John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup
By Masha Gessen
Oct 20 2017
Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination—all you have to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like, for it was in the logic of such a coup that Kelly advanced his four arguments.
Argument 1. Those who criticize the President don’t know what they’re talking about because they haven’t served in the military. To demonstrate how little lay people know, Kelly provided a long, detailed explanation of what happens when a soldier is killed in battle: the body is wrapped in whatever is handy, flown by helicopter, then packed in ice, then flown again, then repacked, then flown, then embalmed and dressed in uniform with medals, and then flown home. Kelly provided a similar amount of detail about how family members are notified of the death, when, and by whom. He even recommended a film that dramatized the process of transporting the body of a real-life marine, Private First Class Chance Phelps. This was a Trumpian moment, from the phrasing—“a very, very good movie”—to the message. Kelly stressed that Phelps “was killed under my command, right next to me”; in other words, Kelly’s real-life experience was recreated for television, and that, he seemed to think, bolstered his authority.
Fallen soldiers, Kelly said, join “the best one per cent this country produces.” Here, the chief of staff again reminded his audience of its ignorance: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best this country produces.”
The one-per-cent figure is puzzling. The number of people currently serving in the military, both on active duty and in the reserves, is not even one per cent of all Americans. The number of veterans in the population is far higher: more than seven per cent. But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans—specifically, fallen soldiers.
The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic. It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom. No Soviet general would have dared utter the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”
2. The President did the right thing because he did exactly what his general told him to do. Kelly went on a rambling explication of speaking to the President not once but twice about how to make the call to Myeshia Johnson. After Kelly’s son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, the chief of staff recalled, his own best friend had consoled him by saying that his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one per cent.” Trump apparently tried to replicate this message when he told Johnson that her husband, La David, had known what he was signing up for. The negative reaction to this comment, Kelly said, had “stunned” him.