Safe Space Concept Creep Reaches The Military-Industrial Complex

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When you think of safe spaces, the image which now most often comes to mind is that of infantilized, artificially fragile undergraduates huddled in a room with soft toys, Play-Doh and puppy dog videos, weeping because someone slightly to the right of Bernie Sanders set foot on their college campus.

You are less likely to conjure this image, painted for us in DefenseNews:

A Trump administration official wants to create a “safe space” for international defense-industrial base cooperation.

As China’s military modernization strategy bridges its civil-military divide and the U.S. National Defense Strategy emphasizes the American industrial base, the Pentagon must protect and encourage America’s international partnerships, according to Eric Chewning, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy.

“As China articulates a civil-military fusion doctrine where they are intentionally blurring the lines between their developments on the military side and the commercial side, we need to work with our allies to create a safe space where we can work collaboratively to do that,” Chewning said Wednesday at the Defense News Conference.

My emphasis in bold.

I’m not quite sure what this looks like – four star generals, Boeing executives and NATO military attachés using crayons to excitedly draw their conception of mind control ray guns bolted onto the next generation of 787 airliners?

In reality I am sure the idea is a serious and worthy one, rooted in long-term strategic thinking. But it is interesting – and slightly  concerning – to note that even the people whose solemn task it is to come up with deadly new ways of waging war are anxious to carve out safe spaces for themselves to operate free from harassment.

And interesting too, that the metastasizing of this concept out of the college campus and into grown-up world is taking place under an administration whose supporters love nothing more than to rail against liberal “snowflakes”.

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The Best One Percent

In his brief remarks to the media, General John Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump, momentarily made everybody else in Washington D.C. look small

Good speeches do not always have to be painstakingly crafted well in advance and written down or beamed onto a teleprompter. Neither do good speeches always require a grand event as their backdrop. Sometimes the most stirring speeches can be extemporaneous, or at least appear relatively spontaneous when delivered.

And into this latter category fall the remarks made yesterday by former Marine Corps general John Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump. Kelly was seeking to defend his boss from accusations that the president had been dismissive bordering on callous when making a telephone call of commiserations to the wife of a fallen US soldier killed in an ambush in Niger, a call which was overheard by a Democratic congresswoman and reported to the media.

I make no comment about the individual circumstances of the case here, though many other media organisations have seen fit to voyeuristically pick over what should be an intensely private moment in order to extract political advantage from it. For those interested, the two opposing sides are effectively summarised here and here.

Far more inspirational than this tawdry back-and-forth, however, were the words of Chief of Staff John Kelly, who sought to end the unseemly debate by describing to the press corps in detail the process which takes place when a US service member is killed in action overseas. These remarks range from the very detailed and practical (describing exactly what happens to the body and where it is taken) to the profound, and are worth quoting at length.

Kelly begins:

Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat. So let me tell you what happens:

Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine, and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they’re packed in ice, typically at the airhead. And then they’re flown to, usually, Europe where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with a casualty officer escort that takes them home.

A very, very good movie to watch, if you haven’t ever seen it, is “Taking Chance,” where this is done in a movie — HBO setting. Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me, and it’s worth seeing that if you’ve never seen it.

So that’s the process. While that’s happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door; typically a mom and dad will answer, a wife. And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places; if the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until — well, for a long, long time, even after the internment. So that’s what happens.

This is made all the more poignant by the fact that John Kelly suffered the loss of his son – First Lieutenant Robert Kelly – in Afghanistan, and presumably experienced this same heart wrenching process, something invisible to most civilians in the age of an all-volunteer professional army.

The brief core of Kelly’s remarks then focus on the fine qualities of the men and women who serve in the US military, before defending the actions of his boss. First, the praise:

Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.

Goodness me, that’s powerful. Remember, this is a former Marine Corps general and the serving chief of staff to President Trump, and he is saying that the state of the country is such that America is no longer worthy of the sacrifice made by its men and women in uniform. Think on that for a moment.

And then comes the necessary defence of President Trump, in which Kelly references his own painful loss:

So he called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could. And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.

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. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, 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.

That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.

This next section (which reminds one of Cicero’s exclamation O Tempora, O Mores!) is good too, because it is so obviously heartfelt coming from somebody from an older generation raised in a dignity culture:

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.

Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought — the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.

Kelly ends with this scathing criticism of politicians such as the congresswoman who saw fit to leak details of President Trump’s telephone call to one of the families:

I’ll end with this: In October — April, rather, of 2015, I was still on active duty, and I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men who were killed in a firefight in Miami against drug traffickers in 1986 — a guy by the name of Grogan and Duke. Grogan almost retired, 53 years old; Duke, I think less than a year on the job. Anyways, they got in a gunfight and they were killed. Three other FBI agents were there, were wounded, and now retired. So we go down — Jim Comey gave an absolutely brilliant memorial speech to those fallen men and to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well, and law enforcement so well.

There were family members there. Some of the children that were there were three or four years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade. Three of the men that survived the fight were there, and gave a rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives.

And a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, okay, fine.

So I still hope, as you write your stories, and I appeal to America, that let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society — a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country — let’s try to somehow keep that sacred. But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.

As a speech, this has pretty much everything. It might not have been the most stirring or poetic, but John Kelly is a blunt, military man and to have spoken in the cadence of John F Kennedy or Barack Obama would have been totally false and out of character. The authenticity of Kelly’s remarks derive from the seriousness of the subject, the dignified way in which a story of personal loss was mentioned (compared to the overt emotionalism of many contemporary speakers) and the workmanlike delivery.

What John Kelly did more than anything else was shame the people who had sought to cynically use a story based on the death of American soldiers for their own purposes – be it Democratic politicians looking for more character flaws in Trump, Republican politicians who sought to defend Trump or the media who saw a potentially juicy mini-scandal which would generate pageviews and ad revenue.

He shamed a group of neophytes and cynics, people who by and large did not serve in uniform themselves, but saw fit to pontificate on the protocol governing military rituals as though they were discussing any old arcane political dispute. Kelly effectively contrasts the quiet, selfless duty of American soldiers with the self-aggrandising behaviour of American politicians. And there can be few among the Washington DC political class, who measure their popularity by the number of their Twitter followers and see themselves as the centre of the universe, who did not come out of that press conference feeling at least slightly chastened.

This can also only be good for the career and reputation of John Kelly himself, who has faced scepticism that he would be able to rein in the excesses of the Trump administration and criticism for those occasions when that superhuman feat eluded him. By briefly lamenting that women are no longer honoured in today’s America (putting aside the fact that such 1950s-style honour was a double-edged sword), Kelly not-so-subtly denounced his own boss, whose record of behaviour towards women is not good. Criticising the politicisation of gold star families during the Democratic National Convention served the same purpose. Thus, Kelly successfully burnished his image as a man serving out of duty to his country and respect for the office of president rather than admiration for the individual who currently holds that office.

I struggle to think of a contemporary British political speech of similar power and worth. Does anybody recall any of the speeches given this party conference season, besides the slow-motion self-destruction of Theresa May? Has there been a British political speech in the last decade which made the heart beat a little faster or brought a lump to the throat?This is made even more depressing when one remembers that John Kelly is not even a politician – he is a retired general pressed into service to steady a wobbling first-year Trump administration.

Kelly’s remarks are a fine example of an effective speech, composed and well delivered under difficult circumstances, with a hostile media audience ready to throw hard-to-defend accusations against his equally hard-to-defend boss. Yet by the time he was done, John Kelly walked out of that briefing room ten feet taller while everyone else visibly shrank in moral stature.

That’s impressive. I would like to import just a fraction of that ability to Westminster.

 

UPDATE: 21 October

This report from the Washington Post suggests that John Kelly’s account of Representative Frederica Wilson’s speech at the newly-opened FBI building was not accurate. This in no way detracts from the power of the speech or even necessarily mean that Gen. Kelly’s righteous indignation was altogether misplaced, but the record should be corrected.

 

UPDATE: 22 October

Having sat back rather pleased with myself, thinking I might have written something vaguely original, I discovered today that Jonah Goldberg was simultaneously coming to the same conclusion in his G-file newsletter.

Goldberg sees in Kelly’s speech the same thing that I see – a dignified admonishment to President Trump as much as to the media or the Left:

The trends Kelly alludes to are real and lamentable, and they predate Donald Trump’s arrival on the national political scene. But it strikes me as indisputable that Trump personifies these trends, and if Kelly were not trying to do his job, he would acknowledge that.

Perhaps Kelly was criticizing the Gold Star Khan family in his remarks about the convention. But he could just as plausibly have had the president in mind. We need not rehearse all of the ways in which Donald Trump — who has bragged of his adultery and sexual assaults and who has insulted women’s looks — has less than an exemplary record of honoring the sanctity of women.

I understand that many Christian groups have convinced themselves that Trump is an instrument of God, but let us not delude ourselves that he is also a man of God.

It is also worth pointing out the media’s evident latent, automatic animosity toward any member of the Trump administration, merited or not. When it was shown that John Kelly misreported the content of Rep. Wilson’s speech at the opening of the FBI Academy, nearly all the media ran with a headline about Kelly being wrong, or even lying. They neglected to point out that the video evidence actually also underlined the truth of what Kelly was trying to say – that on the occasion of the dedication of a building to the memory of slain law enforcement officers, the politician present chose to make the occasion about herself.

 

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A Failed Military Coup In Turkey Is The Worst Possible Outcome For Democracy

People react near a military vehicle during an attempted coup in Ankara

This failed military coup has achieved the awful outcome of allowing Turkey’s tin pot dictator in gestation, the despicable President Erdogan and his supporters, to pose as champions of the very democracy they are busy subverting

Nobody in their right mind usually yearns for a military coup – the violence, confusion, civilian casualties, suspension of justice, martial law and human rights abuses which occur in the best of times are nothing to welcome, no matter how odious the status quo.

But once it became clear that a military coup was underway in Turkey, involving at least a subset of the military, it were better for that coup to succeed with as little bloodshed as possible than to have it fail.

Why? Because if you thought President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was bad before, just wait until paranoid, vengeful President Erdogan 2.0 is unleashed once he has finished putting down the coup and reasserting control over his divided country.

This is a vain and power-hungry little man who was at one desperate point last night reduced to addressing his nation via FaceTime, through an iPhone screen pointed at a television camera. He will not have taken kindly to this humiliation, and his vengeance will be swift and merciless.

President Erdogan was already well on the way to tin-pot dictator status, jailing critical journalists and political opponents, seizing control of independent critical newspapers and turning them into pro-government propaganda outlets, violently suppressing popular protests, subverting the constitution and building himself a palace fit for a king. All of this will now be accelerated.

As Mark Wallace rightly warns in Conservative Home:

If you thought he was a paranoid tyrant before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Erdogan was already throwing his weight around – jailing journalists, seizing control of critical newspapers, sending riot police in to fight protests and so on. But now he has a concrete threat which he can use to justify any and all repressive measures. The odds are that we will now see even tougher clampdowns which sadly will extend will beyond those actually responsible and likely sweep up many targets whom the government finds it convenient to be rid of.

Worse still from a secular standpoint, the military’s bluff has now been called. Turkey’s military has historically served as a firewall, a last line of defence against creeping Islamism and theocratic control. While details of this coup attempt have yet to fully emerge – it may be the case that these events were plotted only by one specific subset of the military – it now appears that the military has gambled and lost. It is hard to see them serving their pro-secular role in future, especially once Erdogan has made further personnel changes, replacing the current general staff with his stooges.

This failed coup attempt is also bad news for everyone else who relies on Turkey being a moderately stable presence in the region, and a trustworthy negotiating partner. Erdogan already had the European Union over a barrel with its pants down, extorting huge sums of money from European taxpayers in exchange for taking the smallest of actions to stem the flow of migrants and refugees entering the EU via Turkey. Expect that price to go up (while Turkey’s commitment to abiding by its agreement goes down) now that Erdogan feels the need to shore up his own position.

But the truly depressing thing about this failed military coup is the fact that it allows an utterly despicable and contemptible man and his hardcore supporters to parade around like the champions of democracy when in fact they are its sworn enemies. Erdogan himself once remarked that he views democracy as akin to getting on a bus, and that once the bus reaches its destination he will get off – in other words, he will submit himself to taking part in elections until he has built up a sufficient power base, and then kill Turkish democracy in the crib so that he can never be removed.

Already in the early hours of the morning, when it appeared that the coup attempt was failing, we saw Erdogan’s supporters wrap themselves in the flag of democracy:

Sadly, some in Britain who should know better – including the normally reliable Brendan O’Neill – joined in the same chorus:

The events cited by O’Neill – the establishment’s horror at Brexit, the Islamist terrorist slaughter of innocent people in Nice on Bastille Day and this failed coup in Turkey – are hardly comparable. While the first two do indeed represent the hatred held by some people for popular liberal democracy, President Erdogan is no great believer in liberal democracy, using it as a vehicle when it helps him but quick to suppress it when it represents a threat to his interests.

The danger is that by ennobling Erdogan’s survival by lumping it together with legitimate democratic movements (like Brexit) we help to shore up the power of somebody who is no friend of democracy, and who fully intends to snuff out democracy altogether once he has used it to drag Turkey back to some primitive, theocratic dark age.

This really is the worst of all possible outcomes. Military coups are never something to be celebrated, even when aimed at deposing someone as unpleasant as Erdogan – his defeat should come at the ballot box, not at the barrel of a tank gun. But a failed coup is doubly bad since it weakens the military, hardens Erdogan’s supporters and makes the man himself even more paranoid and authoritarian – there are already talks of Turkey reinstating the death penalty to deal with the plotters.

Whichever side had prevailed in this coup attempt, democracy would have been the nominal loser. But democracy’s defeat will be particularly bitter now that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stands strengthened and victorious.

 

Postscript: The failed coup in Turkey also seems to have brought out the worst in several British politicians, notably Labour MP Chris Bryant who thought that turmoil in Turkey provided a perfect opportunity to smear Brexiteers:

In other words, Chris Bryant is literally blaming Brexit and the quest for British independence from ever-closer European political union for causing civil unrest in a country thousands of miles away.

“Sore loser” doesn’t even come close to describing this hysterical, childish behaviour from an elected Labour MP. So out of touch are Labour MPs with the mood of the country (and their own constituents – Chris Bryant’s constituency voted for Brexit, 54-46 per cent) that even now they are sulking and taking part in a tantrum, lashing out at the British people for having the temerity to ignore their doom-laden advice and drag them away from their beloved EU.

The next time you hear it said that the Corbynites are rendering the Labour Party unelectable, remember that it was the centrist Chris Bryant acting like a moronic child on social media while civilians were being killed in Turkey.

 

Turkish President Erdogan addresses during an attempted coup in Istanbul

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Seumas Milne Bashes America

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Seumas Milne rides to battle against the United States

It must be a slow news day, because Seumas Milne has taken to his Guardian column to denounce the presence of US military bases on British soil. You might think that resuscitating a dusty old left-wing fall-back piece like this might at least warrant some new angle on the story, or at least be based on some recent newsworthy transgression by the American military that we host here. You might think so, but you would be disappointed. Milne apparently just got out of bed feeling vaguely smug and anti-American, and decided to repeat the same predictable talking points, namely:

1. They came to help fight Nazi Germany in 1942 and the war ended a long time ago, so what can they possibly still be doing here?

2. America has dragged us into unnecessary and failed wars (Iraq was clearly a calamitous mistake, but why this warrants booting 10,000 US servicemen from our shores is never explained by Milne, unless it is supposed to simply be an act of vengeance) but we can absolve ourselves of these sins by closing down their bases here.

3. The British security elite are desperate to maintain a lopsided special relationship with the US, and only tolerate their bases on our soil as the price of achieving this goal.

4. Being so chummy with the Americans makes us less safe. Rather than being proud of our alliance with a country that symbolises democracy and individual freedom (however self-tarnished this image is becoming as a result of the unconstitutional activities of their national security complex), we should actively disown them to curry favour with fundamentalist theocracies who foment terrorism.

The column is not worth quoting at length, but here is an excerpt:

But whose interests are actually served by such a role? No doubt arms contractors are delighted, but it’s hard to argue that it benefits the British people – let alone those on the receiving end of the US and British military. Politicians and securocrats claim it gives them influence over US policy, but they struggle to produce the evidence on the rare occasions they’re asked to explain how. “The foreign policy elite still have a strong idea,” as the Chatham House analyst James de Waal puts it, that intervention based on “values” is an “innate part of what the UK is all about”. In fact, what successive governments have done is mortgaged Britain’s security and independence to a foreign power – and placed its armed forces, territory and weaponry at the disposal of a system of global domination and privilege, now clearly past its peak.

Milne wonders what the Americans would think if we had a military base on their home soil. Aside from the fact that British officers and military personnel routinely serve alongside their American counterparts both at home and in the field, I think that the Americans would be only too happy to see British military spending increased to such a level where we could afford more overseasbases (though whether this itself would be desirable is another matter). The reason for the lack of RAF bases in North Dakota is not that the British are the victims of some one-sided game in which the US gets to play and we have to sit on the sidelines, but everything to do with the fact that we choose to deprioritise defence in sacrifice for other goals, and all the other things that our caring government does for us. And look how that’s working out.

But this is where Milne really reveals his argument for what it is:

Britain’s fake patriots who bleat about the power of the European Commission are more than happy to subordinate the country’s foreign policy to the Pentagon and allow its forces permanent bases on British soil.

Firstly, our foreign policy clearly is not subordinate to the whims of the Pentagon, as the British parliamentary vote against taking military action in Syria made abundantly clear. Try as he might to build a convincing narrative of the British being led by the nose, two conflicts (Afghanistan and Iraq) over thirteen years are not enough to establish the damaging precedent that he wants to portray.

And secondly, I strenuously object to being labelled a fake patriot by Milne, but so bankrupt is his argument that insults are likely the only weapon left in his arsenal. Fake in relation to what, Milne’s more enlightened, cerebral left-wing patriotism? What Milne carefully chooses not to see is the fact that British government policy and the day-to-day experience of British life are influenced far more by the goings-on in the corrupt, undemocratic European Commission than they are by the garrisons of American military personnel on our soil – troops, incidentally, who are there to underwrite our common security objectives. If anything, it is an indictment of the European Union that Milne slavishly and unquestioningly adores that they punch more weight in this country by undemocratic diktat than do the “hostile American occupiers” against whom he childishly rages.

I’m sure that Milne thinks himself terribly persuasive in his closing paragraph:

But the withdrawal of British troops from Germany and this year’s planned renewal of the US-British defence agreement offer a chance to have a real debate on the US military relationship – and demand some transparency and accountability in the process. There is no case for maintaining foreign military bases to defend the country against a non-existent enemy. They should be closed. Instead of a craven “partnership” with a still powerful, but declining empire, Britain could start to have an independent relationship with the rest of the world.

But why should these two things be mutually exclusive? In Milne’s crazed imagination, the fact that we enjoy such a close alliance with a great country like America is shutting us off from good relations with other countries, or, as he puts it, having an “independent relationship with the rest of the world. This would probably come as a great surprise to the British ambassadors representing our country in foreign capitals across the globe, and to everyone working at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London toward the same ends. Exactly what relationship with the rest of the world does Milne think we are missing out on by failing to snub and humiliate our closest ally in the way that he proposes? Which are the countries in whose bad graces we currently dwell, who will suddenly warm to us if we send the Americans packing? North Korea? Venezuela? Iran?

I propose to Seumas Milne that he is trying to make an argument in reverse. He is clearly upset about British-American military cooperation and about our alliance in general. He would doubtless prefer to see us much closer to Europe, and have us actively working to further undermine American hegemony. But the American military bases and other visible manifestations of our close alliance are not a cause but an effect. In the case of Britain and America, an alliance such as ours is what you inevitably see when two countries, one larger and one smaller, have so much in common in terms of culture, economic ties and global interests. If Milne wants the US bases to close, he is making the wrong argument. Rather than bleating about Iraq and Afghanistan, he needs to begin convincing us that we are a different country than the one we think we are.

I don’t fancy his chances.