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.