Masha Gessen wrote an important piece on one of the outrages of this past week, John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup New Yorker 10/20/2017. She was responding to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's defense of Trump's heartless phone call to the family of Sgt. David. Johnson, one of four soldiers recently killed during a mystery mission in Niger. (Barbara Starr and Zachary Cohen, Missing soldier found nearly a mile from Niger ambush, officials say CNN 10/21/2017)
Johnson's mother described Trump's callous comments in an interview with the Washington Post (Anne Gearan and Kristine Phillips, Fallen soldier’s mother: ‘Trump did disrespect my son’ 10/18/2017)
Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Washington Post that she was present during the call from the White House on Tuesday to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson. She also stood by an account of the call from Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) that Trump told Myeshia Johnson that her husband “must have known what he signed up for.”Here is a video of Kelly's press conference, following by adoring words from the Morning Zoo crew, who want to consider Kelly one of the proverbial grownups-in-the-room who will supposedly restrain Trump's excesses. Though public evidence for such a function of their part is rather scarce. General John Kelly's Powerful Speech Hit At Wilson And President Donald Trump Morning Joe MSNBC 10/20/2017:
“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Jones-Johnson said. ...
Wilson went on to say Trump “was almost like joking. He said, ‘Well, I guess you knew’ — something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ You know, just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. That’s the way we interpreted it. It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”
“She was in tears. She was in tears. And she said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name.’ ”
As I mentioned on a Facebook thread of one of my friends, since the President and his Chief of Staff think everyone enlisting in the military "knows what they're signing up for," maybe the Pentagon should use a cigarettes-style warning on all their recruitment ads, along the lines of: "In signing up for military service, you should know you are signing up to die, possibly in a useless war started for the most venal purposes by politicians who don't give a s*** whether you live or die anyway. Also, you made die as a direct consequence of some stupid-ass move by military contractors who feel no obligation to defend your life as long as they're making a buck."
I only recall encountering in real life two meanings of "he knew what he was signing up for." One is to remind someone of their obligations if they seem reluctant to fulfill them. The other is to say, "I don't care whether somebody is suffering, to hell with them." I can't see how either would be an appropriate message from the President to the spouse of a soldier killed in the line of duty.
Nuance and situational awareness matter in this things. I'm no grief-counseling expert. And everyone handles grief in their own way. Something like, "we all know that was a risk but it's horrible to lose him" is a whole different thing from "well, we all know it can happen, too bad for him." And of course soldiers in the middle of a combat assignment have less immediate latitude to process grief than when people die under more ordinary circumstances. So "we all know it can happen to us" would have a different meaning in that context, with a kind of solidarity or empathy totally missing from what Trump and Kelly said this week.
I personally wouldn't recommend saying that to friends or family members in any case. I've never seen anyone get offended by someone saying of the loss of one of their loved ones, "at least he's not suffering anymore." But I avoid saying it myself, because even in cases of someone suffering a very painful condition, the person passing away may or may not have seen it that way.
On the practical administrative side, official procedures and grief-management rituals are an extremely important function for the military. In blunt terms, those practices try to say "our grief is genuine and your wife/husband/son/daughter died for a great cause," without coming off as saying "it may have been a pointless death but we're going to pretend it isn't." And that's pretty deeply rooted in anthropology. If you want your tribe to rally around when the war drums sound in the jungle, you have to communicate to the warriors that if they die it's not entirely in vain. And also just common humanity.
It seems to me that what Trump and Kelly did was actually to step on that elaborate official mourning structure pretty hard by having senior officials send a message that to most people will come off more like, "it's no big deal, some people live, some people die, suck it up, I've got a golf game to get to."
Masha Gessen highlights the concern that John Kelley's statement included a perspective that was not only morbidly maudlin, but anti-democratic. Here is the mordibly maudlin:
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.”This kind of talk belongs more in a Jim Jones-style death cult than in public statements by senior political and military officials in a democratic country.
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. ...
The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic.
It goes beyond grateful hyperbole for those who serve in the armed forces. And beyond respect and gratitude for those who wound up giving their lives in military service. But the course of events that made them casualties of war did not convey sainthood on them. Nor did it make their shades, which in Kelly's version seemingly wander among the graves of Arlington, into superior beings to the living. Among various problem with that occultist outlook, it perpetuates the dangers fantasy that American soldiers aren't normal human beings, and that it's a good thing that they die in war, something to be envied by the living rather than mourned.
Gessen makes the helpful point that such a perspective is radically different than "the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: 'The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.'” [my emphasis]
But I have reservations about the specific context in which she puts that reference. Recalling his own growing up in the Soviet Union, she writes, "It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor." But calling dying in war "the ultimate badge of honor" is something that people in Western democratic societies would have little problem doing. Viewing their ghosts wandering the military cemetery as "very best this country produces" is whole different level of maudlin.
Gessen concludes with an example of what I would call an expression of outright militarism in Kelly's statement:
Kelly’s last argument was his most striking. At the end of the briefing, he said that he would take questions only from those members of the press who had a personal connection to a fallen soldier, followed by those who knew a Gold Star family. Considering that, a few minutes earlier, Kelly had said most Americans didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who belonged to the “one per cent,” he was now explicitly denying a majority of Americans — or the journalists representing them - the right to ask questions. This was a new twist on the Trump Administration’s technique of shunning and shaming unfriendly members of the news media, except this time, it was framed explicitly in terms of national loyalty. As if on cue, the first reporter allowed to speak inserted the phrase “Semper Fi” — a literal loyalty oath—into his question.
Before walking off the stage, Kelly told Americans who haven’t served in the military that he pities them. “We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served,” he said. “In fact, in a way we are a little bit sorry because you’ll have never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our servicemen and women do—not for any other reason than that they love this country.”