The General’s Damned Lie
John Kelly’s politicized fabrication targeting Representative Frederica Wilson wasn’t the worst lie he told during his remarks
The worst lie John Kelly told in his stirring emotional speech had nothing to do with Representative Frederica Wilson. Politifact caught him with his pants on fire, slandering the congresswoman while the whole world watched. No, the worst damned lie he told was much, much, much worse. And so far, no media have called him on it. But the truth deserves sunlight.
When Kelly’s sober statuesque form filled the White House podium, where Sarah Huckabee Sanders frequently stands nervously peddling her wares of laughable half-truths, distortions and alternative facts on behalf of the Oval Office god she worships, the entire room fell silent with respect.
Kelly opened his remarks by explaining to the nation and the world what happens to the body of a US soldier lost in battle. Kelly set the stage for a gut-wrenching revelation of one of the most difficult of all military protocol. He commanded everyone’s attention. And the whole world gave it to him.
But around five minutes into his cogent remarks, Kelly veered onto a landscape that can only be described as disgraceful. This real live American hero began to toot the horn of a man who isn’t fit to shine his shoes. And while that was nauseating enough, it merely served as a warm-up dive to the humiliating cannonball leap he would take from the highest rung of his illustrious career. Kelly said:
“If you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’ve never been in combat, you can’t even imagine how to make that call. I think he very bravely does make those calls.”
That statement caused me to hold my breath. Let the last sentence sink in for a moment.
It was at this point in Kelly’s speech that I knew something was awry. No military general thinks President Trump is “brave” or ever does anything motivated by courage. Indeed, there are many descriptions one could find about Trump from the campaign and throughout his life prior to politics. If the word “brave” were placed among the many labels ascribed to this president, even Sesame Street could easily pick which one doesn’t belong.
Kelly’s comment about Trump being brave to make a dutiful call to a widow, who is only a widow because of decisions the Commander in Chief made, foreshadowed the depth of shame to which Kelly would ultimately plummet in the minutes following his tragic remark.
If you’re not in the military family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, you cannot know the extraordinary lie Kelly told while leveraging the memory of the death of his own son to provide cover for a cowardly commander in chief.
I have worn the uniform. My parents both served in the Army. My uncles served in both the Navy and Marine Corps. My cousins have served and retired. And even today, I have a nephew and niece wearing the uniforms of the Army and Air Force respectively.
I honorably served this nation for 12 years in the enlisted ranks aboard two combat ships. I made four major deployments that included multiple exercises off the coast of N. Korea and even one in the Aleutian Islands that provoked Russia to interfere. I was offered an opportunity to be a recruiter, during which time I received nearly every award the Navy had to give in recruiting, including a meritorious advancement in rank due to a sustained high level of performance over four years.
I offer that brief background because it pains me to have to expose a former military general. And my criticism will undoubtedly trigger knee-jerk attacks on my own credibility. After all, even the White House Press Secretary said that debating a four-star general (which Kelly was, but is currently serving in the role of President Trump’s Chief of Staff) is “highly inappropriate.”
Perhaps it is inappropriate for Ms. Sanders, who has never worn the uniform and never served in the military family, to debate Kelly. But for those of us who subjected ourselves to the orders of a civilian president and the chain of command headed by men like Kelly, we have every right to speak out, particularly when the public is being misled about the deaths of military servicemembers. It is most highly appropriate to do so.
To illustrate the advice Kelly offered Trump, he said this:
“Well, let me tell you what I told him. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent.”
I believed Kelly when he said that his best friend expressed those words to him at such a deeply sensitive moment in his life. But in my own opinion, those words are anything but sensitive. Furthermore, they are unequivocally wrong.
Kelly carried that wrong message into his advisory role with a man who lacks the ability to conjure up even a modicum of empathy for suffering people. And it stunned me to watch Kelly fall on the sword of his hard-earned reputation, and sacrifice his own personal integrity and the integrity of the US military for a president that even Iran believes is “pretending to be an idiot.”
The most remarkable lie Kelly told was on national TV to every grieving family member who has ever lost someone while they served this country. That lie Kelly told on behalf of the President of the United States was unnecessary and unconscionable.
“…and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.”
Kelly told a damned lie!
Sgt. La David Johnson — alongside Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, and Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson — was absolutely was NOT where he wanted to be. He was NOT with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. And whether these men were friends or even friendly with one another we do not know. It is beside the point. There simply is no reason to portray them as a group of lifelong buddies doing what they love, hanging out together in Niger… “exactly where they wanted to be.” That’s simply BS.
This fabrication, offered as a means of consoling a grieving family, was disrespectful, dishonorable and borderline stupid. I say stupid because the alternative is wholly unthinkable. That alternative is that Kelly is intentionally perpetuating a fraudulent public relations narrative and deliberately misleading the nation to believe servicememembers love going to war. I hope he doesn’t believe that. I hope you don’t either.
I have recruited many young men and women into the military, including two of my cousins who served to retirement. Not one of those young people fully understood what they were getting into, because it was impossible for them to know. It was impossible for any recruiter to know.
None of the servicemembers who are sent into harm’s way, into a theater of war, or on a combat mission, are “where they want to be.” This notion is patently false.
They go wherever they are sent because men like Trump and Kelly have decided they should be there. They are not surrounded by their family and friends having a backyard BBQ, where they would much prefer to be.
They are sent to faraway places they have no desire to visit. And they are ordered to fulfill missions that often require killing people, which has its own personal affect on each soldier. They are ordinary young people doing extraordinary things in service to their country…you and me.
WHAT WE KNOW…AND DON’T KNOW
In war — all wars — innocent people are killed. This happens both by design and by accident. Whether intentional or not, the taking of an innocent life takes a toll upon the killer. Even taking the life of an enemy combatant leaves an indelible mark on the mind, heart and soul of each one of our servicemembers.
We cannot know how killing others will impact a person or manifest later in their lives. No high school student or college graduate signing up for the military can imagine how their soul will be changed after taking someone’s life, or escaping the battlefield still in possession of their own and carrying with them a lifetime of nightmares that follow.
For every death of our troops, on average there will be 10 times as many wounded, which is a burden for the family to bear. And for those who escape physical injury, there is no escape from the mental and emotional impact that war has on everyone involved, which is yet another impact on the family.
We know that the military suicide rate has remained high seven years in a row. We also know that homicides committed by military personnel and veterans is a significant problem. Do we expect high school and college students to know this when they sign up?
These deleterious outcomes are not the actions of servicemembers who knew precisely what they were getting into and were dutifully happy to be where they were in a combat scene, surrounded by their military buddies, as though war is a Boy Scout Jamboree.
We also know that the strain of long deployments, particularly those that involve theaters of war, are associated with an increased risk of divorce. We cannot forget that military spouses and families carry a huge burden of support. Should all new recruits be apprised of this information?
MILITARY SERVICE IS A RISKY JOB — WAR IS HELL
In every war, there will be horrors that no human should have to witness. There will be tests of character and courage. There will also be failure of spirit. Rape and torture are part of the equation. Every war has these elements. This is not the picture I painted to prospective recruits.
The military is a vast landscape of mostly civilian occupations serving the needs of a war machine. That means everyone, and I mean everyone, who enters the military is informed that they could be sent into harm’s way. So, in essence, every member of the armed services is aware of the risk. But that’s NOT a necessary talking point when engaging a grieving widow draped over her husband’s casket. It certainly isn’t a talking point when we recruit new members.
Even knowing the risks, until you actually come face to face with the reality of having to kill or be killed, the risk is mentally construed as theory and relegated to a far corner of our mental recesses. Is there any recruit who joins the military with an excited expectation of dropping bombs or launching missiles and rocket-propelled grenades to kill thousands of people in some unknown city overseas? What 18-year-old is giddy about the prospects of becoming a killing machine, firing armor-piercing bullets into a combat zone or selectively taking people’s lives as a sniper?
ART OF RECRUITING
My role as a recruiter was to focus on the positive aspect of serving in the military, of which there are many. I sat down with parents alongside their sons and daughters to inquire about their dreams and goals. I offered the military as a pathway to reach the goals they dreamed of achieving in life. And to the credit of so many, including my own cousins, they succeeded in achieving their goals through military service.
But while the military is a viable option for many, for so many others it is the only significant path they have out of dire circumstances into which they were born. When Kelly said, “there’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted,” he displayed a stunning lack of insight into the decision-making process that so many young people face when considering military service, particularly young black and Hispanic men.
Still, whether one chooses the military as a pathway to reach their dreams or just to escape their nightmares, there is a price to be paid. That price is that each servicemember is volunteering to be used as a pawn in a global chess game managed by political leaders.
Those leaders can either make decisions with care and concern for the lives of servicemembers or they can prioritize the interests of others. In any case, when servicemembers from any branch are sent into harm’s way, you can rest assured they did not choose to go where they are sent, as one would choose a travel vacation.
They volunteered to serve their country — to protect and defend the constitution from all enemies, both foreign and domestic. It is OUR duty to protect them, OUR HEROES, from poor political leadership. They depend upon US to protect them from leaders politicizing their roles in defending our country. Unfortunately, we did a sorry job of caring for our servicemembers when we elected a Commander in Chief who much of our congress and most of the country believes is dangerous to the republic.
Our heroes in the military go where they are told and do what they are commanded to do. Their country sends them to do its bidding. Their country, represented by the President of the United States, is at fault when things go wrong. President Trump decided those soldiers should be in Niger for reasons Trump refuses to explain to the American people, which he presumably serves.
OUR RESPONSIBILITY AND KELLY’S FALSE NARRATIVE
WE are at fault for failing to hold our president accountable to us. We are at fault for subjecting our military heroes to a leader who doesn’t demonstrate a sense of heightened concern for their lives. We own responsibility for who we put into the Oval Office, which ultimately is a seat of power from which decisions of life and death are made frequently.
It is unconscionable that we would support someone who earned the reputation of a pathological liar long before he received the title of Commander in Chief. We failed in our duty to protect the backs of our volunteer heroes who protect us through their service in the military. And Kelly, who lived so much of his life as one of our heroes, let us down in service to a man who lacks the capacity to express genuine empathy and sympathy to the devastated wife of a fallen hero. Kelly’s public presentation of the damned lie that portrayed soldiers dying in a blaze of glory while living out their dreams of being warriors is embarrassingly ignorant or arrogantly insidious.
Sgt. La David Johnson was not where he wanted to be when he was killed. He most assuredly did not know when he signed up that he would die in Niger. He absolutely was not surrounded by his best friends when he died. He was likely surrounded by the enemy, having been found separated from his command 48 hours after the recovery of the bodies of three others killed in the ambush.
Kelly perpetrated a false narrative when he spoke to the nation about the death of these four American heroes in Niger. He lied. And his lie portrayed warfare as a glorious end to a soldier’s life, by the soldier’s own choice. This is patently false.
War is ugly, horrific and tragic. It is excruciatingly painful. And in this case, it results in a lifetime of absence for the spouses, children and other family members of those killed in Niger.
The one thing such loss of life should NEVER be is unnecessary. And that’s a question that still lingers.
Yes, all of these soldiers knew when they signed up that they were putting their lives at risk. But that doesn’t absolve the men in the chain of command of their decisions that placed our troops under fire. And such words that Kelly offered Trump, and he clumsily relayed to Ms. Johnson, should NEVER be directed at a grieving widow in an attempt to console.
Sure, servicemembers know they could be sent into harm’s way. They know they risk their lives performing their duty. I knew that when I served. But none of them knew, or even could know, the place and circumstances under which they would sacrifice their lives. That decision was determined by someone else in the chain of command. And that decision should be held into account.
It is disingenuous of President Trump to further afflict a grieving widow and mother by telling them Sgt. Johnson knew what he was getting into and therefore died a hero. Death didn’t make him a hero. Those soldiers, all of them, who paid the ultimate price, are most assuredly heroic. But they were heroes before they lost their lives.
My challenge to their leaders, and to this nation filled with callous warmongers, is to remember that these are OUR heroes and we should treat them as such every day while they live!
We seem to have long forgotten the most basic reason America’s heroes are serving in the armed forces. They are there to protect us. They are there to defend us. They fight so we do not have to. Regardless of their reasons for volunteering to serve, they sacrifice their lives for the benefit of ours. We should honor that service by ensuring they are never sent to engage in battle by political leaders with ulterior motives.
The audacity we display with careless talk of war, death and destruction of people and property without regard to the costs our servicemembers pay is despicable. Even in training for combat, whether overt or covert, we lose servicemembers to injury and death.
It is a seriously dangerous job defending this nation. And we should be much more serious about the conditions that determine when, where and why we send our heroes into harm’s way. And when we lose our heroes in battle, our leaders should take responsibility and own up to the reason why. Immediately.
Finally, we would do well to remember that our heroes have families and lives outside of their duty defending this nation. They do not gleefully race toward the sound of trouble. But, they absolutely do head toward the battlefield out of a sense of duty, knowing their lives are at risk. And they do so at the request of the leaders that WE put in charge over their lives. They honor their own promise to defend us by placing their trust in the leaders we put in charge, and following those orders even to death. They are our heroes. We would do well to always remember that.
Kelly’s cover for his boss’ political pettiness was at the expense of the memory of one of America’s fallen heroes, Sgt. La David Johnson. He went where his country sent him. And he did the job he was ordered to do in honorable service to you and me. His family is devastated by his death.
And we, as a nation, should never cease trying to understand why we lost Sgt. Johnson and three other heroes in Niger. We are forever indebted to them all and their families.