John Kelly’s defensive scolding from an official White House podium nicely symbolizes the quandary in which US leadership often puts members of our military. On one hand, it was a cry-from-the-heart calling for respect (a return to a “sacred” status of yore) for young soldiers asked to put their lives on the line for US foreign policy. This was given with restrained emotion and gravitas, due to the loss of his own son, Robert, in Afghanistan and the fact he has a second son on a fifth combat deployment. A Marine commander during some very bloody years in the Iraq War, Kelly noted his role sending men (like his sons) to their deaths. Politics aside, one had to respect his candor.
But, then, he blew it. He shifted from his experiences to a crass political attack on Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a former teacher and school principal now in her fourth term representing the 24th District in the Miami area, an area with many poor, black kids. Speaking to the ambush death of Sergeant LaDavid Johnson in Niger, Kelly shifted radically from bottom-up words about soldierly sacrifice to top-down political mud-slinging in defense of his boss, maybe the most flagrant, bald-faced liar in White House history.
Thursday night, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell pointed out, like Kelly, he’s a white male product of segregated Boston, a northern city that went through an ugly and painful integration struggle. O’Donnell rightfully honored Kelly for the cry-from-the-heart part of his remarks. But, then, he raked the man over the coals relentlessly for a shameless, ignorant and possibly racist political reprisal attack on Ms. Wilson. He came off as completely ignorant of the fact Ms. Wilson is more than LaDavid and Myeshia Johnson’s US congresswoman; she is a long-time personnel friend of the Johnson family. As a boy, LaDavid Johnson was her pupil in school and went on to participate through high school in a mentoring program she started. She has spent her life in rough areas helping to make decent young men like LaDavid Johnson. Kelly never even mentioned Wilson’s name, instead called her an “empty barrel” (whatever that means) and suggested her presence in the car with Johnson’s widow and her listening in on the conversation, which was on speaker-phone, was somehow show-boating. “These are people I’ve known since they were little children,” Wilson told The View. “His uncle went to my elementary school. I was his principal.” Johnson’s mother died when he was five and he was raised by his uncle and aunt, who were in the limousine with Mrs. Johnson and Ms. Wilson.
What’s going on here? General Kelly has created in his mind, for one reason or another, an idea of Rep. Wilson that comes out like Al Sharpton processed through the mind of Sean Hannity. He, then, did his best to humiliate that figment of his mind by reducing the human being it represented to an “empty barrel” — that is, someone unworthy of his time. It’s clear, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson did not reach where she is by being a shrinking violet. This is a woman with some edge; she bites back. In this case, she dared to express offense at the president’s attitude and his remarks. In General Kelly’s mind, she was in a class below that of military warriors and their code of honor. That a professional military man looks upon a dedicated educator with such disdain should tell us something about our militarized culture.
Kelly may be “the adult in the room” keeping a self-centered Donald Trump in line, but in this instance, he sadly exhibited a quite Trumpian self-centeredness and insensitivity. Donald Trump’s problem is one of rewarded narcissism, even sadism; General Kelly exhibited a different problem. His righteous self-centeredness was based on personal suffering and the ever-more-exclusive clubbyness of our professional military. For instance, during his press conference, he insisted that only Gold Star parents could ask him a question. If you’re not an intimate part of today’s elite military, if you’re not “one of us,” you can’t understand and, accordingly, you don’t have the right to say anything. Of course, anyone familiar with political science will tell you that’s an anti-democratic formula for authoritarianism.
So there you have it. On one hand, since the end of World War Two, US leadership has asked young American men and women to don uniforms and without a lot of real information to go and fight in strange, distant lands. They’re not expected to ask questions. When I was in the Army, the joke was, “When I say ‘Jump!’ don’t ask me ‘Why?’ ask my ‘How high?” When young American soldiers get to their foreign deployments they too often run afoul of US leadership’s misguided and arrogant mid-understandings of the history and human realities of that foreign place. That is, the politics of Washington DC acts like a template overlaid over this mysterious foreign place and its problems; too often that template’s unreality leads to disaster for young troops on the granular level. I knew an Iraq veteran who came home and shot himself in the head because, in my view, in his young mind he could not match what-was-supposed-to-be with what-really-went-down. That is, he could not match the coding of the top-down warrior brotherhood with the bottom-up realities and his own inadequacies. I know numbers of wounded US servicemen who feel as I do. I know veterans rotting in prison due to crimes rooted in the violent training and experiences of their service. These men would be sneered at by the likes of General Kelly, maybe be reduced to “empty barrels.”
In his remarks, John Kelly lamented the loss of “sacredness” for our soldiers and, especially, for Gold Star families when their loved-ones are killed-in-action. A fair plea. Was he, then, expecting the American people to not see the political hack nature of his attack on a close friend of a dead soldier and his family because this friend was a US congresswoman with real power vis-a-vis him and his boss? Was that her offense? Maybe it’s true that the Johnson family never liked Donald Trump anyway and, thus, the call was perceived as hostile. Then, maybe it was a matter of the president’s inexperience in these matters and his peculiarly self-obsessed nature. General Kelly even took some blame for Trump’s remarks by telling the press conference he had told the inexperienced president that the “casualty officer” assigned to him when his son was killed had said to him in intimate terms — terms a gruff infantry general could understand — that his son “knew what he was getting himself into.” This would be understood by a military general familiar with sending men into battle. But it clearly did not work when translated by Donald J. Trump via cell phone on speaker in a limousine directed to a young pregnant widow with two small children as they were all being driven to the airport to receive the closed-casket remains of her husband. The casket was closed because Sergeant Johnson’s body had apparently been excruciatingly mangled to the point morticians could do nothing with it. All evidence suggests Rep. Wilson was in the car as a personal friend to comfort Mrs. Johnson and for no other reason. The fact Rep. Wilson may not like President Trump doesn’t change that connection.
So why did President Trump call Mrs. Johnson? He called her because he was on the spot; he was feeling attacked and beleaguered over the mysterious deaths of four Green Beret soldiers in Niger. The whole flap about calling Gold Star relatives stemmed from a press question about the four soldiers in Niger: Why hadn’t the president commented on the four deaths? Given how Mr. Trump’s mind works, he took it as a hostile question aimed at him and went into a defensive crouch that ended by doing what he does best: He attacked President Obama. Obama didn’t call Gold Star families! No one was criticizing him for not calling anyone, and General Kelly and a presidential historian both say calling Gold Star families on the phone is not necessary in order for the US commander-in-chief to show respect for the men and women he sends into harm’s way. That respect is shown in other ways, such as making sure the rug isn’t pulled out from under them once they’re there.
This is where the matter gets very confusing and enshrouded in fog. On a micro canvas, President Trump avoided questions about the dead Green Berets in Niger and General Kelly emphasized the lack of respect for the sacrifices of our troops. On a macro canvas, both avoided like the plague any question that touched on post-WWII US imperial overreach. Right. That issue. The one mere voting civilians aren’t supposed to think about as bridges and sewer systems corrode, climate change is causing havoc, our education system is not delivering and the nation is breaking apart.
Exactly what were those four Special Forces troops doing in Niger? Like everything concerning our military overseas, this information is secret. Civilians can’t understand, so they can’t be informed of these facts. They might act irresponsibly. We have to leave it to those who go forth to bleed and die so soft Americans can live their comfortable lifestyles unaware and unable to appreciate the esprit-de-corps and sacrifices of our revered warriors. Worship those four dead men for their service to the nation, but don’t ask why they died and whether they died for a good cause or folly. And if you insist on asking, well, we’re going to have to turn the game back at you and abuse you for using our heroic troops as political footballs. Everybody knows you should be ashamed of yourself for doing that. Even though the president set in motion the whole circus by evading a serious question.
The trouble is, the racoon is out of the bag loose in the house and he’s a nasty, hissing scrapper; there are too many real questions for this potential scandal to go away. Rep. Wilson calls it “Trump’s Benghazi.” And this lady ain’t gonna let go easily; she has lots of very powerful allies. Is it a case of an inexperienced, unprecedented far-right administration tripping over its manhood and discovering the hard way that it hung its soldiers out to dry in a far-flung desert region? Maybe. Rachel Maddow took a stab on Thursday night to put what is knowable together. It’s still very foggy. But more and more, thanks to the incredible degree of secrecy under which our military acts in the world, the only tools the press and the American people have to figure out what’s going on is their educated speculation and the responsible application of their imaginations. It’s not ironic that these are the tools often used by resistances in authoritarian governments elsewhere in the world. So Maddow tossed out what she learned and connected some dots. If the Military and the Government feel she’s off-base they can tell us the “truth.” And other media sources, writers and producers can delve deeper into the fog. The point is not to let up.
What Maddow was suggesting is this: She sketched out the nations of Mali, Niger and Chad as a “region” in the sense of an anti-terror militarist response the US has an interest in. The ISIS conquest of Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012 was important. Then French troops helped the Mali forces take back Timbuktu. What matters, here, is that Chad is the best organized and strongest military of these three sub-Saharan nations. A multi-nation military base was established in Chad after the re-taking of Timbuktu. At this point, Donald Trump ascended to the White House and instituted several manifestations of his notorious “Muslim ban.” As the courts responded, some countries were taken off the list and new ones were added. Iraq was taken off, and Venezuela and North Korea were added — for obvious political reasons. For some strange and unspoken reason, Chad was also added to the list, meaning that citizens of Chad would have a much harder time getting into the United States. Diplomats from Chad and all over the world expressed in no uncertain terms that this decision was truly baffling. In response, apparently a bit miffed that its cooperation with the US was not respected, Chad decided to pull its troops from Mali and Niger. These troops were in process of returning to Chad when the four special forces troops were ambushed and killed as they undertook a normally peaceful patrol; for months, they had done these patrols traveling to towns to visit, do humanitarian things, “show the flag” and that sort of thing. No hostilities. After the ambush, Sergeant Johnson went missing for days. His badly mangled body was recovered by Niger troops. But it possibly gets even uglier. Just before Chad was oddly added to the “Muslim ban” list, Chad had filed an international lawsuit against the Exxon Corporation for multi-billions in fines. Did this have something to do with the decision to add Chad to the list? As we know, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was CEO of the Exxon Corporation before joining the Trump White House.
Again, this involves speculation based on limited information and a little responsible imagination to fill in the blanks. If there is no “there” there, instead of dismissing such speculation as “fake news,” the US government and military should be honest and tell the American people what the real story is. What were the circumstances that led to the deaths of these men? So far, they have exhibited no interest in doing this. They’re “investigating.” Am I too cynical? Why does this sound like “getting our stories straight.”
The ball is in the Trump court. What were those four men doing in Niger? Is our military presence making things better or worse there? Did US leadership make a bad decision that had unforeseen consequences? Are they relying on secrecy to cover up an embarrassment? And the big question: Is the United States mobilizing its military in Africa? Are we embarking on a huge new foreign adventure? On a large, historic canvas, one can look at the Vietnam and Iraq Wars in this light, as the growth of imperial militarism with expanding commitments of young men and women in uniform. Which brings us back to General Kelly’s schizophrenic press conference: On one hand, there’s his moving call for recognizing the sacrifice of our soldiers and their families. Then, there’s his shameful political attack on a congresswoman who he did not realize had real skin in the game — skin that happened to be darker than his white, privileged Boston skin. The general wonders why the honor and glue of America isn’t what it used to be in the glory days of World War Two, which was a defensive war. Those “values” no longer prevail; something else is going on. General Kelly needs to realize, when he becomes an attack dog for someone like Donald Trump, he’s not on a foreign battlefield — he’s in the trenches of Washington DC, which a recent article in the conservative National Review compared to the climate in the HBO hit Game of Thrones.
Washington politics is uglier than it has been in a long time. Secrecy, dishonesty and corruption are epidemic. As long as our military is rooted in such amoral soil, the respect and sacredness for our soldiers that General Kelly seeks will remain far out of reach.