Book Review: Dennis Koller’s “The Oath,” a book that seems to predict the Obama administration (if you don’t like Obama)

The OathWhen talking of the Malaysia Airline mystery, many of us have noted that we’re reminded of books we’ve read about sophisticated and mysterious airline hijackings. That’s how I felt yesterday when, over the course of a few hours, I swallowed whole Dennis Koller’s The Oath. Given that I view Obama’s presidency as a constitutional disaster, I was impressed that, to the extent the book examines the people to whom post-Vietnam voters entrust political power, Koller eerily predicts just how such a presidency could play out.

The Oath, first published in 2000, follows two former inmates of the Hanoi Hilton, one of whom became cop and one of whom is pursuing a deadly vendetta against some of the Leftists who came to interview, abuse, and malign the American POWs (think Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden).  One of those Leftists is moving towards genuine government power, so a great deal of the book asks the reader to think about McGuire’s view (“I’m a cop now and I uphold the law”) and the killer’s view (“The damage these people caused and can still cause requires extrajudicial justice”).

It’s within this moral context that Tom McGuire, the cop, hunting the killer looks back at the ethics class he took in his last year at Annapolis.  Military ethics are, of course, a very challenging thing because the military of necessity is not a democracy but, instead, functions on a command basis.  This means that, the lower one goes down in the hierarchy, the less information an individual actor has, making it increasingly difficult to tell whether an order is appropriate or immoral.

As McGuire notes while he struggles with the morality behind the killer’s vendetta, some orders are easily identifiable as the type that should be disobeyed, such as the one asking a soldier to throw concentration camp inmates into gas chambers.  Others, however, are less clear, such as orders to carry out a carefully targeted aerial bombing that nevertheless will inevitably kill civilians.

It was on the last day of class, says McGuire, that the professor threw at his students the hardest question of all (emphasis mine):

And speaking of bombs, the Professor waited until the very last day to drop the biggest one of them all.   The question he left with us was debated among ourselves long after graduation.   He started by reminding us that in a few weeks we would be graduating from the Academy and be sworn in as officers in the United States Navy.   At that time we would take a sacred oath to uphold the Constitution, against all enemies, foreign or domestic. He said the “foreign” part was easy, but what if we faced a domestic threat. Someone, say, who had been duly elected as President of the United States, but little by little was starting to dismantle the freedoms guaranteed us in the Constitution. “What should be our response in such a case,” he asked. “Were we honor bound by our Oath to resist, and to take up arms against him?”   The same scenario had been played out in Germany in 1934, he pointed out. Hitler succeeded Hindenburg after Hindenburg died. First thing he did was to consolidate power, suppressing all resistance and name himself Fuhrer.   And the German military? They chose to stay on the sidelines, and, as a consequence, the world was plunged into war where millions of people died. What would you have done in those circumstances, he asked? Honor your Oath, or sit on the sidelines?

Professor Springer had timed the class perfectly.   Just as we started to debate the issue, class ended.   He kept us there for a few minutes, and then dramatically wrote on the board in big block letters a quote from Cicero: Grecian nations give the honors of the Gods to those who slay tyrants. “Have a good day,” he said, as we filed out of class for the last time.  (Koller, Dennis (2014-02-26), The Oath (Kindle Locations 2032-2045), Pen Communication.)

Interesting question, isn’t it?  And it’s one that Jonathan Turley, a Left-of-center law professor said only last week that we have to ask about President Obama (emphasis mine):

The United States is at a constitutional tipping point: The rise of an uber-presidency unchecked by the other two branches.

This massive shift of authority threatens the stability and functionality of our tripartite system of checks and balances. To be sure, it did not begin with the Obama administration. The trend has existed for decades, and President George W. Bush showed equal contempt for the separation of powers. However, it has accelerated at an alarming rate under Obama. Of perhaps greater concern is the fact that the other two branches appear passive, if not inert, in the face of expanding executive power.

Turley is correct that other presidents have done what they could to increase their power.  Only Obama, however, has taken it upon himself to rewrite laws (a purely legislative function) or to ignore laws entirely, or even to violate them, because they don’t comport with his ideology (a violation of his oath of office).  Obama has declared himself free of Constitutional limitations.

Aside from the fact that it was prescient, The Oath was a very enjoyable book to read.  Koller is a talented writer, and managed to move effortlessly between characters and time frames.  Not only does Koller move us back and forth between the Hanoi Hilton and present day (or, I guess, year 2000) San Francisco, he also presents the story through both McGuire’s and the killer’s eyes.  Koller has clear, simple (but not simplistic) prose, and offers a lot of information with an economy of words.

I also liked The Oath because of that San Francisco setting.  The fictional McGuire grew up about ten blocks from where I grew up.  Although he was a half generation ahead of me and comes out of the City’s strong Irish-Catholic tradition, I knew what and where he was talking about.  It gave the book a homey feel.

Overall, I recommend The Oath as an enjoyable read, both as a mystery thriller level, and as a thoughtful approach to a profound ethical question.

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  • David Foster

    There is interesting history concerning the oaths required of officers in the German Army.  From 1919-1933, under Weimar, the wording was:

    I swear loyalty to the Reich’s constitution and pledge, that I as a courageous soldier always want to protect the German Reich and its legal institutions, (and) be obedient to the Reichspräsident and to my superiors.

    This was modified soon after Hitler became Chancellor:

    I swear by God this holy oath, that I want to ever loyally and sincerely serve my people and fatherland and be prepared as a brave and obedient soldier to risk my life for this oath at any time.

    …this eliminates any special duty to the President (who was Hindenburg, not Hitler.) In 1934, the oath changed again:

    I swear by God this holy oath, that I want to offer unconditional obedience to the Führer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, and be prepared as a brave soldier to risk my life for this oath at any time.


  • jj

    I never liked Nuremberg much.  For a couple of reasons.  Among them the fact the that goddam Soviets were allowed to participate at all, let alone prosecute and supply a judge.  Their filthy presence just made a joke out of the whole thing – insofar as it wasn’t one already.  But there was also the fact that it could be, and was, viewed by many as a species of ‘victor’s justice.’  And then there’s the damage it’s done to history ever since (yeah, yeah, by that standard no question: Lincoln and Sherman were indeed ‘war criminals.’  So was Haig.  So was Churchill.  So was the entire RAF, their whole night bombing campaign in WWII was a terror campaign aimed precisely at civilian targets: cities).    And perhaps the biggest problem: what it’s done to oaths, particularly military oaths, ever since.
    You take the oath, you swear to obey your superiors, except… what?  Wait a minute, there’s no ‘except‘ in there!  If there’s gonna be an ‘except,’ then what the hell’s the point of the oath?  The ‘except’ implies an ability, in fact a responsibility, to second-guess the order.  Which is kind of odd for a functioning military.  “I gave you an order, soldier!”  “Yes sir, I’m thinking it over.”
    A dilemma on the horns of which we’ve been stuck, and out of which we’ve been trying to make some sense, ever since.  The whole point, as you point out, of the chain of command is that the guy a step down from you knows less than you do, and he relies on you for judgment and orders.  The guy a step down from him knows less than he does, and a good deal less than you do.  The guy three steps down knows effectively nothing compared to you, and he therefore has only one job: do as he’s told.  Do what he’s told needs to be done.
    Guys on the lower rungs aren’t supposed to think.  They’re functionaries – kind of like attorneys-general – they have only one job: function.  Independent thinking is neither needed, nor is it welcome.  And therein lies the dilemma.  Because since Nuremberg, we have expected even the lowest of the functionaries to subject every order, at least momentarily, to a brief scrutiny for moral rectitude before they execute said order.  Yet at the same time, the military, in particular the issuer of the order, expects it to obeyed, and expects it to be obeyed with promptitude.
    And so Professor Springer asks a question in the book that – if you do not believe has been asked many times outside of books, for real, you are naive –   is virtually impossible to answer.  The president issues an order (or Adolf Hitler issues an order; or Joe Stalin issues an order; or Mao Zedong, or Assad, or Whoever-It-May-Be does: they’re all superior to you) and you subject it to quick internal scrutiny, and find it unconstitutional.  Or illegal.  Or just insane.  What do you do?  Does anybody who will ultimately sit in judgment on you at your court-martial care that you think it an unconstitutional, illegal, or insane order?  Will you be a hero and apple in the eye of history for having disobeyed – or will you be taken out behind the latrine and shot for having disobeyed?
    It used to be pretty easy: you were given an order, you took an oath to follow orders, so you did.  Now – not so easy.  Now you can get in trouble just as readily for obeying an order as you can for not obeying it.  Maybe more trouble – ask Keitel or Hoess.  (Please note I do not defend either Wilhelm Keitel or Rudolf Hoess.  But I would have been inclined to just shoot them out of hand while  ‘trying to escape’ when captured before subjecting us, them, the concept of orders, the world, to the Kabuki theatre and redefinition of the military concept of ‘following orders’ that went on at their trials.)
    It’s a tough one.  Do I do what I know (I think I know, though I also know I’m not seeing the whole picture at my level) is right; or do I do what I’m told?  Not an easy question, since Nuremberg.  And it’s at least part of why everybody looks at the current administration’s flagrant disregard for the Constitution and the law, and nobody does anything.  Some day is Marty Dempsey (a horse’s patoot, by the way) ever going to be in the dock, being asked how come he didn’t do something to stop the illegal orders?  Who knows? 

  • Danny Lemieux

    The oath is to defend the Constitution, as it should be. 
    Book, taking your cue, you forgot to end your post with “…have a nice day!”

  • Ymarsakar

    Turley believed in the Left’s propaganda since 2001. They are in no position to tell me anything.

  • Matt_SE

    A note regarding the “passivity” of the other two branches:
    Possibly because they are the branch farthest from the people, the Supreme Court has been very reluctant to get involved in political cases. Added to this is the problem of establishing standing to sue. Representative Trey Gowdy’s bill sought to remedy this, but will go to Harry Reid’s desk to die like so many other bills.
    Congress itself is not as free to act as we would like. For all the measures that take super-majorities to achieve, the truth is that Congress can be largely neutralized by holding 50% + 1 Senator. Under that circumstance (and allied with shamelessness), the majority leader can block votes on almost anything. Apart from judicial or legislative remedies, even political remedies are rendered less effective, as Reid can block votes that expose his caucus to hard votes that they will have to explain later.
    We are in this situation for a simple reason: Obama, along with Reid has gamed the system. Even if Republicans were led by the best people ever, we wouldn’t be able to do anything until Reid loses the Senate.
    If Reid and Obama are as megalomaniacal as some purport, it will be interesting to see what antics they engage in to thwart the will of the people in 2014. If Reid loses control of the Senate (assuming we have competent leadership!), that would be the beginning of the end for Obama’s agenda.

    • Ymarsakar

      The Left’s agenda won’t end in 2014 or 2016, no matter what happens to Obama.

  • Ymarsakar

    In this world, only divine power supersedes the power of the victor. Victory matters above all else, even life and death, precisely because of that. To obey your authority is only one of survival if you win. If you do not, then the consequences of obedience will be carried out to its fullest conclusion by the victorious enemies.
    Humans are either free to make their own choices and suffer the consequences, or they are merely tools and it doesn’t really matter what happens to them afterwards in defeat.

  • March Hare

    Another “lost” weekend and I’m blaming Book.  The magic words were “free” and “book.”  Yeah, I’m that easy.
    It was a page-turner!   The only thing that took me out of the story was the timeline.  Tom MacGuire was in his mid-50’s, but he had graduated from Annapolis and had spent 7 years as a POW.  And had been in the SFPD for a significant amount of time (20 years?)  I was trying to make the math work–which it does if the year is 2000 and not 2014.  And I was surprised by the ending.  Not sure if I agree with it, but I understood it.
    I also appreciated the accuracy of place and culture, especially that of “the Avenues.”  My extended family jokes that San Francisco is the “biggest small town” we know and Mr. Koller captured that quite well!

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  • Kathy from Kansas

    Wow, Bookworm, I love your own writing so much that I can’t believe how totally different our taste is in books! I just read The Oath, on your recommendation, and I didn’t like it at all. There were numerous inconsistencies, holes in the plot, and other errors, but worst of all, the characters just were not believable. 
    A much better book, in my opinion, is The Agency, by Melody Godfred. It’s smartly written, tightly plotted, the characters are believable,  and the hypothetical “conspiracy” in the story is close to what most of us probably fear is a reality. For a quick, fun, exciting, politically relevant read, The Agency is a far better book than The Oath.

    • Bookworm

      I often march to the best of my own drummer, Kathy.  The plot did have some holes, but I genuinely enjoyed its orientation and, I think, the very San Francisco feel of it all.  I may dislike intensely San Francisco in its modern incarnation, but reading the book really took me back to the city in which I grew up, and that’s a time and a place of which I’m very fond.

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