The White House has gotten itself embroiled in yet another embarrassing political story that began because Donald Trump bungled a condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, the wife of a soldier who had died in combat in Niger. This is unfortunate, but not a surprise. Over the course of his political life Trump has demonstrated both a complete inability to empathize with anybody and a need to make absolutely everything about himself. Both of these traits were on display as Trump reacted to the uproar about his poorly handled condolence call.
This contretemps is a bit more complicated than a mishandled telephone call because Ms. Johnson’s congresswoman, Frederica Johnson, was in the car when the call occurred and shared the details of the call with the media. Trump with his unerring nose for making bad situations worse then dispatched his Chief of Staff, John Kelly, a retired General who also lost a son in combat, to do a press conference to address the growing controversy. Kelly gave an odd and at times rambling press conference where he lied about Congresswoman Johnson’s record, repeatedly referred to her in an unambiguously racist manner as an “empty barrel,” and spoke about how our society no longer respects women. Apparently, Kelly did not see the irony of doing that while insulting a woman and representing a President who is a serial sexual harasser. All of this has become standard fare during a presidency that is driven in equal parts by venality, sheer incompetence and the petulance of the President himself, but much of what Kelly said, and what the White House has said in his defense is even more troubling than usual.
Kelly’s casual and repeated racism towards Wilson, calling her an “empty barrel” twice and never using her name during the press conference, upset many who are concerned about an administration that has been very soft on racism and white supremacy. The defense of Kelly offered by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, is what changes this embarrassment for the White House into further evidence of democratic rollback. When confronted with the inaccuracy of Kelly’s statements about Wilson’s conduct at a 2015 event in Florida, Sanders responded “If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you, but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine General, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.” These are words that should never be uttered by a government official in a democracy. In America, all civilians have a right to criticize members of the government regardless of the military rank they hold or previously held. If you don’t believe that, you don’t believe in America.
Sanders’s comments are emblematic of the state of military-civilian relationships fifteen or so years into what has become permanent war for less than permanent peace. It is true, as many military people are quick to point out, that while our military has been at war for a long time, the country itself has, in a very real way, not been at war. This is also suggested by Kelly’s remark that “most of you, as Americans, don’t know them (people who die fighting these wars).” The growing gap between people who serve in our wars and the rest of us is a problem. However, it has not arisen because of a gap in patriotism or courage as suggested by Kelly in his remarks, but is more attributable to a gap in opportunity and wealth. While it is important to recognize the extraordinary risk, hardship and sacrifice experienced by the people in our military, we should also be aware that military is built largely around a poverty draft, drawing many who have few professional or educational opportunities after high school. Those who have other opportunities, with a few exceptions like Kelly’s son, generally eschew military service in favor of college or a good job.
Recognizing that many are pushed into the military for economic reasons does not make these individuals any less patriotic or courageous or make their deaths any less tragic, but it requires us to think about the military and civilian-military relations a little more accurately. Similarly, these men and woman who have died fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Niger and elsewhere, are always described as giving their lives for our freedoms, safety or country. Whenever we accept that statement without question we help silence critics of US foreign policy and by not speaking the truth dishonor those who have died. Imagine if every time soldiers died in Iraq, instead of offering highly questionable platitudes about our freedoms, more people said something like “three more troops were lost today in a conflict that was avoidable almost fifteen years ago,” or “four more Marines died today in fighting in a country most Americans cannot find on a map for a reason that our leaders appear not to know.” Statements like these sound harsh at first, but they would make it impossible to avoid discussions of the mistaken policies that led to these conflicts. This would honor those who died both by strengthening our democracy and by helping to limit future deaths.
Honest discussions about our military, as distinct from our foreign policy, are difficult because they are so emotionally laden, but when those conversations do not occur, or are deliberately repressed by the government as Ms. Sanders has sought to do, our country is weakened. Democracy requires not just civilian control of the military, something already under stress during the Trump presidency, but a civilian culture that is never intimidated or silenced by military brass. Accordingly, frank discussions about who serves in our military and why, or what the purpose of all of these wars, conflicts and military bases make our country, and our democracy, stronger.
All of us should be able to agree that it is a tragedy for our country, and much more for the families of fallen, every time somebody in the armed forces dies fighting overseas. Those individuals are heroes who gave their lives. Telling the truth about why some of them ended up in the military or for what they were actually fighting cannot change that, but maybe it can change us and make us a better more compassionate country.
Photo: cc/Arlington National Cemetery