Discipline is often called “the soul of an army.” If this is so, the United States military seems to be experiencing a spiritual crisis. Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) allows commanders to punish acts prejudicial to “good order and discipline,” but the reach of this provision has been increasingly limited in recent years. Appellate courts have repeatedly overturned convictions of conduct charged as prejudicial to good order and discipline, and in recent years, the military’s high court has issued a series of decisions limiting the reach of the UCMJ’s “general article.” Congress has also recently acted to dramatically scale back the scope of Article 134. The result is that while military leaders might talk about the criticality of maintaining good order and discipline, commanders’ authority to actually punish behavior that detracts from good order and discipline is increasingly constrained.

This Article ties the developments regarding Article 134 to a larger issue: the difficulty the military has demonstrated in defining what “good order and discipline” actually means. The term lacks an agreed-upon definition, and the military has not explored how changes in society and the military mission affect the term’s meaning. In a series of policy reforms in recent decades, military leaders have generally cited “good order and discipline” as a basis for their opposition without defining the term or substantively exploring this concept. These reforms were ultimately enacted over military leaders’ objections without any apparent impact on good order and discipline. As a result, Congress and the media have grown increasingly wary of the good order and discipline term, diminishing its rhetorical weight. The military must take a more orderly, disciplined approach to defining this term, and this Article proposes a definition as a first step toward igniting this discussion.