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Choosing What Is Right over Self-Interest

When faced with the challenge, which do you choose?

by Eric Holdeman / December 5, 2019

When people ask me what I blog on, I tell them: emergency management, homeland security, technology and leadership. It is this latter one that I'm addressing today.

I was recently aghast at the actions of President Trump in relation to his intervening in the military justice system. It motivated me to pen the op-ed below that was not picked up by any news organization. Then I thought about if it would be appropriate to share it here in this blog. It certainly is a leadership topic and newsworthy. 

Even when I was in the Army, I had occasion to write articles for the Infantry and Armor magazines. I recall one was about the topic of loyalty and the courage to speak truth to power. 

As I write this now, I'm thinking the best option for Eric and maintaining my "readership" is not to alienate those people who closely associate with President Trump. That would be a very "self-interest" thing to do. It is the very basis for what I think is wrong in the Republican-controlled Senate where senators are worried about being primaried if they choose to oppose or even criticize the President. 

One of the things that has "always gotten me into trouble" was speaking the truth and providing my honest opinion to my superiors. To hold back now from writing/sharing what I believe would put me in the same camp as those who care more about themselves than the truth. So, read the text below — and let the chips fall where they may!

Military Justice vs. Amoral Authority

It was 1971 and I was sitting in front of a panel of five military officers being interviewed by them to determine if my personality, judgment and ethics were appropriate to be offered the opportunity to become a United States Army officer. The only question I remember them asking me was about the Vietnam My Lai Massacre and subsequent military court-martial trial of Lt. William Calley Jr. What did I think of that trial and subsequent conviction of Lt. Calley?

Fast-forward to 2019 and the question of military justice as it is being applied to members of the United States military Special Forces is in the news. With only about 1 percent of our United States population currently serving in the armed forces and only 7 percent having served, I expect the general citizenry is not familiar with military law and its application. Thus, I’ll share a bit of information.

I did become a U.S. Army Infantry Officer and served honorably for 20 years. During those years, I participated in administering the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) at its various levels, administering nonjudicial punishment as a commanding officer and serving as a witness for higher-level UCMJ proceedings, including a court-martial. My last connection to the military justice system was serving as an investigating officer in an Article 32 proceeding, which is like a grand jury assignment.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice is federal law enacted by Congress. The UCMJ follows most, if not all, of the processes you might see in civilian law. Service members must have their rights read to them before being questioned. Soldiers, sailors and airmen are protected from unauthorized searches and they are entitled to legal counsel when facing a court-martial trial. Jurors are selected to be participants in a trial, and prospective jurors can be challenged off the jury by the defense attorney. Military judges preside over court-martial proceedings.

In recent news, there have been several reports of President Trump inserting himself into the military justice system, directing the outcomes and overruling the proceedings and judgments of subordinate members of the military command, who are administering military administrative and judicial proceedings. Let’s be totally clear, as the Commander in Chief, he has total authority to take the actions he has taken.

Before addressing the specifics of the president’s actions, let’s put the issue of military special operations personnel in perspective. These are elite fighting personnel in excellent physical condition with exceptional skills when it comes to combat. They have come to be relied on much more in the last 18 years of combat in the Middle East. I also know that these teams of fighters can develop their own culture that goes beyond the norms of “normal warfighting.” It has been stated that senior Special Operations Commanders are trying to re-establish regular order and discipline within these elite fighting teams.

Warfare is brutal — it always has been. The Geneva Conventions and our own military use of force guidelines are written to protect enemy combatants and noncombatants alike. The UCMJ is there to provide judicial punishment for persons who violate military regulations. This then is why specific persons were identified to be disciplined for their actions on the field of combat.

In 1971, when asked to respond to the question about the My Lai Massacre and court-martial of Lt. Calley, I responded that I believed the military justice system was competent and I trusted it to administer justice to all persons accused. I was only 21 years old. My judgment on this issue was formed based on my religious upbringing, an inherent trust in our system of justice, and without any direct knowledge of the processes of military law, I expected the rights of the accused were protected and appropriate justice was administered.

The current Commander in Chief, President Trump, has shown repeatedly that he has no respect for traditions, norms of behavior or the law. He is amoral and only interested in taking actions that promote himself and his personal interests. He is not interested in upholding the just administration of military justice and by his personal actions has taken steps to subvert it and his commanders who are not as vindictive as he is, but only trying to do their duty. We must not confuse his absolute military authority administered in an unprincipled manner as being an appropriate use of moral authority, of which he has none.


Eric Holdeman, Major, United States Army, Retired

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