The deaths of four Special Forces soldiers in Niger this month have sparked wider debate about military service, the civilian-military divide in the United States and the contours of public discourse about one of the country’s most hallowed communities: the families of troops killed in combat.
When White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly defended President Trump’s call to the wife of one of the soldiers killed in Niger, the former four-star general stressed the lack of a prescribed script for any president.
“If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There’s no perfect way to make that phone call,” Kelly told reporters Thursday. His son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan seven years ago.
But Kelly’s defense of Trump — beginning with a vivid description of how dead troops make their way home — turned into a lecture on how Americans do not understand the military community’s sacrifice. And it alarmed some of those who study relations between the military and society.
Former senior officials such as retired Gen. David Petraeus and retired Adm. Mike Mullen have argued that divisions between troops and civilians can exacerbate misconceptions about post-traumatic stress and make obtaining civilian employment difficult for veterans. And they have championed efforts to bridge the gaps in understanding.
Kelly’s remarks work against those efforts, said Kori Schake, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and co-editor of the book “Warriors and Citizens” with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “My guess is that military families will pull themselves further into the community because they don’t want to be politicized,” Schake said.
Kelly’s remarks broaden what had been a relatively insular discussion among military families, veterans and scholars. It begins with a basic premise — that civil society and military circles are culturally, socially and geographically distinct, a form of isolation with real consequences for the country.
“The last 16 years of war have been carried by a narrow slice of the population, and the burden is heavy but not wide,” said Phil Carter, a former Army officer and director of the military, veterans and society program at Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
Carter said that Kelly’s comments echo a prevalent attitude in some military and veteran circles — a feeling of pride for taking on a tough job in some of the most dangerous places on Earth, coupled with a simmering resentment of civilians oblivious to their mission.
Kelly appears to personify that attitude, Carter said.
“His entire adult life was spent in military, and he has given his literal flesh and blood in the form of his son’s death,” Carter said. “I think he sincerely feels most Americans don’t understand his life of service and sacrifice.”
Carter and others said it can be difficult for many Americans to encounter military families. Fewer than 1 percent of the population currently serve in uniform, and 7 percent are military veterans. The number of Gold Star families — the term for those who lost a family member to combat — is about 7,000 from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We don’t look down upon those of you that haven’t served,” Kelly said Thursday. “In fact, in a way we’re a little bit sorry because you’ll never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our servicemen and -women do.”
Geography heightens the separation. Military families and veterans tend to be linked to military installations that populate the South and Midwest, turning those populations inward and away from the coasts, and recruitment often draws on those who already have military ties, making service in uniform a family business of sorts.
Kelly’s words Thursday worried Carter and others. His somber ordering of how a dead service member is moved from battlefield to burial was a helpful glimpse for Americans who have not experienced that trauma. But Carter said he paired the idea with a belief that most civilians could not conceive — or intentionally fail — to understand that burden.
“It was odd. The military does not have a monopoly on loss and hardship,” Carter said.
Another moment also struck a dissonant note. When Kelly ended his remarks by accusing Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) of using a dead soldier for political points, he told reporters he was only interested in questions from those who had a direct connection to those killed in combat.
“Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling?” Kelly asked before taking a question about Niger.
Analysts were taken back by his stance, which they said suggested discourse about those killed in action can only reasonably occur in the walled-off segments of society where losses on the battlefield are most directly and painfully felt.
“John Kelly is right that Americans have fallen out of practice of how to speak about grieving military families,” Schake said. “But that’s because of the happy circumstance that the country is not subject to the draft or large wars. That gap is not the fault of average Americans.”
That portion of Kelly’s reaction nagged at Phil Klay, an Iraq War veteran who wrote the short story collection “Redeployment,” winner of the National Book Award.
“Veterans feel very keenly that America is disengaged from these wars. The problem is not going to be fixed with the idea only people who are personally involved have the right to ask questions,” Klay said. “It’s the exact opposite.”
The notion of military service as the purest form of public virtue, at the cost of other kinds of service to others, is an alarming development, he said.
“Military courage is something society needs to have and we need to valorize it,” Klay said. “But we also need a civic body that makes this a country worth fighting for.”
In particular, Klay said, the politicized discourse around service, and who understands its burdens, obscures legitimate questions that all citizens need to engage with, beginning, in this moment, with why U.S. forces were in Niger in the first place.