Best Defense

What this general heard from General Kelly about America — and didn’t hear

I will give Bob Killebrew the credit and thanks he deserves for his military service to the nation.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks during a White House briefing Oct. 19 in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks during a White House briefing Oct. 19 in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)


By Maj. Gen. Greg Schumacher, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest respondent

I will give Bob Killebrew the credit and thanks he deserves for his military service to the nation. I don’t know Bob, and he doesn’t know me, but I was disappointed in his characterizations of General John Kelly and his remarks, of the president, and, yes, even of the military in general.

I can agree with some of the advice Bob received from the old Marine colonel, that the military does have different code, does not operate as a democracy, and has the potential to exist as a separate society not fully understood by the civilian populace it protects. The old colonel’s admonition to beware of the latter is wise indeed. But that’s where any agreement I have with the rest of the old colonel’s advice, and Killebrew’s diatribe, ends.

It is a gross generalization to state that military personnel do not understand the democracy they protect. I submit that the military, cognizant of the potential risks of their service, understands our democracy and founding principles quite well. And while there is a divide, it’s far less in the 21st Century with many military families living off-post, digital connectivity, and the preponderance of the force resident in the reserve components.

The old colonel asserts that “you’ll be a stranger to your own society.” Ultimately, this was the basis for Kelly’s remarks, to help bridge the gap. The president’s comments were not insensitive, but rather in the tradition of what military members say to survivors of the fallen. I have personally used words to that effect while kneeling and presenting flags to surviving spouses or parents at graveside. Kelly used the opportunity to, yes, defend his commander in chief, but also to help the rest of America better understand those who volunteer to serve in the military. So when Kelly shares about the 1 percent and their selfless service, it was not a put-down to civilians, but education.

I was stunned to read what attributes a fellow veteran ascribed to Kelly: condescension to civilians rising to “disdain;” self-pity that military sacrifices are not fully understood; and especially grotesque, “ignorant of democracy … and dangerous to the Republic.”

In my mind, you cannot even come up with such an interpretation unless seen through a lens of visceral hatred for the president, and, then, by extension, anyone who supports him. Here’s what I heard Kelly say, presented with dignity and grace, “The president’s remarks to Mrs. Johnson included words to the effect that he knew, by joining the military, that he could die while serving. But he, like his comrades, joined anyway to serve our great country selflessly. That may sound insensitive to you, but these were words that I said, and countless military members said, to survivors of those who gave their lives. They were said to me when I lost my own son.”

Agreeing with Bob, we don’t do this to gain the praise of our fellow citizens. And in my 37 years of service, I never saw our soldiers look down on fellow citizens who chose not to serve.

Bob goes on to present shameful innuendos about Trump and anyone who supports him. He claims that Trump is authoritarian and therefore likes to hire retired generals who are also authoritarian. “Authoritarian” is one of the many labels hurled at the president with no solid evidence presented. It’s more likely that Trump hires retired generals due to their distinguished records of leadership, accomplishments and integrity.

He then opines that Kelly is upset because Trump “publicly fumbled a call to a young widow.” The call was a private call one to Mrs. Johnson, and offered with respect and sympathy. The only reason it is a public is because Congresswoman Wilson saw a chance to try to embarrass the president and hurt him politically. While she is known as a mentor and friend to the family, she did no favors to the family to drag their grief into the public eye for political purposes.

As to “fumbled,” what can you say to a grieving survivor that will truly make them feel better? I’m glad my remarks to survivors were never publicly or privately graded.

In Bob Killebrew’s view of the world, I will be in the camp of those Americans guilty of “sad, pitying flag-waving.”  I, along with a host of other Americans, plead guilty to the flag-waving part, and to supporting the president and Kelly. Maybe there are other Foreign Policy readers who heard what I heard in Kelly’s remarks.

Greg Schumacher is a retired Army general officer who served for 37 years. He last served on the Army Staff at the Pentagon, retiring in 2011.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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