Oath of EnlistmentUpdated: August 10, 2020
What is the Oath of Enlistment? This practice has its origins in antiquity, though not in the form we currently know in the U.S. Armed Forces.
There are formal oaths, such as the Oath of Office the President must swear on Inauguration Day, and there are more informal oaths such as the one uttered by Shakespear’s King Lear, who famously swore, “I will have such revenges…I will do such things—What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth!”
Famous artworks from previous centuries also commemorate the concept of the military oath. Jacques-Louis David painted “Oath of the Horatii” in 1784, depicting a group of warriors pledging loyalty to Rome before going into battle. It’s a famous work among art lovers, with an example hanging in the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.
The Oath of Enlistment is definitely a more formal oath and is considered binding until the end of the enlistment or commission the oath is made for. Officers and enlisted members alike swear the oath, though it is not standardized across all types of military service. There are slightly different oaths for members of the Reserve components. We’ll examine these below.
A Brief History Of The United States Military Oath Of Enlistment
The very first oath approved in the United States happened thanks to an act of Congress in September 1789 and was intended for all commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers and privates in the service of the United States military.
Doing the math, it’s easy to see that the colonies did without an official oath of office from 1776 on–some 13 years without this tradition in place. Or does it?
An Oath For The Revolution
At the start of the Revolutionary War, there were indeed oaths established by the Continental Congress such as this one, approved in 1775 during the creation of the Continental Army:
“I _____ have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the American continental army, for one year, unless sooner discharged: And I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as are, or shall be, established for the government of the said Army.”
Swearing To Obey
The absence of a line pledging to obey the President of the United States was obviously not “a thing” at this time since the office hadn’t yet been established. But General George Washington took the Oath of Office in April of 1789, a few short months before the new military Oath of Enlistment would be created.
The Oath would go thru a variety of changes over the years for some, but the enlisted version would persist until 1950. For officers, a tweak to the oath in 1860 reads as follows (the emphasis in this quote below is ours):
“I, _____, appointed a _____ in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.”
Another change in 1962 made the officer oath quite a bit longer and a bit more complicated. Those revisions included adding lines including an affirmation that the officer-to-be has “never borne arms against the United States since I have been a citizen thereof; that I have voluntarily given no aid, countenance, counsel, or encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility thereto.”
Other requirements included an affirmation that the officer has not “yielded voluntary support to any pretended government, authority, power, or constitution within the United States, hostile or inimical thereto.”
In 1884, the officer oath was revised again to a far more concise version including that the officer swears to simply “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
In 1959 and 1960, the officer and enlisted oaths would change to what they are today.
Nuances Of The Oath
Why do some recruits swear, while others affirm? This practice isn’t limited to oath taking in the military sense, you will also see those on the witness stand in court swearing or affirming to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The “swear or affirm” statement is found in the Oath of Enlistment, too. Why is this?
Because within certain American religions, swearing an oath is looked at in a negative light–the swearing of oaths is frowned upon in these religions in some cases because these beliefs hold that you should not swear an oath or not take one lightly.
This isn’t limited to American monotheism; those who follow Norse belief systems or similar polytheistic beliefs also hold oaths in such high regard that a common insult in the ancient literature surrounding these beliefs includes a very specific insult; “oathbreaker.”
In any case, the Oath of Enlistment is just as relevant no matter whether the recruit chooses to swear or affirm.
The Current Oaths Of Enlistment for the United States Military
As mentioned above, there is no single oath for all types of military service. They are mostly identical in many ways.
The wordings of the current oath of enlistment and oath for commissioned officers were established in the mid-20th century (established in 1959 for officers and in 1960 for enlisted) and are as follows, starting with the oath for those who enter military service as enlisted troops and followed by the oath for officers (we’re using the Army oath as our example).
The Oath of Enlistment
“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
The Oath for Commissioned Officers
“I, _____ (SSAN), having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.”
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News