John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup
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.
A week earlier, Kelly had taken over the White House press briefing in an attempt to quash another scandal and ended up using the phrase “I was sent in,” twice, in reference to his job in the White House. Now he seemed to be saying that, since he was sent in to control the President and the President had, this time, more or less carried out his instructions, the President should not be criticized.
3. Communication between the President and a military widow is no one’s business but theirs. A day earlier, the Washington Post had quoted a White House official saying, “The president’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private.” The statement contained a classic Trumpian reversal: the President was claiming for himself the right to privacy that belonged to his interlocutor. But Myeshia Johnson had apparently voluntarily shared her conversation with her mother-in-law and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson by putting the President on speakerphone.
Now Kelly took it up a notch. Not only was he claiming that the President, communicating with a citizen in his official capacity, had a right to confidentiality—he was claiming that this right was “sacred.” Indeed, Kelly seemed to say, it was the last sacred thing in this country. He rattled off a litany of things that had lost their sanctity: women, life, religion, Gold Star families. The last of which had been profaned “in the convention over the summer,” said Kelly, although the debacle with a Gold Star family had been Trump’s doing. Now, Kelly seemed to say, we had descended into utter profanity, because the secrecy of the President’s phone call had been violated.
4. Citizens are ranked based on their proximity to dying for their country. Kelly’s last argument was his most striking. At the end of the briefing, he said that he would take questions only from those members of the press who had a personal connection to a fallen soldier, followed by those who knew a Gold Star family. Considering that, a few minutes earlier, Kelly had said most Americans didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who belonged to the “one per cent,” he was now explicitly denying a majority of Americans—or the journalists representing them—the right to ask questions. This was a new twist on the Trump Administration’s technique of shunning and shaming unfriendly members of the news media, except this time, it was framed explicitly in terms of national loyalty. As if on cue, the first reporter allowed to speak inserted the phrase “Semper Fi”—a literal loyalty oath—into his question.
Before walking off the stage, Kelly told Americans who haven’t served in the military that he pities them. “We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served,” he said. “In fact, in a way we are 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 servicemen and women do—not for any other reason than that they love this country.”
When Kelly replaced the ineffectual Reince Priebus as the chief of staff, a sigh of relief emerged: at least the general would impose some discipline on the Administration. Now we have a sense of what military discipline in the White House sounds like.
A previous version of this post misstated the timing of a political-convention controversy as it related to Gold Star families.
Masha Gessen, a staff writer, has written several books, including, most recently, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which was short-listed for the National Book Award in 2017. Read more »