SAN DIEGO – As if our country weren’t divided enough already – red vs. blue, rich vs. poor, urban vs. rural, those who kneel vs. those who stand – White House chief of staff John Kelly has now reminded us of another chasm: military vs. civilian.
Contrary to what we’ve heard from Kelly’s critics – who are also President Donald Trump’s critics – the retired Marine Corps general did not create this split. It was already there, and it got much wider during the Vietnam War. Kelly just acknowledged it.
I’ve thought a lot over the last few days about the tension between those who have worn the uniform and those who haven’t. After all, when a four-star general gives you a direct order, you ought to follow it.
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Kelly’s order, which he gave as he wrapped up his recent remarks about Trump’s now-infamous condolence call to a military widow, was that Americans think deeply about the following:
“You know, when I was a kid, every man in my life was a veteran – World War II, Korea, and there was the draft. These young people today, they don’t do it for any other reason than their selfless – sense of selfless devotion to this great nation. We don’t look down upon those of you who that haven’t served. In fact, in a way we’re 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 service men and women do – not for any other reason than they love this country. So just think of that.”
Granted, these are the words of a soldier, not a diplomat. If your goal is to persuade people to your point of view, hold the condescension. That line about how those who serve feel “a little bit sorry” for the rest of us was not helpful.
Ditto for Kelly’s snarky – but accurate – criticism of Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., as noisy “empty barrels.”
Besides making noise, Wilson also ghoulishly made political hay out of the solemn ritual of the commander in chief offering the nation’s sympathy to the family of a fallen warrior.
Wilson, who is African-American, was also way out-of-line for calling Kelly’s critique “racist.” That’s ridiculous.
The vast majority of Kelly’s remarks that day weren’t about politics at all. They were about something much bigger. They were about service, sacrifice and sacred rituals.
Like wrapping the bodies of fallen warriors in shrouds and packing them in ice so they can be shipped home to Dover Air Force Base. Like dressing them in their uniform “with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service” and transferring them to “a casualty officer escort that takes them home.” Like the casualty officer proceeding to “break the heart of a family member” and staying with the next of kin “for a long, long time.”
That part of Kelly’s monologue was deeply authentic given that his own son was killed in combat in Afghanistan. I couldn’t look away, and I could have listened to it for hours.
It’s too bad most of the media gave those comments such short shrift, so they could get on with covering the food fight between the chief of staff and the congresswoman.
As Kelly was pouring out his heart discussing those Gold Star families who pay the ultimate price for our freedom – his own included – you had to know that the out-to-destroy-Trump media would miss the point entirely.
The narratives that followed were that Kelly was being a good soldier in standing by his boss, that he was wrong to only take questions from reporters who knew a Gold Star family, that he was a bigot because he’s Irish and grew up in Boston.
None of which was the point of Kelly’s remarks. Here’s the point, as explained by the retired general himself:
“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.”
You see, that’s what Kelly was getting at – that the 99 percent will never understand what the 1 percent goes through. Not in life, not in death.
And the idiotic response to his remarks, by partisans and the media, proved him right.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.