Widening the Gap: John Kelly and the Civil-Military Divide

When White House Chief of Staff and retired Marine Gen. John Kelly participated in a press conference on Thursday, he delivered an emotional, moving, and ultimately divisive message. He offered his explanation for President Donald Trump’s comments during a phone call with Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger on Oct. 4 with three other U.S. Special Forces soldiers. Kelly also criticized Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL), reportedly a mentor of Sergeant Johnson and a friend of the family. Whether he appropriately addressed Trump’s comments and whether he was correct in his judgment about Wilson are debates for another forum. In making his case, though, Kelly brought to the forefront another issue that plagues American society—the civil-military divide. And while he bravely let the public into his own experience of being a Gold Star parent, a few of his comments will likely serve to widen the gulf that exists between civilians and those serving in the military.

With very few Americans serving in today’s all-volunteer military as well as “increased regional and familial concentration within the armed forces,” the civil-military divide has grown. This dynamic “not only isolates important segments of our population from a personal understanding of military service . . . [but] also could distort key variables that should govern decisions about the use of force,” wrote retired Navy Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr., the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Amy Schafer of the Center for a New American Security in a USA Today op-ed earlier this year. “When the lion’s share of the nation is isolated from the consequences of the use of force, the threshold for that judgment will naturally be lower, and that is problematic in a democratic system,” they continued. 

During his remarks to the White House press corps, Kelly referenced the civil-military divide:

Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of [our] soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat . . . Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them.

Several of Kelly’s comments during this press briefing could help the public better understand the military experience. For example, he explained in considerable detail what happens when a service member is killed, including the process of notifying family members of the loss and transporting the service member back to the United States. He also emphasized the selfless service and courage often demonstrated by those serving in the military. As young men and women continue to sign up for military service, and as families continue to grieve deaths suffered in armed conflicts, these are important realities for Americans to understand. And the assertions were particularly moving not just because of Kelly’s long career in uniform but also because one of his sons was killed while deployed to Afghanistan.

Yet at the same time, some of Kelly’s other actions during the press briefing were counterproductive and only furthered the separation that exists between the military and the public it serves to protect.

After speaking to the press corps, Kelly decided to prioritize questions from journalists who said they knew a Gold Star family member or who knew a fallen service member. For the sake of fostering a better understanding of the military among civilians—and thereby helping to bridge the civil-military divide—Kelly would have been better off finding reporters who don’t have this kind of a connection and improving their awareness by answering their questions to the best of his ability.

Respect and appreciation across the civil-military divide is a two-way street, with the onus falling on both civilians and members of the military to learn about each other. But Kelly’s approach with journalists in this briefing did not embrace that idea—he neither reached out to those presumably in greater need of awareness nor allowed them to reach him. It also suggested that some people have a greater right to speak and ask questions in conversations about the military while others may be blocked, or possibly that one’s worth as a journalist in this briefing was in some way linked to his or her proximity to the military. Is that consistent with American values?

Kelly also promoted the divisive notions that those who serve in the military are somehow better than those Americans who don’t serve in the armed forces and that it is only through military service that one can altruistically serve the country. He said about the men and women in the military:

They are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.

In addition, Kelly offered the following comment at the end of the briefing:

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.

Remarks like these do not bring the military and civilian sectors closer together. Instead, they are more likely to create distance because they smack of condescension and minimize the value of non-military service. Kelly’s comment implies that a small “warrior caste” enjoys a near-monopoly on meaningful service. But this is not true, and service members should not maintain such an attitude lest they risk further alienating the very civilians they serve. Service members should recognize that while their volunteering to serve in the military is admirable and valuable in a unique way, civilians also make remarkable contributions to society out of a profound love of the country, sometimes putting their lives in peril as well. The “wonderful joy” that Kelly described is not exclusive to the military. This is obvious in the case of non-military public servants such as law enforcement officers, intelligence community personnel, and diplomats. But really, one need look no further than the civil rights activists, educators, journalists, medical professionals, and many others who serve vital societal interests every day.

The civil-military divide is a real problem, and there are already many forces in society that are working to broaden it. Senior government leaders, and especially those who have served or are currently serving in uniform, should be more careful to avoid exacerbating the issue. On the one hand, Kelly set a great example when he shared his own painful story, helping the public feel what it must be like to walk in the shoes of someone who has lost a child to war. On the other hand, he also set an example that it’s acceptable to exclude those who don’t know what that’s like and to make divisive, patronizing value judgements suggesting that military service is the best and only way to meaningfully serve this country.

Image: Getty 

About the Author(s)

Benjamin Haas

West Point Graduate (2009), Former Intelligence Officer in the Army, Student at Stanford Law School Follow him on Twitter (@BenjaminEHaas).