Last week, retired Marine general and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly conducted a news conference to provide his personal view of what had taken place during a condolence phone call between President Trump and the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed Oct. 4 in Niger along with three other U.S. soldiers. Kelly spoke about the gut-wrenching military casualty notification process, using the example of the death of his son, a Marine officer killed in Afghanistan, as a teachable moment for the American public.
It was a good lesson for the many Americans who have no personal connection with the military due to the increasingly small percentage of young people who join the service.
But then things got weird.
Kelly proceeded to state that, when he was growing up, “women were sacred.” He alluded to current events, seeming to point to the ongoing scandal in Hollywood in which more than 40 women have come forward to say they were sexually harassed and assaulted by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Kelly appeared to imply that, in his day, these problems didn’t exist because men protected women from harm.
The significance of the Weinstein scandal pales in comparison to the state of affairs for women in the military, where one in three are estimated to have been sexually assaulted while on active duty. The problem in the U.S. military is so significant that the United Nations Human Rights Council identified sexual assault and harassment as a human rights violation in 2015.
When Kelly was on active duty as one of the most senior officers in the Marine Corps, the service experienced the highest rates of sexual harassment and assault of any military branch despite being the smallest and having the fewest women.
No one can argue that with the death of his son, Kelly and his family suffered a great loss. Such deaths are tragic and should cause the nation to carefully consider when and how the military is employed as an element of national power. But Kelly’s expressed views about women are troublesome and should not be excused or ignored because of his military rank, service, and the loss of his son in combat.
Many Americans believe Kelly has elected to work in the troubled Trump administration because of some higher sense of purpose, as if somehow Kelly could serve as a moral compass for the president. But rather than illustrating impeccable morals, Kelly’s decision to align his professional reputation with that of a commander in chief who publicly bragged about grabbing women by the genitals represents a troubling character flaw. Clearly, John Kelly doesn’t value women enough to make it a matter of principle not to work with Trump.
Yet he continues to be lauded by the public and the media as an incredible leader who is beyond reproach.
At Kelly’s news conference, this misplaced adulation was best evidenced by a journalist who preceded his question with the statement, “First of all, we have a great respect — Semper Fi — for everything you’ve ever done.”
For far too long, members of Congress, the public, and the media have placed male military general officers on a pedestal while overlooking their role in shaping the negative aspects of military culture. Generations of general officers like Kelly cultivated the exclusively male warrior Marine ideal at the exclusion of women.
It is no surprise that his best friend, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., former commandant of the Marine Corps and current Joint Chiefs chairman, was the only service chief to request a waiver to deny qualified women the opportunity to serve in ground combat jobs and units. He and his peer group have refused to integrate Marine Corps boot camp despite growing evidence that segregation fosters negative stereotypes and low expectations for Marine women.
If anything, considering the long-standing cultural problems in the Marine Corps related to gender, the views of General Kelly should be more heavily scrutinized by the public and media since they helped to perpetuate the culture of abuse and discrimination Marine women have faced for decades.
To be clear, events like the 2016 Marines United photo sharing and revenge porn scandal do not occur in a vacuum and are not one-offs. They are the direct result of sexism and bias perpetuated over decades in every echelon of the military, to include the general officer ranks. Kelly, who served as a Marine officer from 1975 to 2016, had plenty of time on active duty to shape and influence the mind-set of male Marines about women in the service. His view that women should be held “sacred” implies they need protection because they are weak, an idea that contributes to negative stereotypes about women and their less-than-equal status in the military.
As a minority group, service women did not create the culture in the military — we simply fell into the hypermasculine environment that was maintained by men like Kelly for generations. As much as we have tried to change the system, until men like Kelly and Dunford are called out for their outdated ideals about women, we will never be able to level the playing field in the military.
It’s time for the media and the public to stop giving Kelly a values pass simply because he is a retired general officer. Like Trump, Kelly and his military peers deserve much greater scrutiny for how their beliefs have enabled bad behavior against military women for decades. All women deserve better — especially those who choose to serve in the defense of our nation.
Germano retired from the Marine Corps after serving 20 years on active duty. She is an advocate for gender equality in the military.
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