I’ve written elsewhere about the unhealthy overvalorzation of the military in the United States. It’s a phenomenon that began in earnest with the 1991 Gulf War as a kind of belated, guilt-ridden collective penance for the unforgivable treatment of the Vietnam-era GI, and has since become a permanent part of American culture. In fact, it’s only gotten worse over the past 28 years, as the chasm has widened ever further between the tiny sliver of brave Americans who fight our (now endless) wars and the vast majority of the citizenry who benefit from that sacrifice while being asked to make little to none of their own.
The rough contours of what is unhealthy about this dynamic—both for the military and for the public—are easy to understand, even if its implications are far-reaching and complex. Way back in October 2017—four hundred years ago—no less an eminence than John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, put on a disgraceful master class in it when the White House trotted him out to defend the misbegotten combat patrol in Niger that killed Army Sergeant La David Johnson. (Kelly went full Nathan Jessup, sneering at the softness of the assembled civilians, and then restricted questions to those reporters who had a first person connection to a Gold Star family, with the press meekly going along. Kelly’s huffing outrage was highly ironic, given his boss’s appalling and repeated attacks on one such family, that of fallen US Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.)
But as the old maxim goes, only those within a family are allowed to criticize it. So as someone with the profession of arms in my marrow, I’m here to tell you that just being a veteran does not make one honorable. In my time in and around the US military I’ve seen the very finest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know, and also some of the worst. No rank, no badge, no diploma, no unit affiliation, no type of service is in and of itself an automatic guarantor of quality or integrity. Shitbirds and cowards come in all ranks and from all branches, just as heroes do. And the past couple weeks have provided the starkest possible example in the form of two points on that spectrum: one represented by the shameful Mike Pompeo, and the other by the courageous Ambassador William Taylor and Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.
THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEO
Being a vet may not confer automatic valor, but here’s one thing that a military record does tell me. It tells me that the person in question has been thoroughly instructed in the rules of engagement. Whether that instruction stuck, I can’t say. But I know that that individual has no grounds on which to claim, “I don’t know the rules, or what constitutes my duty, or what I am sworn to defend.”
That is why Mike Pompeo nauseates me almost more than any other member of Donald Trump’s circle, even though there are far more despicable characters to be found there. (Barr, Giuliani, Ross, Miller, Mulvaney, McConnell, Cruz, McCarthy, DeVos, Kushner, Don Jr, Eric, Ivanka…..I could go on.)
But Pompeo offends me more because I know the culture from which he hails, and he knows better.
Mike Pompeo was first in his class at the US Military Academy at West Point. He was just one year group behind me (my own commission was via ROTC), and he and I both served as junior officers in combat arms units in what was then West Germany at the tail end of the Cold War—he in the Armor branch, me in Infantry. Both of us spent about six years on active duty and left as captains in 1991. (Pompeo later went to Harvard Law School, another mucho credentialed institution, association with which is infamously not a guarantor of integrity either. See Alan Dershowitz.)
As I wrote in these pages less than a month ago: “None of those credentials inherently make Pompeo good or bad, but they do make him someone I can understand and relate to, and whose mindset I can understand much better than that of, say, Bill Barr or Rudy Giuliani, and of whom I therefore feel comfortable demanding a higher standard.”
Let’s be clear. I don’t much like Pompeo’s smarmy, evangelical right wing politics. In fact, I don’t like them at all. But that is a difference of policy, about which (once upon a time) reasonable people could disagree. What I am much more offended by, and what I am taking issue with here, is his integrity—or lack thereof—in pursuing those policies.
A shady businessman and venal striver who styles himself a paragon of Christian virtue, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is neck deep in the Trump administration’s corrupt attempt to extort the Ukrainian government into being an arm of the president’s re-election campaign. (Calling it a “shadow foreign policy” is absurdly generous. It’s more like a Mafia shakedown. “Nice country you got here. Shame if something happened to it.”)
It was disgusting to watch Pompeo engage in a lawyerly parsing of his words with Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week,” pretending he knew nothing of the July 25th phone call with Zelensky, only to be forced later to admit that he had himself been on the call. We now know not only that Pompeo listened in, but was an active part of the Giuliani-led team of goons that attempted to strongarm the Ukrainian government into smearing Joe Biden for Donald Trump’s personal political gain: the very definition of presidential abuse of power that the Founders feared and for which they created the mechanism of impeachment.
Since then we have watched Pompeo alternately defending those actions and contending that they didn’t happen (or at least that he didn’t know about them), refusing to comply with lawful Congressional subpoenas, stonewalling, and generally being a good capo in Trump’s Cosa Nostra.
Also from my piece of October 2nd:
When Martha Raddatz bluntly asked Pompeo if he thought it was appropriate for a President of the United States to ask a foreign ally to dig up dirt on a political opponent, Pompeo dodged the question with a classic piece of Trumpian misdirection, criticizing the previous administration (you know, the one led by that black guy) for not providing sufficient military aid to Ukraine…..this even as he knew that the current administration (you know, the one in which he is Secretary of State) had deliberately withheld precisely such aid and for the sole purpose of Trump’s personal gain.
That would all be bad enough in and of itself, but it comes atop a mountain of hypocrisy. As Lara Jakes and David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times:
As a member of Congress, Mike Pompeo drove the Republican inquiry into the killing of a United States ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, and made clear there was no place for politics in American diplomacy. Nor, he said, would he tolerate “dithering” by an Obama administration State Department that he called “deeply obstructive of getting the American people the facts that they needed.” Now, as secretary of state, Mr. Pompeo is facing a political crisis that directly challenges his leadership of the department he once excoriated. He is accused by House Democrats of blocking their impeachment inquiry by resisting the release of information to Congress that may shed light on the Trump administration’s shadow foreign policy with Ukraine.
Famously, the motto of the Military Academy is “duty, honor, country.” Guess Mike was AWOL that day.
A Rubio supporter and harsh critic of Trump during the 2016 primaries, then-Congressman Pompeo was one of those spineless GOP apparatchiks who quickly swallowed his principles and rushed to lick his master’s boots when high level federal office was dangled bait-like before him (first as CIA Director, then as Secretary of State when Rex Tillerson tired of working for a “fucking moron”). Susan Glasser, writing in the New Yorker:
Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who keeps an open Bible on his desk, now says it’s possible that God raised up Trump as a modern Queen Esther, the Biblical figure who convinced the King of Persia to spare the Jewish people. He defines his own job as serving the President, whatever the President asks of him…
No matter what Trump has said or done, Pompeo has stood by him. (A former senior White House official told me) that, in private, too, Pompeo is “among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump.” Even more bluntly, a former American ambassador told me, “He’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” Pompeo’s transformation reflects the larger story of how the Republican Party went from disdaining Trump to embracing him with barely a murmur of dissent.
We’re now told that Pompeo is eyeing a quick exit from the Cabinet—presumably to get out of the blast radius as the hand grenade that is Team Trump cooks off—and mounting a Senate run in his adopted home state of Kansas (which I also briefly called home, in my youth as an Army brat). While I’m not sure it will save him from legal jeopardy, I don’t doubt it’s possible that he will run, or that he might even win. What’s wrong with Kansas indeed.
But if the good people of the Jayhawk State do see fit to send him to the upper chamber of Congress, I hope they realize what kind of immoral criminal they’re getting—and rewarding.
TINKER TAYLOR SOLDIER HERO
You know who we don’t hear any about much any more, and with good reason? The whistleblower. Because he is now irrelevant. Because named officials have bravely come forward and confirmed everything the whistleblower alleged, and indeed far worse. (The only people still on about him are Republicans clutching at straws, or like Devin Nunes, trying to get him killed.)
So apropos of those brave individuals, let us now turn away from the US Secretary of State and toward the absolute other pole of moral fortitude among West Point grads, former US Ambassador to the Ukraine Bill Taylor.
William Taylor is a generation older than Mike Pompeo. He graduated from the Military Academy in 1969, during some of the darkest days of the Vietnam War, and spent six years as a US Army infantry officer, including tours with the 82nd Airborne, the 101st Airborne (with whom he served in combat as a rifle company commander), and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He subsequently spent three decades in civilian government service, principally as a diplomat, with assignments ranging from Brussels to Afghanistan to Iraq. Like Pompeo, he also earned a graduate degree from Harvard. Having been US Ambassador to Ukraine once already, from 2006 to 2009, Taylor reluctantly came out of retirement—out of a sheer sense of duty, he has said—and returned to Kiev to serve as chargé d’affaires ad interim after the White House abruptly removed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was an obstacle to its illegal efforts to pressure Ukraine on Trump’s behalf. Yovanovitch too has now voluntarily come forward to testify about what she saw. (What is it they say about payback?)
The revelation of Taylor’s blunt text to Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland that it would be “crazy” to withhold Congressionally-allocated military aid to Ukraine for the personal partisan benefit of Donald Trump (and the strategic benefit of Vladimir Putin) gave voice to what everybody with half a brain already was thinking, and thoroughly discredited the “no quid pro quo” snake oil being peddled by Trump’s traveling medicine and salvation show of a presidency. (Mick “Get Over It” Mulvaney had already started that process. And as we all know, a quid pro quo is not even necessary for Trump’s shameless shakedown of Kiev to be both wrong and impeachable.)
Taylor’s subsequent testimony before Congress was a bangalore torpedo right up Trump’s fat ass, blasting a giant crater in his entire bullshit defense of his actions regarding Ukraine. Far from being a case of “Trump being Trump” and impulsively going off script to make a lone nutball suggestion to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—which, admittedly, was plausible—Taylor not only confirmed the skullduggery we had learned from the Zelensky readout and the whistleblower complaint, but painted a portrait at once granular and expansive of a lengthy, multi-pronged, massively corrupt backchannel campaign to extort Kiev, Mob-style, into torching Joe Biden—or else.
Bill Taylor’s willingness to man up, speak the truth, and face down this criminal White House exemplifies exactly the kind of honor and integrity that his education at West Point and service in the US Army are supposed to be about. We have yet to see the full picture of what he had to say, but we will, and even what we already know from his 15-page opening statement ought to be—in a sane world—the end of this presidency. (Let me know if and when anyone finds that sane world, last seen on a milk carton around Fall 2016.)
And that was before Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman appeared on the scene.
BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS
Alexander Vindman’s personal story beggars fiction. In the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes:
Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, were 3 years old when they fled Ukraine with their father and grandmother, Jewish refugees with only their suitcases and $750, hoping for a better life in the United States. In the 40 years since, he has become a scholar, diplomat, decorated lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and Harvard-educated Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council….
(A 2003 combat deployment to Iraq) left him wounded by a roadside bomb, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart. Since 2008, he has been an Army foreign area officer—an expert in political-military operations—specializing in Eurasia. Colonel Vindman has a master’s degree from Harvard in Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asian Studies. He has served in the United States’ embassies in Kiev, Ukraine, and in Moscow, and was the officer specializing in Russia for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before joining the National Security Council in 2018.
(More Harvard? What the hell is in the water up there in Cambridge?)
As it that ain’t enough, decades ago a photographer found the Vindman twins as boys in Brighton Beach, the heavily Russian émigré section of Brooklyn, near Coney Island; later they appeared in Ken Burns’s documentary The Statue of Liberty. (Fitting, no?)
Jump ahead thirty years: LTC Vindman’s twin Yevgeny is now also a US Army lieutenant colonel and staffer on the National Security Council, a JAG officer and ETHICS expert, whom his brother brought to a meeting with the NSC’s top lawyer, John Eisenberg, when reporting his concern over Trump’s behavior on the July 25th phone call with Zelensky. Meaning Colonel Yevgeny Vindman— an ethics expert, it bears repeating—can corroborate that meeting and what was discussed in it.
This movie will write itself.
Alexander Vindman is the first impeachment witness who actually listened in on the Zelensky call. So much for the dishonest Republican mantra that “it’s all hearsay.” Like Ambassador Taylor, LTC Vindman’s testimony offered still more damning first person evidence of how the White House was engaged in wanton corruption to benefit Donald Trump at the expense of US national security and the rule of law. (Read his opening statement here.) Among the revelations, evidently, are a cinematic blowup at the White House on July 10, in which John Bolton was cast as the unlikely hero (!) objecting to the “drug deal” the administration was blatantly proposing to a visiting Ukrainian delegation. Apparently Colonel Vindman also exposed Gordon Sondland as having likely perjured himself in his own Congressional testimony when he claimed he knew of no quid pro quo with Kiev. And oh by the way: as many predicted, Colonel Vindman—who is fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian—revealed that there were crucial omissions in the White House’s rough readout (apparently very rough indeed) of the “perfect” Zelensky call. Quelle surprise! Rose Mary Woods found!
If Ambassador Taylor breached the stonewall of Trump’s Fortress Obstruction, Colonel Vindman just stormed inside and shot its occupants in the head.
PAGING JOE WELCH
With its flimsy “hearsay” defense obliterated, the GOP now has no other option than to attack the honesty and credibility of Colonel Vindman and others who may follow him.
And attack they did.
Various right wingers, from the batshit Rudy Giuliani to torture enthusiast John Yoo to “MTV Real World” vet Sean P. Duffy (wait—I thought he went by Diddy now) questioned Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, given that he is a refugee from Ukraine, which was still part of the Soviet Union when his family fled. One does not have to sniff very hard to detect the ancient stink of anti-Semitism. Don Jr. called him a “leftist.” Kevin McCarthy suggested he’s hard of hearing. The President himself lumped him in with the other “Never Trump” forces he has elsewhere described as spies, traitors, and “human scum.”
It was rich to watch these miserable chickenhawks try to malign the integrity of a valiant career soldier and decorated combat veteran like Colonel Vindman …..kind of like 2004, when a draft-dodging, Texas Air National Guard meeting-skipping George W. Bush wanted us to believe that former US Navy officer and Swift Boat skipper John Kerry and his Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart was the unpatriotic one. (Oh—and you know who else was a Deep State traitor to the flag? Former Marine officer and decorated combat vet turned lifelong public servant Robert S. Mueller III.)
The pre-emptive attacks on Colonel Vindman were among the most vile moments in a presidency rife with vile moments. But they were—and this is the truly pathetic part—not at all surprising.
John Yoo, one of the principal architects and legal defenders of the Bush administration’s torture policy, long ago lost any credibility he might have had. But even so, for him to recklessly use the word “espionage” about LTC Vindman’s motives—without even the tiniest shred of evidence—is an unconscionable offense. Here again, as with Pompeo, one’s background demands a higher standard of ethics. It’s one thing for an ignorant cretin like Trump to throw allegations like that around: he’s a D-list game show host-cum-con man who swims in that kind of sewer as readily as he breathes. But Yoo is a credentialed veteran of the national security apparatus at the highest level (even if it was mostly in the service of evil) and now, unaccountably, a law professor at UC Berkeley of all places. For him to do so is truly shameful.
It means little that there was quick pushback, even among some Republicans. Yoo scrambled to do damage control, but his walkback didn’t jibe with the verbatim comments he made on Fox, nor with their context. Duffy made a similar attempt at “clarification” of his statements to CNN. But the mere fact that Trump’s defenders reflexively sought to smear the messenger as their very first go-to move is a measure of how much Trump has debased our political dialogue and obliterated what little honor remained in the conservative movement. I suppose that’s what happens when you have nothing substantive on which to make your defense.
If Kellyanne Conway will forgive me for presuming to know the contents of another human heart, the attempt at walkback was surely motivated as much or more by the recognition of a grievous tactical error on the PR front as by any kind of principle or genuine regret over maligning a patriot. I also wonder how long this tenuous allegiance to some semblance of decency will hold as impeachment proceeds and Trump grows ever more like a cornered rat. In any case, the eagerness of the Republican Party and its media handmaidens to viciously attack this eminently honorable man may mark the lowest point yet in this Marianas Trench of a presidency.
Hey America, are we at our Joe Welch “At long last have you no sense of decency” moment yet?
We bloody well oughta be.
COWARDS BEND THE KNEE
Speaking of blasting through walls and shooting people in the head, it was ironic that LTC Vindman testified just days after we learned of the daring raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, conducted (we’re told) by the doorkickers of Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the 75th Ranger Regiment, supported by a host of anonymous others. God bless them all.
So we saw two stellar examples of military courage and professionalism in the space of a week, one in Idlib Province, Syria, the other on Capitol Hill.
The juvenile bloodthirstiness and unearned braggadocio of Trump’s subsequent football-spiking has been widely reported and ridiculed, and rightly so. His is the sadism of the schoolyard bully who is actually a quivering coward—an armchair warrior unwilling to actually put his own life on the line (darned bone spurs!), or even to interrupt his well-feathered little life to serve his country, but who readily wants to piggyback on the bravery and valor of far better men and women than himself.
But every time you hear Trump brag about how “he” got al-Baghdadi—which is gonna be a lot over the coming year—you can skip right past the eyerolling absurdity of that, and his hypocrisy over Obama and the Bin Laden raid, and all the other attendant lies and ironies contained therein, and just focus on this:
The bold US military operation of last week was only possible because of crucial human intelligence (i.e., a spy deep inside al-Baghdadi’s inner circle) provided by the Kurdish intelligence service: the very people Trump just abandoned and betrayed.
I wouldn’t count on a lot of cooperation from them going forward.
Of course it is infuriating the Trump gets any credit at all for the al-Baghdadi mission, given that this carefully cultivated operation had to be rushed into action due to his precipitous and unconscionable withdrawal from northern Syria and the craven handing over of that region to the control of Kremlin, Ankara, and Damascus. (Not to mention resuscitating ISIS off life support, the removal of al-Baghdadi notwithstanding.) Speaking privately, Pentagon sources bluntly reported that the raid succeeded “despite Trump, not because of him.”
But the American hero worship of the armed forces has gotten turbocharged in the Age of Trump, with its Pyongyang-style military parades on the mall and routine excusal of war crimes and textbook neo-fascist worship of those in uniform that leapfrogs right past overvalorization and approaches deification. As we know, Trump has surrounded himself with generals from the start, even if he doesn’t like to listen to them (seeing as he knows more than they do and all). For their part, the generals’ collective record has been mixed at best, from John Kelly, to the curiously quiet Jim Mattis, to Mike Flynn (whose illegal work as an unregistered agent for Turkey is now newly interesting), to Flynn’s successor as Trump’s National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, another USMA-bred Armor officer of my generation, one whom I greatly respected but whose reputation took a characteristic hit from that fraught service in the White House.
But of course, Trump’s alleged love and respect for the military hasn’t prevented him from attacking Gold Star families like the aforementioned Khans, heroic former POWs like John McCain, the “overrated” General Mattis or “Hillary Clinton backer” Admiral Bill McRaven (the SEAL commander of Neptune Spear, the Bin Laden mission), or telling grieving families that their fallen loved ones knew what they were getting into, or taking money from military dependent schools to build his idiotic beaded curtain at the border, not to mention all his shitty and self-destructive foreign policy decisions. The attacks on Colonel Vindman are just the latest in this piteous series. Not sure we ought to have expected better from a guy who claimed that chasing pussy at Studio 54 with Jeff Epstein was his “personal Vietnam.”
It astonishes me that any military professional or anyone else interested in national security could support this fake president and the wanton damage he continues to do to the same, despite the yogi-like contortions of his defenders to find a way. (Victor Davis Hanson, white courtesy phone.)
RANGERS LEAD THE WAY
Active duty military officers are required by law to stay out of politics, but they are also required by law to disobey unlawful orders, a mandate that also demands that they not remain silent when they see illegal acts committed by others, even those above them in the chain of command.
Given the not-so-friendly fire that it brought down on his head—as he surely knew it would, given Trump’s history—it was an act of tremendous bravery for LTC Vindman to do what he did. Yes, it was his duty, and he had been subpoenaed by Congress, but he could easily have dodged it, remained mum and anonymous, protected by the same stonewall that Team Trump has erected around many other administration officials. But it is clear that Alexander Vindman is made of sterner stuff.
Let’s go back to the West Point honor code: “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.” (Emphasis mine.) That is the code of the Military Academy specifically, but the ethos pervades the entire Army at large. The real transgression would have been for LTC Vindman to have sat on his hands and looked at his low-quarters after being witness to Trump’s egregious abuse of power.
In addition to men like Taylor and Vindman who have testified before Congress in the impeachment inquiry, a number of distinguished retired military officers have bravely stood up and said that the emperor is butt naked (also: stark raving mad and covered in boils). Prominent among them are ADM (Ret.) McRaven, GEN (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey, GEN (Ret.) Michael Hayden, GEN (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal, GEN (Ret.) Wesley Clark, and GEN (Ret.) Colin Powell (who is also a former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, of course), all of them with four stars on their shoulders. I am so proud to see these principled public servants—and for me, personally speaking, current and former US Army officers in particular—standing up for the rule of law and helping hold a lawless chief executive to account.
Men like Bill Taylor and Alexander Vindman make me proud to have worn the uniform, and everything it is supposed to stand for…..which is most welcome given how much the likes of Mike Pompeo have dishonored it.
3 thoughts on “Shallow State”
An abridged version of this piece was also published in Common Dreams, November 1, 2019, under the title “Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and the Shallow State”: https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/11/01/donald-trump-mike-pompeo-and-rise-shallow-state