America witnessed an extraordinary moment in civil–military relations last week when Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a witness in the House impeachment inquiry
that the committee’s ranking member address him by his Army rank.
Usually the inquisitor reserves the right to dispense snark. A decade ago, then-Sen. Barbara Boxer took a general to task for the apparent sin of calling her “Ma’am” instead of “senator” during a hearing. But with one interjection, Lt. Col. Vindman succeeded, at least temporarily, in inverting the relationship between Congress and the military forces it funds and oversees.
The funny thing is, Lt. Col. Vindman correctly mentioned elsewhere in his testimony that the rank he holds is not all that exalted. This is apparently why the multiple offers he received to become Ukraine’s defense minister were more ludicrous than sinister. The supposed takeaway is that his rank was sufficiently humble to make foreign overtures unproblematic, but sufficiently prominent to put a senior member of Congress in his place. Well, okay.
The whole episode reminded me of a quip from Roald Dahl’s autobiography
of his early years. A teacher at the writer’s strict English boarding school went by the title “Captain” because of his Royal Army service during the First World War. Despite their youth, the students could see right through the charade: “Even small insects like us knew that ‘Captain’ was not a very exalted rank…. It was bad enough to keep calling yourself ‘Major’ after it was all over, but ‘Captain’ was the bottoms.”
Lieutenant colonel is a field-grade rank that carries weighty authorities and responsibilities, but it doesn’t exactly entitle one to VIP status. Ultimately, the purpose of military rank is to delineate who’s in charge under confused and stressful circumstances. This is why Gen. George Washington, in his general orders before the Battle of Long Island, instructed
his officers to wear color-coded cockades “to introduce some distinctions by which their several ranks may be known.”
Implicit in this order was the notion that American officers lead from the front. Their troops were fellow citizens who would follow their leaders’ colorful ribbons into battle, not charge forward while their superiors lurked in the rear. Yet as many militaries throughout history have learned the hard way, making officer insignia too distinctive can also render them susceptible to sniper fire as the enemy seeks to disrupt command and control.
As the name suggests, military uniforms help subordinate individuality to a common identity and cause. More importantly, uniforms differentiate armies from both bystanders and the other side so that soldiers don’t take aim at their compatriots (fratricide) or civilians (a potential war crime).
Under the legal doctrine of combatant immunity, members of a nation’s armed forces who fight openly and lawfully — including wearing recognizable attire — cannot be held liable for committing warlike acts. Simply put, war is state-sanctioned murder, and the uniform helps clarify who has the right to engage in it and who doesn’t.
This privilege does not extend to political combat. But some media-savvy officers, from Lt. Col. Oliver North 30 years ago to Lt. Col. Vindman today, nonetheless assert a form of immunity in the public arena. Their message is clear: Back off; I’m an officer. My patriotism, truthfulness, objectivity, nonpartisanship, and righteousness are beyond reproach. Military pomp becomes a proxy for selfless purity.
If only that were always the case. Courts-martial would be open and shut, if not obsolete altogether. There would certainly be no need for cross-examination since every uniformed witness would be telling the truth.
Military credentials, like all accoutrements of power, can be leveraged to convey authority and elicit admiration, especially from those who have never served. This is precisely why service regulations prohibit wearing the uniform in personal litigation — the judge or jury must evaluate the evidence, not the number of ribbons on a plaintiff’s chest.
As with most things in life, the best antidote to self-aggrandizement can be found in a Seinfeld
episode. When a minor orchestra conductor demands to be called “Maestro,” the show’s eponymous protagonist Jerry Seinfeld responds by styling himself
“Jerry the Great.” Now, if Lt. Col. Vindman had told Congress to address him as “Alexander the Great,” that
would have been a hearing worth watching.
Lt. Col. Charles G. Kels is a State Department attorney and Air Force reservist. His views do not reflect those of any government agency.