Nancy Brennan/

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When I joined the Navy, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. But not once, in all of my training, did I receive meaningful instruction on the document to which I had pledged my life.

I spent nine years on active duty in the U.S. Navy. I served as an aircraft commander, led combat reconnaissance crews, and taught naval history. But the first thing I did upon joining the military, the act that solemnized my obligation, was swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution. How strange, then, that despite all of my training, the millions of taxpayer dollars devoted to teaching me how to fly, lead, and teach, not once did I receive meaningful instruction on the document to which I had pledged my life.


For most of my time in uniform, my lack of understanding about the Constitution was entirely academic. No one I served with imagined that we would ever find ourselves choosing between following orders and upholding our oath. Some were dimly aware that our compatriots long ago had wrestled with these issues. As an instructor at the Citadel, I taught my students about the My Lai massacre, and about the obligation to disobey an unlawful order. But it was theoretical. To my students, Vietnam was a faint echo.

Then, the global War on Terror hit its stride. We began to hear about black sites, where prisoners were detained in secret. We learned about the practice of rendition, in which captives were sent to other countries, beyond the reach of our laws. And we became aware of waterboarding, an extreme interrogation method that simulates drowning. I had left the Navy and was in law school when news of the torture memo broke. This was the George W. Bush administration’s attempt to offer a legal justification for “enhanced interrogation.” I had been through Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school, the military’s interrogation training program, from which these techniques had been adopted. I understood the “enhanced” methods described by the Bush-administration lawyers for what they were: torture.