John F. Kelly is getting a lot of criticism these days, and that’s understandable. As leader of the Department of Homeland Security, the retired Marine general now has to be more sensitive to the politics of any given situation.
So when he publicly said critics of his agency’s policies — whether they come from Congress, civil rights groups or the public — should “shut up,” he came off as what he once was, a military man giving orders. When the administration, Kelly’s department in particular, is challenged on its travel bans and inconsistent immigration enforcement, Kelly could do more listening and learning.
But as America’s foreign policy and national security efforts become increasingly muscular and aggressive, there is some comfort in his presence among the rest of the men — and they are mostly men — advising President Trump and the members of Congress with power to approve or restrict military action and to balance the money spent on military and diplomatic efforts. Kelly is a member of that club no one wants to belong to — he lost his son in action — and he has another child in service.
This is not to say that those without that sad credential, that nagging sorrow, don’t think long and hard about sending America’s soldiers to fight. In 2016, when choosing a commander in chief, members of the military went decidedly for a Vietnam-era candidate who had not served but who pledged support.
Neither the current president nor his predecessor logged any time in the military, though President Barack Obama spoke of a grandfather and uncles who did, and the two presidents’ approaches to the use of power could not be more different.
Because you haven’t served or had a child or family member who served does not mean you don’t value the lives of service members or the citizens in countries with American boots on the ground.
Yet it’s also true that war on another country’s soil can feel distant, both because so much fighting is by drone and because, with a volunteer military, so few American families share that mix of pride and anxiety.
Knowing the cost
Bombs certainly are showier than the work of the State Department, tasked with aid and development projects. But there is a reason active and retired veterans warn against slighting one in favor of the other. They know the consequences of military might as the first resort.
It is always good to pause, especially when a new administration and Congress are being tested by allies and foes across the globe, and every decision has repercussions that could mean casualties, even when the mission is judged a “success.”
In a visit to Asia, Vice President Mike Pence’s words moved from toughness aimed at North Korea’s volatile leadership, a promise that “we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response,” to a pledge to work with regional allies and China to tamp down tensions raised by missile tests and a parade of military hardware through North Korean streets.
For the first time since 1994, U.S. troops have been deployed to Somalia, to fight terrorism and bolster a friendly, recently elected federal government. Memories of the disaster of the previous U.S. involvement there, while under different and unstable circumstances, still linger.
In Syria, the sight of suffering young children, choked and murdered by poison gas, led to a shower of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. It was a decisive move praised by many Americans, but led to questions of “What’s next?” and “Will congressional approval be needed for additional military action?”
Questions about a comprehensive foreign policy in Syria and other troubled regions came from supporters of the action, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a Vietnam veteran who spent brutal time as a prisoner of war and also has children in the service.
Faced with an administration more inclined to action, there has been an acknowledgment that reflection is necessary, even from those who chided President Obama for indecisiveness.
The country likely will never return to the time when the children of presidents served on the battlefield, when the majority of elected officials in Congress listed the military on their résumés. But, as America has seen, there’s a danger when the “bombs bursting in air” become a test of patriotism for those who seldom pay a personal price.
By marriage and by blood, the military is represented in my family — from World War II through Vietnam and the Middle East. And yes, one member whose pain I can never truly share belongs to that terrible club with Kelly and too many more.
A military solution can lead to results that are both unforeseen and inevitable. Sometimes, leading with diplomacy, thoughtfulness and caution is the more courageous choice to believe in and fund. At the very least, it’s something to think about.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.