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.
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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