A simmering resentment of civilians

People who research military-civilian relations were not universally thrilled by Kelly’s talk the other day.

Kelly’s defense of Trump — beginning with a vivid description of how dead troops make their way home — turned into a lecture on how Americans do not understand the military community’s sacrifice. And it alarmed some of those who study relations between the military and society.

Former senior officials such as retired Gen. David Petraeus and retired Adm. Mike Mullen have argued that divisions between troops and civilians can exacerbate misconceptions about post-traumatic stress and make obtaining civilian employment difficult for veterans. And they have championed efforts to bridge the gaps in understanding.

Kelly’s remarks work against those efforts, said Kori Schake, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and co-editor of the book “Warriors and Citizens” with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “My guess is that military families will pull themselves further into the community because they don’t want to be politicized,” Schake said.

And at the same time some of us civilians will be put off by many of Kelly’s assumptions…as well as his defense of Trump and his refusal to admit his untruths about Representative Wilson.

Kelly’s remarks broaden what had been a relatively insular discussion among military families, veterans and scholars. It begins with a basic premise — that civil society and military circles are culturally, socially and geographically distinct, a form of isolation with real consequences for the country.

“The last 16 years of war have been carried by a narrow slice of the population, and the burden is heavy but not wide,” said Phil Carter, a former Army officer and director of the military, veterans and society program at Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

Carter said that Kelly’s comments echo a prevalent attitude in some military and veteran circles — a feeling of pride for taking on a tough job in some of the most dangerous places on Earth, coupled with a simmering resentment of civilians oblivious to their mission.

Well for one thing the “mission” is only as good as it is. A bad or dubious mission isn’t the fault of the military, but “civilians” shouldn’t be expected to cheer every mission simply to cheer up the military. For another thing the danger of being in the military is not the only occupational danger there is.

Kelly’s words Thursday worried Carter and others. His somber ordering of how a dead service member is moved from battlefield to burial was a helpful glimpse for Americans who have not experienced that trauma. But Carter said he paired the idea with a belief that most civilians could not conceive — or intentionally fail — to understand that burden.

“It was odd. The military does not have a monopoly on loss and hardship,” Carter said.

Exactly. Kelly was basically bullshitting us, in a somewhat Hollywood way – as Trump always intended. He chose people who “look the part,” so he chose steely John Kelly rather than some moon-faced guy with a friendly smile. Kelly knows loss and hardship but so do most civilians; it shouldn’t be a tool for bullying people into not objecting when a president bullies black women he dislikes.

Another moment also struck a dissonant note. When Kelly ended his remarks by accusing Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) of using a dead soldier for political points, he told reporters he was only interested in questions from those who had a direct connection to those killed in combat.

“Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling?” Kelly asked before taking a question about Niger.

Analysts were taken back by his stance, which they said suggested discourse about those killed in action can only reasonably occur in the walled-off segments of society where losses on the battlefield are most directly and painfully felt.

Which would translate directly into: civilians cannot question the military. No good.

That portion of Kelly’s reaction nagged at Phil Klay, an Iraq War veteran who wrote the short story collection “Redeployment,” winner of the National Book Award.

“Veterans feel very keenly that America is disengaged from these wars. The problem is not going to be fixed with the idea only people who are personally involved have the right to ask questions,” Klay said. “It’s the exact opposite.”

The notion of military service as the purest form of public virtue, at the cost of other kinds of service to others, is an alarming development, he said.

“Military courage is something society needs to have and we need to valorize it,” Klay said. “But we also need a civic body that makes this a country worth fighting for.”

In particular, Klay said, the politicized discourse around service, and who understands its burdens, obscures legitimate questions that all citizens need to engage with, beginning, in this moment, with why U.S. forces were in Niger in the first place.

Why indeed. From what I can gather it was something to do with assisting local resistance to Islamist groups (Boko Haram type groups), but it doesn’t seem to be clear what the something was and is.

Civilians get to ask.

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