The United States Army is at heart like a college fraternity. At the top are the generals, the officers of the frat — seniors who have spent long years working their way to a position of privilege and power. Just beneath them are the colonels, juniors who have signed on to do the frat's shit work, hoping to be recognized by the seniors and rewarded by becoming a general, one of the frat's elected officers. Below them are the lesser members of the frat, the majors and captains and lieutenant colonels, and at the bottom are the pledges, the lieutenants, who are going through initiation into the mysterious customs and ways of the fraternity that is the Army.
One of the most important stations on the climb to the top is the colonels list. This is an actual list at the Pentagon of all the lieutenant colonels who will be promoted to full colonel. It's the hurdle you must get over if you're ever to have any hope of becoming a general. If you don't make the colonels list the first time you're eligible, you may make colonel the next time around, but you will never be a general. This is why many lieutenant colonels retire once they reach 20 years in the Army, because if they're not on the colonels list the first time out of the box, they know their careers are effectively over.
This is the position Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman found himself in this week. You remember Vindman, don't you? He was the man in a dress blue uniform who testified before the House impeachment committee last year so eloquently about his journey as a young boy from the Ukraine to the United States with his father and mother and twin brother, and how he and his brother had joined the Army to repay the country that took them in. The word patriot seemed to hover above him at the witness table as if it were written in neon.
Vindman, who worked as an expert about Ukraine on the National Security Council, found himself in the unenviable position of having listened in on the infamous call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That was the call during which Trump asked for a "favor" and tried to pressure the just-elected president of Ukraine into investigating his political rival, Joe Biden, in exchange for the release of military aid that had been appropriated by the Congress.
Vindman testified that he found the attempt by Trump to pressure Zelensky "inappropriate," and that he had reported his concerns about the call to three government officials: an attorney for the National Security Council, an official in the intelligence community, and one in the State Department. At the close of his testimony, Vindman told the committee why he was thankful he served in the Army of the United States: "In Russia, my act of expressing my concerns to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions, and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life."
Well, it didn't cost him his life, but it cost him his career. On Wednesday, Vindman announced he was retiring. He had gotten word that pressure had been put on the Pentagon to remove him from the colonels list and effectively end his career. Vindman's lawyer, David Pressman, issued a statement explaining why he was retiring: "Through a campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation, the President of the United States attempted to force LTC Vindman to choose: Between adhering to the law or pleasing a President. Between honoring his oath or protecting his career." Vindman had made his choice when he responded to a subpoena and testified last fall. In the administration of Donald Trump, telling the truth under oath was a career-killing offense.
The same thing happened last month to Geoffrey S. Berman. He was forced out of his position as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York by Attorney General William Barr. In Berman's case, he was offered at least two other government positions, head of the civil division at the Justice Department and chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, if he would agree to resign. Berman refused and Barr fired him, on orders from Donald Trump. Berman's crime was heading up investigations of wrongdoing in New York that touched on people close to Trump, including convicting Trump/s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, and investigating his friend, political supporter and (apparently unpaid) current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
The Department of Justice showed itself to be just another government frat. Play along by the rules of the frat, and the seniors will tap you to be pledge chairman — you'll be given a high-ranking job in the frat, like head of the civil division, for example. But if you don't play along, they'll run you out.
Something similar happened to me when I was a cadet at West Point. In my senior year, I had the temerity, along with three of my classmates, to challenge the regulation that required cadets to attend chapel every Sunday. Yes, you read that right. At West Point, the prestigious academy founded by Thomas Jefferson, who along with James Madison authored the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion, there was no such thing. Cadets were regularly punished for refusing to show up at either Protestant, Jewish or Catholic services. Those were your three choices. If you were a Mormon or a Buddhist or a Muslim, or even if you wanted to attend a denominational Baptist or Methodist service, you were out of luck.
The powers at West Point were very unhappy with us, and for some reason, the deputy commandant, Col. Alexander M. Haig, singled me out and applied extra pressure. First, he offered me a tantalizing reward. If I would withdraw my complaint and convince the others to withdraw theirs, he would promote me to the prestigious position of cadet battalion commander. This would make me one of the top-ranking cadets at West Point. Here is how Haig described the benefits that would accrue with my promotion: "Think of it, Truscott. You'll have six stripes on the shoulder of your uniform, and you'll get more pussy than God."
It's a much, much longer story than I can recount here, but suffice to say I refused Haig's offer and he began a campaign of "bullying, intimidation, and retaliation" similar to what Vindman experienced in the Trump White House. He filed phony honor charges against me not once but four times, attempting to get me kicked out as dishonorable. He initiated "aptitude board" proceedings, attempting to run me out for lacking leadership ability — this against the guy he had offered to promote to battalion commander only days before. He yelled at me when I met with him every afternoon at 5:00 p.m. for about a month, shaking his fist, red-faced, spitting in my face, he was screaming so loudly. None of the four of us backed down, and our complaints went forward and were duly rejected at the Pentagon. But three years later, a lawsuit filed by six midshipmen from the Naval Academy and one cadet from West Point succeeded, using the paperwork we had filed beforehand, and "mandatory chapel," as we called it, was declared unconstitutional and ended at all three service academies.
Shortly after his campaign against me, Haig left West Point for a position in the Nixon White House. Six months later, when I entered the Army as a second lieutenant in 1969, I found that my personnel file, which followed me everywhere I went and was seen by every commander I had, contained a special letter stapled to the inside of the cover. On White House stationery signed by Brig. Gen. Alexander M. Haig, the letter warned anyone who came in contact with me that I was a "troublemaker" and had "communist tendencies." When I saw that letter, I knew my Army career was effectively over. Almost exactly one year after I graduated from West Point, I was kicked out of the Army for "conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman" and given a bad discharge alleging that I was gay.
This is the way small men who get themselves into big positions behave. They bully and intimidate those who cross them and act in ways they see as disloyal or otherwise threatening to their own careers. For his patriotic service to his country, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was awarded the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Purple Heart, the Ranger Tab, Airborne Wings and two Defense Meritorious Service medals. As for me, the award I got for serving as honorably as I knew how, and for doing my duty as I saw fit, was a bad discharge. I framed it and put it on my wall. If it were a ribbon, I would wear it on my chest proudly.