I ONCE WORE the same green uniform that Lt. Col. Oliver North displayed on television over the past two weeks. But I wonder whether the colonel and I were given different training by the Marine Corps.
Maybe the problem is that North went to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and I received my education and training at the University of Michigan, Columbia and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. That may be the problem, but I doubt it.
North was required, as I was, to take an oath swearing to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies -- foreign and domestic. So that can't be the problem.
It's possible -- though unlikely -- that North was never present for the lecture that Marine recruits receive about their obligation to obey all lawful orders of their superiors. Just in case the point wasn't made clear, the instructor underlined it for us. We were not obliged to obey unlawful orders. Indeed, we were instructed -- as Sen. Daniel K. Inouye pointed out to North on Tuesday -- that we were obliged not to obey unlawful orders.
That, at any rate, was the Marine Corps that I served in.
The story that North told so passionately during his testimony, though, featured him as the good soldier: "If the commander-in-chief tells this lieutenant colonel to go stand in the corner and sit on his head, I will do so." We were all trained to obey. I was given a lot of orders in the Marine Corps, some that were about as nonsensical as North's example, and I obeyed them. They were silly, but lawful.
In my Marine Corps, we understood that we were serving a system, that orders we were given were in support of that system and that it had certain values. That was what our oath to support and defend the Constitution was all about. This sergeant understood that he was the servant of a system that prides itself on honoring laws not men.
To the committee, North presented himself as the dutiful officer, but it's by no means clear what orders he was obeying because -- according to his testimony -- he planted the "neat" idea of diverting funds from the Iranian arms deal to the contras in his superiors' heads rather than the other way around.
When he lectured North on his duties as an officer, Inouye reached for the Nuremberg trials as the lesson for North -- that following orders isn't the end of an American fficer's obligation. Inouye was looking at the wrong paradigm. In fact, North was anything but the dutiful officer. For North's historical antecedent, we need, rather, to look to the model of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
MacArthur had his own view of the world. He chafed under the command of President Franklin Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. During the Korean War, MacArthur openly defied President Harry S Truman, who fired him. MacArthur came home to address a joint session of Congress and then tour the country to a tumultuous welcome.
But MacArthur was insubordinate. He disobeyed the commander-in-chief. That's why he was fired and deserved to be.
North was insubordinate in his own way. His personal government-organization chart showed only one branch of government -- the executive. North said he believed he had authorization to do what he was doing and asserted that it was legal. But at the same time he certainly knew that many, in fact a majority, in Congress would probably not agree with his interpretation of the law.
North took off his uniform when he came to the National Security Council and embroiled himself in political matters. When the bottom dropped out and he was fired from the NSC, he not only put the uniform back on but tried to hide behind it. North's superior on the National Security Council, John M. Poindexter, by way of contrast, said he was not wearing his uniform during his committee appearance because "this issue is not a Navy issue."
From the beginning, North has shown a flair not just for melodrama but for self-glorification. When he remained silent early on, he was, he said, exercising rights not simply that people had died to preserve, but that people had "died face down in the mud" to defend.
In the gospel according to Ollie, he plays a larger-than-life role. When he spoke of himself in the hearings, it wasn't simply "I" but in the fashion of Caesar: "this lieutenant colonel" or "Ollie North has been loyal to his wife since the day he married her." Author John Barth once observed that we are all the central characters in our own drama, whether we choose to play the starring role or merely in the supporting cast. A man who speaks about himself in the third person, as "this lieutenant colonel," clearly sees himself center stage.
Perhaps it serves some psychic national purpose to venerate North as a hero and give him his 15 minutes in the limelight. But we ought to be wary about adopting his intellectual confusion as our constitutional model. If military men are going to serve in government policy-making roles, they ought to be in the mold of George Marshall or Dwight Eisenhower, men deeply imbued in the ways of a constitutional democracy.
It shouldn't have been necessary for Inouye and his Senate colleagues George Mitchell, Paul Sarbanes and Warren Rudman along with Rep. Lee Hamilton to feel the need to lecture North on the ways of American democracy. Their tone with North suggested that they felt perhaps he had never heard any of these things before: that in our form of government the substantive goal does not justify compromising the means; that policy emerges from the joint action of the executive and the Congress; that dissent is not evidence of a lack of patriotism, and that the people have the right to be wrong.
Perhaps North had never heard any of it before. Perhaps he spent too much time on his math and engineering classes while at Annapolis and not enough time on civics. Or maybe they don't teach those lessons at Annapolis.
Lawrence Meyer is an editor of Outlook.