So was Kelly right to be upset with the Congresswoman for her criticising the line? Maybe, to some extent, but as many in the American media has noted, it was Trump himself who started politicising the whole matter of Presidential contact with "Gold Star" families, so it seems a bit rich to be weighing in on how outrageous it was for Wilson to say what she did.
And let's face it, a more presidential President might have reacted to the news with an apology to the mother if his meaning had been misunderstood, and then expanding on exactly what he had intended - reading off a card to make sure he gets it right, if necessary. Instead, what did we get - a typical Trumpian "I am always right" line of denial that he had said it at all! (Which was, essentially, contradicted by John Kelly in his appearance.)
But the more important aspect of this now is the creepily elitist militaristic line that John Kelly took in his press appearance.
Some might think that Misha Gessen at the New Yorker went too far with his assessment in "John Kelly and the Language of Military Coup, but I think he was basically right. I liked how he pointed out that Kelly actually exaggerates the numbers, as if the nation barely knows anyone who has ever done military service (an argument I found odd, given the amount of fawning of the military you see as part of certain sporting events there):
Fallen soldiers, Kelly said, join “the best one per cent this country produces.” Here, the chief of staff again reminded his audience of its ignorance: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best this country produces.To anyone sensible, this should be starting to ring authoritarian elitist alarm bells.
”The one-per-cent figure is puzzling. The number of people currently serving in the military, both on active duty and in the reserves, is not even one per cent of all Americans. The number of veterans in the population is far higher: more than seven per cent. But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans—specifically, fallen soldiers.
And it elevates the moral importance of what the military does in ways that are not really justifiable. Sure, we can all agree that all fighters who died in a "good war" as clear as World War II died in an entirely morally justified enterprise. We can also all agree that, even in times of relative peace, each individual soldier deserves respect for doing their government's bidding to the point of risking their life.
But because the use of the military for much of the time is in enterprises that involve various shades of grey, we should reject any suggestion that military service per se is a morally elevating thing that makes you a "finer person" that the rest of society.
An article in Slate notes that Kelly being a Marine is probably part of the problem here. Of all the services, they are most inclined to believe their own PR:
It’s striking that Kelly feels comfortable highlighting the civil-military divide, and even emphasizing its virtues, from the lectern of the White House briefing room. Kelly’s remarks break with the popular view among many of his contemporaries that the divide is a bad thing and that the military has grown too far apart from the nation during the 44 years of the all-volunteer force. Indeed, Defense Secretary James Mattis (Kelly’s former comrade from the Marine Corps) edited a book on the topic last year before joining the Trump administration. But perhaps Kelly’s views should not be surprising given his pedigree as a retired Marine (the Marines have always stood apart from the other services with respect to their martial virtues) and his own record of service and family sacrifice. Kelly reflects a slice of military sentiment that exists in barracks and team rooms across the globe but rarely appears in public.And at Vox, an article is accurately summed up in its subheading:
Nonetheless, the implications of Kelly’s performance should worry us. If there’s no role for civilians to play other than to salute the military and give them resources, that would seem to invert the relationship between the military and the nation it’s supposed to serve.
The chief of staff divides America into those who “serve” in uniform — at home and abroad — and those who should shut up.From the body of the piece:
In Kelly’s eyes, those who serve America understand it and those who do not simply don’t. The latter, in fact, can’t really be trusted to preserve America’s goodness.It all puts me in mind of the military elitism apparently promoted by Robert Heinlein in Starship Troopers, and I'd be surprised if I am the first to write that.
“We don't look down upon those who haven't served,” Kelly said at the end of the presser. “In a way we're a bit sorry because you'll never experience the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our service men and women do.”In fact, he said at another point, they “volunteer to protect our country when there's nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that self-service to the nation is not only appropriate but required. That's all right” (emphasis added).So when Kelly waxed nostalgic about the days when certain things were “sacred” — women, religion, and battlefield sacrifice — he wasn’t just echoing the complaints of so many who support Donald Trump because they too feel America is no longer great. He was saying that there are Americans who have kept the flame of American greatness alive — those who serve the country for a living — and that the best thing the rest of America can do is keep a respectful distance.
Oh yeah, as usual, I'm not:
So, Kelly won't event take questions from people who aren't sufficiently close to the military. It's a step towards Starship Troopers.The thing to remember about Kelly, too, is that no matter how good his reputation as a military leader may be, anyone willing to work for a person like Trump has to be suspect in judgement.