A Remarkable Admission

I have always had the utmost respect for the Marines, and even more so when I was Executive Officer of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of Kansas, that being the closest affiliation I had with them in my naval career. The Marine Officer Instructor invited me and the CO to the annual Marine Corps birthday celebration where the honorable history of that service was solemnly remembered. It was a serious affair.

General John Kelly

General John Kelly

Thus, it was with interest I read a column in the USA Today newspaper wherein, during a Memorial-Day speech, a four-star Marine General posed and answered a question on the minds of many. When his son, a Marine 2nd Lieutenant in Afghanistan, was killed in action five years ago, was it worth it? I was surprised General John Kelly would even pose the question, knowing the ethos of the Corps, and I was equally surprised by his answer. He said it was not for him to say. Not for him to say. Coming from the gung-ho, that was remarkable.

It was the right answer, and it was the wrong answer. It was right because General Kelly is still on active duty, and it would be a failure of leadership to tell young marines their mission was not worth their sacrifice. But it was also wrong because general officers are as schooled in politics as in strategy. They study and understand that war and politics are intertwined and always have been, and General Kelly has to know just how wasted and feckless has been the longest war in American history, not to mention the Iraq war which cost 4,000 American lives and upwards of a million Iraqi lives and made everything worse.

Things were different in the “good” war, that is, WW II. America was in it together, although some propaganda was necessary to quell the reluctant minority. But, public opinion after Pearl Harbor was substantially united out of shared fear. Nuclear weapons changed the nature of war, however. General MacArthur was right, and he was wrong. To him, war meant total effort. Truman knew that nuclear war would mean the end of civilization as we know it.

Wars have been different ever since. Korea was awful, because of China’s involvement and because the “Domino effect” was no actual threat. Vietnam was a horrible mistake, marked by political deception, demagoguery, and false pride that said American exceptionalism ought to be imposed simply because we could. That debacle claimed 58,000 American lives with nothing to show for it.

Why haven’t we learned from the past? Why is the American public still vulnerable to demagoguing war hawks who see battle as the proper solution to age-old ethnic problems? Among those shriller voices I hear lately are George Pataki and Lindsay Graham. They are all too eager to unleash the dogs of war, especially since the armed forces are now so professional that they are near-mercenaries, but unlike General Kelly the war hawks have no personal family at direct risk. To people like that, the Defense Department is a misnomer. The Armed Forces haven’t been used for actual defense since 1945.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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12 Responses to A Remarkable Admission

  1. Jim in IA says:

    My son became 1st Lieutenant in the Air Force over this past weekend. He is officially now a co-pilot of the C-17 by completion of his training program. He reports for duty at McChord AFB this summer. Duty to country is paramount to him. I don’t want others who have the wrong motives to involve him and his generation in conflicts for the wrong reasons. We have seen too much of that in recent decades. Just because we have the firepower, technology, and political votes are not good reasons. It seems to be harder to stay out of war than to enter them. Wrong…wrong…wrong.

    Thanks, Jim.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thank you, Jim, and my best wishes to your Air Force son. As I mentioned in my reply to List of X, there is a necessary partition between patriotism and politics for the military and I can see you agree. Your personal input is always appreciated here.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. PiedType says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I’m sick to death of our flaunting our “American exceptionalism” all over the world. We’re making enemies faster than we’re eliminating them.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks, PT. American exceptionalism meant much more during and after WW II when we eliminated the Axis and economically saved Europe and Japan, but in the 21st century it should be plain to anyone that it now creates more resentment than gratitude. I find it ironic that half of the American body politic now seems to shun the very quality that enabled us to save the world back then, i.e., tolerance of differences and ethnicities. Your input is always appreciated.


  3. aFrankAngle says:

    Yep … US history in war starting with Korea hasn’t been good … so, the question of “Will we ever learn?”is more than valid and applicable today 60+ years after Korea. Well stated, Sir!


  4. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: I agree with you completely. My Dad, a professional soldier who retired from the Army and is buried in the base cemetery at Ft. Benning, hated nothing more, I think, than politicians who were willing to send young men to war but who did not choose to go themselves, nor did any of their sons. He sent three sons to the military, feeling that it was his duty to the country.

    Like my Dad, I, an eight-year Marine Corps veteran, felt it my duty to serve, but I did not feel that I had to support the decisions to engage in every war that our leaders chose to put us in. When I was in Korea, I believed that we should have engaged in that war since we were obligated by a mutual defense treaty, but I, like every Marine I knew, felt that the side we were supporting, the government of Park Chung Hee, was every bit as corrupt as the side we were fighting against.

    I taught at the U. of Colorado in Boulder from 1967 to 1971, the peak years of the Vietnam War, and I had many veterans of that conflict in my classes, and the great majority of them shared my view of the earlier war, only moreso. Towards my retirement in 2001, I began to have veterans of the Middle-Eastern wars, and their views were remarkably close to those of us veterans of the earlier wars. The notion of ‘good guys and bad guys” becomes clouded indeed under such conditions. Critics of this view will say, “But you can’t pick your wars.” I disagree. We should pick our wars. The notion of “Our country right or wrong,” I reject. As Mark Twain observed over a century ago, “Our country right or wrong? When right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.” He went further, considering the phrase “Merely a politician’s trick–a high-sounding phrase, a blood-stirring phrase which turned their uncritical heads.”

    When our country goes wrong, as in our treatment of American Indian Tribes, American citizens of Japanese descent, or African-Americans, we should acknowledge those mistakes and attempt to right them. I am a fan of Gen. Kelley, but since he is likely to be named the next Commandant of the Corps, I hope he quickly learns the answer to the question at hand.

    This is an excellent essay, Jim, and a courageous one to be published in this part of the country. Well done.



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  6. List of X says:

    “Not for him to say”… He’s a father who lost a son in that war, and he’s a general who probably contribute to strategy of that war. If that’s not for him to say, I can’t think of anyone nearly as qualified to have an opinion on this war as this general.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Exactly, X. That’s the heart of the matter, that Gen. Kelly is most qualified to judge the matter. That’s why I considered his statement remarkable. Apparently he is able to compartmentalize and rationalize, a process I am personally familiar with. When I was on active duty during Vietnam, I considered war protests unpatriotic. After all, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were killing us. They were the enemy.

      Professional military people are required to be publicly apolitical, but I would be interested to know what Kelly does in the voting booth.

      To this day I feel a visceral disgust at the sight of Jane Fonda, mainly because of her famous photograph posing on a N. Vietnamese AA gun. She went too far. It was one thing to oppose the politics of the war, but her actions went bypassed politics and directly gave aid and comfort to the enemy.

      Patriotism and tribalism will always be with us. I see no signs of weakening there. In fact, flag-waving and saber-rattling are fruitful political strategies for both parties, but mostly for the GOP.


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