whether in peace or war, I will defend the inviolability of my fatherland, its legal system of government and the legal authority of the realm. If I perceive or gain knowledge of activity to overthrow the legal authority or to subvert the system of government of the country, I will report it to the authorities without delay.” (excerpt)
  • Switzerland: “I swear to serve the Swiss Confederation with all my might; to courageously defend the rights and freedom of the Swiss people; to fulfill my duty, at the cost of my life if necessary; to remain faithful to my troops and to my comrades; to respect the rules of the law of nations in time of war.”
  • China: “I pledge to be loyal to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, safeguard the authority of the Constitution, fulfill the legal responsibilities of my position, be loyal to the Motherland, be loyal to the people, show the utmost respect for my duty, pursue public affairs with integrity, accept the supervision of the people, and to work for a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful!” (This is for the Central Military Commission, not for regular officers, to my knowledge).

I am fascinated by the tendency to assume that good things about the USA are unique in the world. My favorite example was when a judge told me and my peers on a jury pool that we should be proud to live in the only country that provides a right to trial-by-jury (overlooking about 50 others).

One interpretation is that this is just harmless enthusiasm. Instead of saying, “Yay, America!” people say, “Only in America!”, meaning the same thing.

Another interpretation is xenophobia. To assume that all other other militaries of the world (including our NATO partners) swear oaths to a “king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator” is to hold a very dark view of the world beyond our borders.

I suppose Mr. Milley’s claim could be partially defended on technical grounds. Many oaths mention the country or law, not the constitution, per se. Canadian and British officers swear oaths to the Queen, although that’s a way of expressing loyalty to a constitutional democracy. The oath to uphold the constitution of the PRC is a bit hollow, given one-party control. Then again, what about Germany, Israel, France, etc., etc.?

My own theory is anxiety. If Americans do something wise (like requiring our soldiers to swear to uphold our constitution)–and so do many other countries–then comparative questions naturally arise. How do various countries manage their civilian-military relations? How seriously do their commanders-in-chief take their oaths? Sometimes, the USA looks good in comparative perspective; but sometimes it does not look good at all. And deep down, I think a lot of Americans are conscious of relative decline compared to the competition. One way to avoid facing that anxiety is to proclaim, “Only in America!” and refrain from looking overseas at all.

I’d like to see the question of American exceptionalism become more empirical and less ideological. In what respects is the USA unique? That is a question that can be answered. Students, civil servants, judges, and all Americans should have the courage to ask it seriously and see what they find.

See also only in America!; American exceptionalism and anxieties about American exceptionalism.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.