John Kelly backs president with lies, evasions, irrelevancies — not truth


hat motivated White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to bring himself to the White House briefing room October 19, only to perform something like a self-immolation?

He began with abrupt fuzziness:

Well, thanks a lot. And it is a more serious note, so I just wanted to perhaps make more of a statement than an — give more of an explanation in what amounts to be a traditional press interaction.

OK, not clear what that might mean, reporters understood that he was there to defend President Trump’s handling of his suddenly infamous phone call to Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow and mother of three, comforting her with “your guy … must have known what he signed up for.” Kelly is not in the habit of engaging with reporters, but he had been a witness to the call. So the next thing he said was:

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….

Wait, this is not relevant to Trump’s tone-deaf effort at empathy. Nobody’s asking what happens to the fallen in combat. That’s easily found out by the curious. Why is he leading with this red herring? He goes on with his explanation:

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….

Kelly is telling us what’s supposed to happen. He probably telling us what often happens. He is absolutely not telling us what happened to Sgt. Johnson. Kelly had just said, “when we lose one of our soldiers.” That was a tipoff, consciously or otherwise. During the ambush, Sgt. Johnson and several Nigerien soldiers were literally lost. No one knew where they were for a couple of days. We don’t know who found Sgt. Johnson, or how. We don’t know if anyone wrapped his body in ice. We do know that his body was so decomposed that an open casket was not appropriate. Kelly’s recitation of by-the-book treatment of military casualties was not only irrelevant, it was misleading. And in the midst of this distraction, Kelly tossed in another deceptive aside:

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.

All of a sudden the White House chief of staff is doing a promo for a mediocre, maudlin HBO movie from 2009. What’s his point? See, Widow Johnson, maybe there’s a movie deal in your future? So what wrong with this? For starters, the movie is about the feelings of the colonel (Kevin Bacon) who delivers Private Phelps home to Wyoming in 2004, complete with fawning media coverage at the time. Sgt. Johnson got different treatment.

But then there’s this weird sentence from Kelly: “Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me, and it’s worth seeing that if you’ve never seen it.” Syntactically, Kelly seems to be saying that it’s worth seeing Phelps, 19, getting killed right next to Kelly, in the heat of combat — what Kelly apparently means is that it’s worth seeing the movie. But still, what is that “killed under my command right next to me” all about? It’s all about a sort of true thing that Kelly distorts into falsehood. Phelps was in a unit guarding a convoy that came under fire. Gen. Kelly was somewhere in the convoy. The official story is that Phelps was wounded while defending the convoy as it got away; somehow he dies later. Another story came from US Naval Hospital. Corpsman Doc Peabody: “I am the corpsman who was sitting next to PFC Phelps when we got hit on April 9th 2004. I was sitting right next to Phelps in the vehicle as the enemy initiated the ambush. I am convinced that Chance died instantly but his head was in my lap and cradled in my arms just seconds after he was hit.”

There’s not much of a story in that, and this was 2004, when the Bush administration desperately needed heroes to keep selling its travesty of a war in Iraq and PBS was happy to help. And so was HBO. “Taking Chance” is a reverent look at idealized treatment of military dead, and generals have been grateful for the sycophancy ever since. Kelly’s long-winded recitation of “what happens when we lose” a soldier is an idealized echo of a Hollywood fantasy sponsored by the Pentagon.

In the midst of these layered diversions from what actually happened to Sgt. Johnson in Niger, Kelly adds the irrelevancy of how he felt when his son was killed and his son’s buddies called him. He abruptly segued into his half-baked non-defense defense of Trump:

If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There’s no perfect way to make that phone call. When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was he not do it, because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to. It’s nice to do, in my opinion, in any event.

Kelly went on to say that President Obama had not called him, but that “was not a criticism.” Then he said, “I don’t believe President Obama called.” Kelly did not mention that Obama invited him to a dinner at the White House. Finally Kelly got to the calls to next of kin of the four soldiers killed in Niger on October 4, again drifting into details of military protocol. And when Kelly finally addressed the substance of the calls, he said he advised Trump to use the insensitive formulation that makes emotional sense only to a deeply militarized mindset. Kelly said to tell the dead soldier’s survivors that:

… he was doing exactly what he wanted 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.

So a mind-numbed former general advised his insensitive president to go with a hard truth laced with a self-deception, most likely a lie. Kelly just lays it out there: the four dead in Niger are just like his son in Afghanistan. How many ways is that just not true? The US has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001; the US war in Niger has come as a surprise to most people. Kelly’s son was the child of a general serving his third tour of duty. Sgt. Johnson joined the Army in 2014. He had a wife and family at home, and a congresswoman who had known him as a child.

It is a common delusional fantasy to suggest that “he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed.” No, when he was killed he was trying to survive. The greater glory is all in someone else’s head. In the metaphorical sense, perhaps a career soldier like Kelly’s son was doing what he wanted that got him killed, but was that true of any of the sergeants killed in Niger? And how would anyone know? Sgt. Johnson hadn’t joined the one percent like Kelly’s son, and he had not signed up for a still mysterious mission that got him killed thanks to decisions made higher up the chain of command, which has been engaged in a butt-covering exercise in finger-pointing ever since. Kelly really doesn’t want to talk about what happened, or why the Pentagon won’t say what happened, or why the Pentagon and Niger military have different versions of what happened, or who was responsible for four dead Americans and uncounted (by the US) Nigerien soldiers, all travelling in unarmored non-military vehicles.

Contrary to Kelly’s kneejerk rainbow patriotism, Sgt. Johnson did not die “surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.” Sgt. Johnson died surrounded by Nigeriens he hardly knew. He had no friends nearby when he died. He was left on the battlefield for two days without being reported missing, and when he was found, Nigeriens found him. Kelly may even believe the military mythology he spouts, but that hardly makes it true or relevant or even decent in relation to Sgt. Johnson. But Kelly doubled down on the shibboleths of coercive patriotism as applied to Sgt. Johnson:

… 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 is the language of emotional numbness, that is the lie that lets generals live with themselves, and that is a widespread self-delusion that enables the US to go on and on and on killing people in most of the other countries in the world. “There is no reason to enlist,” says Kelly, clearly contradicting his own rhetoric about service and duty. Maybe his sons felt that way, or maybe they had an obdurate general for a father. But even in a volunteer army, most soldiers are there because they have no better choice to bring hope to their lives. That’s not a good thing, that’s a sad thing — a raw indictment of American culture.

Then Kelly launched into his vituperative and wholly dishonest attack on Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida. Kelly flatly misrepresented the Congresswoman’s appearance at the dedication of an FBI building in 2015. Kelly was there; he was a witness to what happened. Four years later, his version of what happened was wrong. What he remembered, or said he remembered, was not what the videotape of the event showed. Not even close. So does Kelly have memory problems of some sort? Does he not have enough integrity to vet his opinions against reality? Did he just lie and carry out a deliberate political smear? He gave us a clue to his state of mind:

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.

A good psychiatrist could unpack that passage for years. Why does Kelly think a widow can’t have anyone she wants to comfort her, especially during a cold call from her president? Why does Kelly suggest something sneaky — “listened in” — when the congresswoman was clearly invited to be present and the call was heard on speakerphone by five or six people? Kelly says he is “stunned.” He said that frequently in this appearance. Is this a measure of his insulation from the real world, that he expects everyone to live by some unspoken military code?

And then there’s the bombshell about being a kid growing up and things being sacred. He grew up in Boston, where one of the demonstrably sacred things was white racism. Kelly doesn’t mention that. He starts with the male chauvinist classic: “Women were sacred.” Right, especially Catholic women for whom autonomy was all but a venal sin. Kelly turned 10 in 1960 and was apparently stunned to see his sacred cows challenged: women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, and peace activism. Ironically, Kelly’s life in the sixties was remarkably freewheeling, including hitchhiking cross-country, riding freight trains back, and joining the Merchant Marine, where his first overseas trip was taking beer to Vietnam. He even chose to avoid the draft — but it was by joining the Marines.

And now here he is saying that women are no longer “looked upon with great honor … as we see from recent cases.” He names no one, but this skates stunningly close to his pussy-grabbing boss. He laments the loss of “the dignity of life,” by which he presumably means a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions. A broader meaning of ”the dignity of life” is hardly possible for a man whose career depends on killing people. Kelly’s career is prima facie evidence of his complicity in torture and other war crimes, including the use of depleted uranium weapons, white phosphorous, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians. All those are virtually sacred to the military mentality. Kelly laments the loss of religion, but that’s his religion and it’s far from gone.

Answering a few questions after his statement, Kelly bobbed and weaved about the Niger mission that got Sgt. Johnson killed. Kelly keeps saying how wonderful our soldiers are doing what they do. He offers not a shred of apparent regret at their deaths. As Kelly sees it, with stunning incoherence and self-contradiction, American soldiers:

… put on the uniform, go to where we send them to protect our country. Sometimes they go in large numbers to invade Iraq and invade Afghanistan. Sometimes they’re working in small units, working with our partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, helping them be better…. That’s why they’re out there, whether it’s Niger, Iraq, or whatever. We don’t want to send tens of thousands of American soldiers and Marines, in particular, to go fight.

So why do we send them to fight anyway, to fight and die in wars that never end, wars that never should have begun? Why do we threaten new wars with North Korea or Iran or even Russia? How does that “protect our country” exactly? Kelly’s “patriotic” delusions are widely held. They’ve been driving national policy for decades, and on steroids since 9/11. But like Kelly’s appearance in the press room, the expression of these delusions never makes sense; they always come down to a question of faith, preferably blind faith. And with that, as we see in Kelly, goes a sense of priesthood, a sense of superiority masked by disingenuous false humility:

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.

Yes, think of that. Think of what our service men and women do not only in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, but also in less closely observed places like Okinawa, El Salvador, or Yemen. The kinds of things our service men and women do, following orders from men like Kelly, are not particularly appreciated in the countries they destroy. Local elites may appreciate our torturing or assassinating their political enemies, but only the most inhumane among them can really appreciate the war crimes that devastate their home countries. Ex-general Kelly imagines a military full of starry-eyed heroes doing wonderful things, and expects the rest of us to believe that, too. The reality on the ground is that sexual assault within the military has reached record levels, the military serves in part as a training ground for white supremacists and other militants, and the capacity of the American military to promote positive change anywhere in the world is pretty much nil. Hip deep in the Big Muddy, John Kelly says to push on.