Last week General John Kelly defended Donald Trump’s way of handling the deaths of the four fallen U.S. soldiers in Niger. He did so in a way that excused his boss, misrepresented and disparaged Representative Frederica Wilson, and expressed the self-righteous attitude that military people are true patriots and civilians are second-rate citizens who should not speak of what they do not know.
Central to all of this was Kelly’s assertion that Trump’s words about Sgt. La David Johnson, the fallen soldier — “he knew what he was getting into when he signed up” — were appropriate words, which Kelly himself had been told by General Mo Dunsford when his own son was killed, and which Kelly then passed along to Trump. There is no reason to doubt Kelly here. There is also no reason to doubt that whatever subtlety might be contained in such words when delivered by a caring military officer, this was all lost when these words were conveyed by the self-absorbed, ethically-challenged Trump (the draft evader who has disparaged John McCain’s years of torture at the Hanoi Hilton by saying “I prefer military guys who don’t get shot down”).
Kelly’s performance has been widely treated as an enactment of military seriousness and respect for the men and women who risk their lives for their country. I have suggested that this performance was an authoritarian enactment by a man who is a danger to the republic. I stand by that suggestion. At the same time, I have no doubt that Kelly is a “man of honor” as he understands professional military honor, nor do I doubt that the young men and women who risk, and sacrifice, their lives as members of the U.S. military deserve proper respect.
But in the rush to exalt Kelly’s particular enactment of respect, something fundamental has been obscured: the fact that while members of the military might feel bound by a common patriotism and esprit de corps, the military is a hierarchical and authoritarian institution that cultivates both esprit do corps and submission to authority. More specifically, the U.S. military is an “all-volunteer” force, in the sense that most of those who serve are not highly trained and high-ranking officers officers like Kelly or Dunsford, but relatively “ordinary” people who typically come from modest or poor backgrounds, who are drawn to the military in large part by the economic prospects and career options it affords, and who serve as privates or non-commissioned officers, the kinds of people whose families get to hear words like those defended by Kelly, but who do not ever get to utter such words themselves.
Kelly believes that the words “he knew what he was getting into” show respect for the institution and the mission. I have no doubt that this is the way they are intended when delivered by a dedicated military official (and not by the idiotic hotel developer who currently occupies the White House).
But this does not mean that this is the meaning that is conveyed by these words to all hearers. Representative Wilson reported last week that Sgt. Johnson’s family members were offended by Trump’s words, by their manner of delivery but also by the words themselves. Now the Sgt.’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, has come out publicly to say this: the words were hurtful and disrespectful. And yet Kelly insists the words were respectful.
How can this be?
The answer is simple: Kelly speaks for those who command the military, and Johnson’s family speaks as people related to those who are military subordinates.
Sgt. Johnson was 25 years-old when he was killed in the field. CNN reports that “Before joining the Army in 2014, Johnson was an employee in the produce department at Walmart, where he became known as ‘Wheelie King’ because he commuted to work on a bicycle with no front wheel . . . “ Think about it. An inner-city young African-American man with no college degree, who had benefited from a school program for “at risk youth,” who worked for Walmart and commuted to work not in a car and not on an intact bicycle but on a bicycle with one wheel. Of course this is a story of a young man with grit and determination and some real panache. But it is also a story of a young man who was poor or at least not very well off. Was he a patriot? Sure Was he a military “lifer” or a West Point graduate or even a community college graduate? Surely not.
When a General Dunsford says to a General Kelly that his son, an officer, did not die in vain, and that “he knew what he was getting into,” it makes sense that Kelly will hear this as a sincere compliment.
But when the Johnson family is told these words, whether by Trump or by Kelly, they will not hear this as a sincere compliment. Because they are not part of the “imagined community” that is the U.S. military. They are struggling people who know that their loved one, who was La David Johnson before he became Sgt. Johnson, died very young in a very dangerous job because that very dangerous job was his best way to “be all he can be,” where that means be anything more than a Walmart employee riding a broken bicycle to work.