An Old Colonel Looks at General Kelly
A thousand years ago when I was about to begin my military career, a wise old retired Marine colonel, a veteran of the carnage at Tarawa, gave me some advice.
By Col. Robert Killebrew, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
A thousand years ago when I was about to begin my military career, a wise old retired Marine colonel, a veteran of the carnage at Tarawa, gave me some advice. Paraphrased here, he said:
So you want to be a career soldier? Good for you. But remember that the longer you stay in uniform, the less you will really understand about the country you protect. Democracy is the antithesis of the military life; it’s chaotic, dishonest, disorganized, and at the same time glorious, exhilarating and free — which you are not.
After a while, if you stay in, you’ll be tempted to say, “Look, you civilians, we’ve got a better way. We’re better organized. We’re patriotic, and we know what it is to sacrifice. Be like us.” And you’ll be dead wrong, son. If you’re a career soldier, you may defend democracy, but you won’t understand it or be part of it. What’s more, you’ll always be a stranger to your own society. That’s the sacrifice you’ll be making.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that old colonel in the aftermath of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s remarkable press conference the other day over the president’s call to the widow of an Army soldier killed in Niger. There’s been a lot of commentary about the general’s attitude toward civilians who hadn’t sacrificed — who weren’t of the “one percent” who had — and it seems to me that most of it misses the point. Masha Gessen’s New Yorker article, “John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup,” comes close, given President Donald Trump’s tendency to hire retired generals who complement his own authoritarian leanings. Certainly we need to be alert for the next three years — having at Trump’s elbow a retired general who disdains civilians should raise some concerns.
But the larger point that strikes me, as a retired infantryman, is the self-pity in the general’s tone. Look at us; we’ve made sacrifices that you don’t appreciate. The only good American is one in uniform, or, ultimately, the ones under tombstones in Arlington. Sadly, this kind of sad, pitying flag-waving impresses too many of my fellow citizens the same way that the insubordinate Douglas MacArthur did in the 1950s — and MacArthur is said to be a favorite of Trump’s.
Let’s be frank. There’s nothing “glorious” or “sacrificial” about choosing to be a soldier. We give up personal freedom for the privilege of serving our country, and we enter a closed-off profession that is enormously satisfying, but can also be physically, emotionally, and intellectually demanding. We accept the risk that some of us get killed or wounded. In return, the country gives us decent pay, an early retirement — some bodies get pretty broken up in twenty or thirty years — and health care. It’s not a bad deal.
But the other sacrifice — the one the colonel talked about — is that few of us quite fit into the “dishonest, disorganized and glorious” mess is American democracy. That makes us good bureaucrats and maybe good chiefs of staff, but not someone who has a gut-level understanding of democracy — the role of a free press, for example, or the give and take of backroom dealing. We chose the life we lived. Being part of the “one percent” doesn’t make us any more entitled than any other citizen. And while we’re happy that the public respects military service, too much respect makes us a little uneasy, for the reasons the old colonel said. We are privileged to serve, not the other way around.
Kelly is understandably upset that Trump — acting on the general’s advice — publicly fumbled a call to a young widow. Part of the general’s problem is that he serves a president without empathy for anyone but himself. Another is that the same president has now politicized Kelly’s private grief.
But that odd press conference has exposed Kelly’s emotional, personal disdain for the citizens he served in uniform and still serves in a sensitive political post. His remarks lead me to wonder if he really understands that soldiers are the servants of democracies, not some special race apart. A MacArthur or a George Patton, disdainful or ignorant of democracy but close to the president is dangerous to the Republic and is unbecoming his distinguished service in a profession that doesn’t need anyone’s pity.
Bob Killebrew was an Army infantry and special forces officer for 30 years. He is a member of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
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