On Tuesday, Congressional impeachment hearings exposed an interesting facet of the current battle between Donald Trump and the so-called deep state: namely, that many government bureaucrats now fancy themselves as superior to the elected civilian government.
In an exchange between Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Alexander Vindman, a US Army Lt. Colonel, Vindman insisted that Nunes address him by his rank.
After being addressed as “Mr. Vindman,” Vindman retorted “Ranking Member, it’s Lt. Col. Vindman, please.”
Throughout social media, anti-Trump forces, who have apparently now become pro-military partisans, sang Vindman’s praises, applauding him for putting Nunes in his place.
In a properly functioning government — with a proper view of military power — however, no one would tolerate a military officer lecturing a civilian on how to address him “correctly.”
It is not even clear that Nunes was trying to “dis” Vindman, given that junior officers have historically been referred to as “Mister” in a wide variety of times and place. It is true that higher-ranking offers like Vindman are rarely referred to as “Mister,” but even if Nunes was trying to insult Vindman, the question remains: so what?
Military modes of address are for the use of military personnel, and no one else. Indeed, Vindman was forced to retreat on this point when later asked by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) if he always insists on civilians calling him by his rank. Vindman blubbered that since he was wearing his uniform (for no good reason, mind you) he figured civilians ought to refer to him by his rank.
Of course, my position on this should not be construed as a demand that people give greater respect to members of Congress. If a private citizen wants to go before Congress and refer to Nunes or any other member as “hey you,” that’s perfectly fine with me. But the important issue here is we’re talking about private citizens — i.e., the people who pay the bills — and not military officers who must be held as subordinate to the civilian government at all times.
After all, there’s a reason that the framers of the US Constitution went to great pains to ensure the military powers remained subject to the will of the civilian government. Eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans regarded a standing army as a threat to their freedoms. Federal military personnel were treated accordingly.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states that Congress shall have the power “to raise and support Armies …” and “to provide and maintain a Navy.” Article II, Section 2 states, “The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual Service of the United States.” The authors of the constitution were careful to divide up civilian power of the military, and one thing was clear: the military was to have no autonomy in policymaking. Unfortunately, early Americans did not anticipate the rise of America’s secret police in the form of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and other “intelligence” agencies. Had they, it is likely the anti-federalists would have written more into the Bill of Rights to prevent organizations like the NSA from shredding the fourth amendment, as has been the case.
The inversion of the civilian-military relationship that is increasingly on display in Washington is just another symptom of the growing power of often-secret and unaccountable branches of military agencies and intelligence agencies that exercise so much power both in Washington and around the world.
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