During his impeachment hearing testimony this week, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman has reminded us of the need for the military to stick to its governing principles. Those principles would guard against dishonorable partisan moves such as Vindman’s appearance before the House Intelligence Committee in his military attire merely to squabble over his bureaucratic disagreement with Trump’s foreign policy, or his gross exaggeration of his political resume in his opening statement.
The military governs itself by two fundamental principles. One of those bedrock principles governing military-civilian relations is the rule that active-duty military officers must avoid participating in partisan politics. Thus, for example, serving officers may attend political rallies or functions but may not do so while in uniform.
A second of these bedrock principles is that officers do not publicly question or undercut the orders or official policies of superior officers in their chain of command. This principle is paramount from the platoon level to the highest levels in the Pentagon. As Gen. Douglas MacArthur learned, even a five-star general may not publicly question the orders or policies of the president.
MacArthur was properly relieved after he criticized President Harry S. Truman’s Korean War policies. The proper role of any officer, whether a general or a lieutenant colonel, is to offer his best advice and then obey the orders and policies of the officers appointed over him without complaint or dissent once the president has decided.
These principles are fundamental because they are essential to a proper relationship between a professional military and a government dedicated to civilian control and supremacy over the military. Violations strike at the foundation of civil-military relations in this country and risk grave damages.
When officers violate these fundamentals, they risk sacrificing their credibility as officers and the support of the American public. Today, if the military weighs in on the one side or the other of the omnipresent partisan warfare, they will doubtless risk a loss of credibility and confidence by one-half of the country.
These two principles intersect when a serving officer publicly and gratuitously questions the policies of his commander in chief and in a partisan political setting. In such case, the risk of harm to military-civil relations and to the country is magnified. That is, regrettably, the case with Vindman’s testimony.
Vindman Admits His Disagreement Is Petty Politics
We now have the published transcript of Vindman’s deposition testimony, which was taken behind closed doors after his voluntary publication of his gratuitous opening statement. That previously secret testimony shows his violation of these two principles governing proper military-civil relations in a democracy. This is because Vindman’s questions and answers made clear he simply disagreed with the way the president was administering his chosen foreign policy.
Vindman testified he thought it was “inappropriate” for President Trump’s emissary, Rudy Giuliani, to ask Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden’s dealings with Burisma, which he acknowledged was a “corrupt” company. So even though, according to Vindman, the president’s personal emissary was asking the Ukrainians to conduct such an investigation of a company widely acknowledged to be corrupt, and the younger Biden was earning almost $1 million a year as a board member without any discernible qualifications, and even though Vice President Joe Biden had been the Obama administration’s point man in connection with Ukraine, this lieutenant colonel’s personal opinion was that such an investigation was “inappropriate and that we were not going to get involved in investigations” (30-31).
Vindman, therefore, de facto overruled Giuliani’s overtures because Vindman thought “this would not be a fair investigation, and it would provide, you know, compromising or maybe even fabricated information, if need be” (33).
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, properly questioned Vindman about whether his testimony was simply about non-impeachable policy disagreements or he had knowledge of potentially impeachable criminal acts. Vindman attempted to deflect and evade the questions, and Ratcliffe politely pressed on.
Vindman finally admitted he did not know of “a crime or anything of that nature.” But he “made a moral and ethical judgment” that he thought it was “wrong” and that he “also had deep policy concerns” (155).
Vindman’s Move Could Set a Bad Precedent
Vindman knew what the president’s policy and desire was. He did not like that policy. He also did not like the way the policy was being implemented through the president’s personal emissary, whom he referred to as an “outside influencer” (21-22). So Vindman decided to thwart that policy. And now he has testified — and is expected to testify again — to offer his personal disagreement and criticism of his commander in chief’s policy.
When subpoenaed, Vindman had several honorable options. He could have answered factual questions honestly, eschewing any voluntary opinion testimony. He could have resigned his position and commission and appeared in civilian clothes to offer his opinions about morals and ethics and what he considered to be a wise foreign policy.
What he could not properly do, while on active duty and in uniform, was appear and volunteer his testimony impeaching the policies and desires of his commander in chief. That voluntary act strikes at the heart of the delicate balance between sound military advice and involvement in partisan politics.
Vindman’s testimony risks setting a bad precedent, and the military should nip it in the bud. There is ample precedent for doing so. In 1994, a highly decorated combat Marine, Col. John Ripley, was the senior Navy ROTC instructor at the Virginia Military Institute. The U.S. government had sued VMI to require it to admit women.
VMI subpoenaed Ripley to testify to his opinions based upon his vast experience in combat and as the senior Marine at the United States Naval Academy and instructor at VMI. Ripley was an American hero. He had been awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for Valor, and the Purple Heart. In 1994, his opinions differed from those of President Bill Clinton and his administration.
But despite Ripley’s nonpareil military background, the Clinton administration ordered him not to testify to any opinions but to limit his testimony to facts. Ripley obeyed that order. So, too, should Vindman, if he is given such a lawful order.