“This will sound strange to you,” said Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, the U.S. military’s longest-serving general. “My greatest fear was that I would be offered another job.”I hope we have not heard the last of General Kelly.
The four-star head of U.S. Southern Command will hand over his final command on Thursday and retire at the end of the month. In an exclusive interview, Kelly reflected with his characteristic off-the-cuff candor on nearly half a century in the military, spanning from the Vietnam War to three tours in Iraq to overseeing the Defense Department detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Two sons followed him into the Marines — one, Robert, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, making the general the highest-ranking officer since 9/11 to lose a child in combat.Clear, direct, and to the point - pitch perfect.
When Kelly visited the Walter Reed military hospital and wrote letters to the families of those who had died under his command in Iraq, he said he tried to think of what it’d be like to lose a child, to better empathize. “You can’t imagine until it happens,” he said Friday in his last briefing at the Pentagon.
For other parents in his situation, he said, “I think the one thing they would ask is that the cause for which their son or daughter fell be carried through to a successful end, whatever that means, as opposed to ‘this is getting too costly,’ or ‘too much of a pain in the ass,’ and ‘let’s just walk away from it.’”
Later in the press conference, a reporter, citing recent losses in Afghanistan, asked the same question Kelly said these families occasionally ask: “Was it worth it?” He gave the same answer: “Not my question. It’s his,” he said, referring to his son Robert. “He answered it.”
“If there’s a country and it’s dangerous and we deploy a U.S. military man or woman, if there’s only one there, and they never leave the capital, that is ‘boots on the ground,’” Kelly said. “We do a disservice to the sacrifice of these people, particularly if they are killed, when we say there’s no boots on the ground.”
the general also undermined key aspects of the administration’s argument for why Guantanamo must be closed: that the so-called “worst of the worst” can be held in the U.S., and that its mere existence poses a national security threat by serving as a propaganda tool.
“Bombing the living shit out of ISIS in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, that would maybe irritate them more than the fact we have Guantanamo open,” he told Defense One. For terrorist groups and rights activists alike, “What tends to bother them is the fact that we’re holding them there indefinitely without trial … it’s not the point that it’s Gitmo. If we send them, say, to a facility in the U.S., we’re still holding them without trial.”
Obama administration officials argue that ISIS executing hostages in orange jumpsuits is purposeful stagecraft in protest of Guantanamo. Kelly disagrees, saying, “What I see are animals acting like brutal animals.” He pointed out detainees now wear beige. “If they execute these poor sons of guns in orange jumpsuits and we say, ‘ah, see, that’s a good example of how Gitmo —,’ that’s full of sh… — I think it’s not accurate.”
Someone recently asked what it’d be like no longer being a Marine. “I’ll always be a Marine,” he said.
“I’d love to find a way to keep giving,” he continued. “My fear was of being offered a job that would be kind of a full-time position at a veterans organization or even in the government … I’d prefer to not be that, to come up the Beltway every day.”
As I am sure he knows, one of his quotes is a great gift to those who serve and have served. It is OK to be tired of war, even wars still going on. If you have done your bit, it is OK to take a break. No guilt, no excuses, no reason to explain. It is OK.
When Kelly took Southern Command, an area of responsibility from the Southern Cone to Mexico’s southern border where much of the action consists of drug interdictions, some observers thought the lower-profile post was intended to sideline the unreserved general.
Yet Kelly explained Friday, “I was given some options. And I was kind of tired of the war.” Southern Command would, “allow me to unleash other energies and talents.”