Kelsey Baker is a former Marine and she argues below that we shouldn’t need the Orders Project — and the fact that we do means we’re in serious danger.
After a week of speculation that the United States was in danger and national security threatened because the Commander in Chief — and many of his joint Chiefs of Staff — caught COVID, we’ve actually arrived. The country is officially in danger and not because he’s coughing through interviews on Fox News or eschewing masks. Right-wing groups have promised to show up at polls and draw weapons if they deem it necessary. To respond to this — or even encourage it — the Commander in Chief may issue illegal orders. At least he’s intimated that he may do that.
Members of the D.C. National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as demonstrators participate in a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
We’re in such a perilous situation that, for what appears to be the first time in American history, an organization has been formed for the sole purpose of confirming whether any orders received by service members are actually lawful. The Orders Project will provide an assessment to military staff who call its hotline to see if what they’re being told to do is legal.
The Orders Project’s mere existence proves that, not only are we not secure in this country — but that the threat comes from within.
Respect for the Chain of Command is central to a working military. After serving as a Marine for six years, I know that the armed forces don’t work without it.
Because it relies on positional power, using a chain of command seems old-fashioned these days; now that it’s 2020 we’ve learned some lessons about authority and power from #MeToo, police brutality stories, and tales of corruption.
But the military needs this type of hierarchy, and for good reason. A chain of command isn’t just a display of rank; it engenders trust, something we’re all a little low on. A 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center shows that only 20% of American adults trust the federal government to “do the right thing.”
Orders don’t come from everyone, only those with the experience and trustworthiness to give them, officers who’ve presumably been rightfully promoted to task their subordinates towards a common goal. Anything other than top-down orders is inefficient and ineffective, two qualities that are annoying in civilian life but deadly on the battlefield.
Yet that’s exactly what the Orders Project aims to do: challenge the chain of command. The mere existence of a hotline to check one’s orders for lawfulness implies that they might be unlawful, that the chain of command no longer deserves trust.
According to the group’s website, when faced with a legal question, servicemembers should look to their military legal counsel first. Most all commands have one on hand, especially for day to day legal and personnel concerns.
But the critical gap that the Orders Group seeks to fill is where unit legal representatives either don’t have the experience needed for deciding whether or not an order is lawful. We’ve always assumed that they are. But we can’t assume that anymore.
And it’s important to note that most military lawyers don’t fill their days with deciding what orders are lawful or not. When at war, they’re focused on the legal conduct of war – military interaction with legal versus illegal weapons, protected persons and objects, or guidance on handling enemy POWs. At home in garrison, they could be dealing with personnel issues. But when it comes to the legality of an order, especially one directly from the president, there shouldn’t be routine ethical questions. We’re in unprecedented territory.
Of course, the Orders Project’s purpose isn’t trying to undermine the military; it’s just the opposite. It was founded just a few weeks ago after indications that unrest may follow the November 3 election. Since President Trump used the military to his own ends in June — when he accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and SECDEF Mark Esper, used the National Guard to disperse protestors for his photo op in front of St. John’s church — it became clear to the Project’s founders that he may do it again, this time to keep himself in office.
The chain of command isn’t so rigid that no one disregards orders. Men and women in the service disobey; it’s usually just minor insubordination. There’s a difference between my Marine, at the unit-level, not following through with promised administrative work, or even myself trying to skirt away from a PowerPoint brief or spreadsheet I didn’t want to make. I was a junior officer who intentionally left the service, not a career general.
The Orders Project is about more than just the chain — it’s about who’s yanking it. While this isn’t a part of the group’s stated mission, the Project is ultimately about the effect of Trump’s gaslighting. Since he took office in 2017, many pundits have pointed out that he’s been gaslighting “us” – meaning the American public. Gaslighting is more than lies; it’s causing someone to doubt his or her reality and question their sanity. Based on the movie by the same name where an evil husband is plotting to take his wealthy wife’s inheritance by causing her to act crazy as she wondered why the lights keep flickering. Gaslighting is abuse because it erodes the victim’s confidence in what she knows.
The Orders Project proves that Trump has gaslighted his own military. It’s not the first betrayal: he’s called men and women killed in action “losers” and he’s neglected to ask Putin about reported Russian bounties on troops’ heads — and that’s just since January.
We can’t call our current Department of Defense anything other than a gaslighting victim. The hotline itself is a means to ground servicemembers in a reality that hasn’t existed since January 2017, one where they had confidence that their commanders were following the law and only acting in the country’s best interests.
This should give some indication of the mess we’re in now: technically the Orders Project might, in theory, be illegal. While the group won’t tell a caller not to follow an order — just advise them on its legality — the fact that civilian advisers, albeit only ones who are retired military JAG, can guide the decision-making of servicemembers could be considered facilitating a mutiny.
We can look at it this way: if a state enemy had set up an organization to advise our military we’d see that as an attack. For example, the KGB has the same authority as the Orders Project’s well-intentioned lawyers when it comes to military rank; that is, neither one of them is part of our armed forces or their chain of command. In theory, neither should be advising the military.
The only reason why we’re not reacting to the Orders Project and its oddness like it’s a foreign strike is that we assume – correctly – that it’s not opposed to the interests of the United States. It’s founded by citizens who have found a way to continue serving their nation. The United States just happens to be in a place where we may need illegal assistance to keep the country from going astray.
We shouldn’t need the Orders Project. And under a competent and faithful Commander in Chief, we wouldn’t.