General Kelly is back in the news. He yesterday announced that he has no reason to apologize to Congresswoman Wilson, also that Robert E, Lee was a hero, since “It was always loyalty to state first back in those days.” This last pronouncement would have startled both the 115, 000 Southern whites who enlisted in the Union Army and their 180,000 or so black comrades, the vast majority of them southern, who also bore arms for the United States. In what had been Lee’s own state 22,000 whites fought for their country, not that many fewer than the 25,000 North Carolinians who made the same choice, although only half of Tennessee’s 45,000. While we are no longer supposed to argue with four star generals, this new etiquette may embarrass General Kelly as much as the rest of us, since it was Grant who wrote in his memoirs of the “many regiments of brave and loyal (Southern) men who volunteered under great difficulty…”. Of Kelly’s belief that the Civil War could have been avoided by compromise, a perfectly respectable view a mere seventy years ago, the astonishment of the specialist historians quoted in the daily newspapers may suffice. Their consensus seems to be that Kelly is at best a fool.
It was not always thus, and only two weeks ago it looked as if General Kelly had halted and possibly even reversed the country’s political momentum. It was not merely the real chance that the president’s clumsy remarks to a recently bereaved young widow had been heartfelt, or the fact that anyone who has ever forgotten a name under awful circumstances could sympathize with someone who might have fallen prey to the same bad luck, it was that in the immediate aftermath of Kelly’s remarks his charge that Congresswoman Wilson had politicized a Mrs. Johnson’s grief seemed briefly plausible. Kelly was angry and seemed uncalculating, even impressive. During his vivid description of the preparation of a soldier’s corpse for shipment home one could not forget this this had been done to the body of Kelly’s own son, and Kelly’s indignation about the very unequal distribution of the human costs of our wars could as easily have come from the Left as from the Right.
Had the surviving footage not so strongly suggested that Kelly had slandered Congresswoman Wilson it might have played out very differently. But the footage suggesting a lie did come out, witnesses (including Mrs. Johnson) to a speakerphone conversation proved that Congresswoman Wilson had indeed heard the president’s remarks, and in a mirthless farce the Administration’s attempted seizure of the moral high ground became another slide down a banana skin. But those four young men were still dead, as was Kelly’s son, as were so many other people’s children, and for two weeks there was no taste for greatly protracting the controversy, which meant that one peculiarity of Kelly’s moral thinking was not too widely explored.
This peculiarity has stuck with me, probably because shortly after I graduated from high school my mother told me that someone in my class had died of cancer, and then said something in a tone of voice I had never before heard, one of sorrow verging on desolation: that it is hard enough for children to bury parents, and that parents should never have to bury children. It was not a battlefield death, and I doubt that anyone in that family was in uniform, so while listening to General Kelly I realized that he would presumably number that boy’s parents among those who could not truly understand the grief of what it is again the fashion to call gold star families.
Were my mother still alive—she died in 2015—and still working in journalism, a profession she’d briefly practiced almost seventy years ago, on General Kelly’s reckoning she’d have just missed earning the right to ask him a question after he opined at the White House. In a bleak week in 1944 her brother, then a ball turret gunner in a B-24, was missing in action after his plane had disappeared in the Alps. It was a false alarm, since he hadn’t been on it, and she might have gotten a pass because she was related to people who’d served three quarters of a century ago, but I can imagine a version of the Kelly theory in which she’d not have had the right to ask the general a question at his news conference. After all, neither her brother nor her husband had died, and once the preposterous principle is conceded we can surely debate what degree of proximity to a military death conveys the right to question a general.
My mother’s particular history reminded me that any claim derived from General Kelly’s principle is absurd. Her case underscores the remarkable silliness of Kelly’s principle, because my uncle was not aboard his plane only because he’d just learned that his sixteen year old sister had been thrown and trampled in a riding accident, and on compassionate grounds he’d been ordered not to fly that day. Since the aunt I never met did not die in uniform, my mother, whose life was forever shadowed by her sister’s death, would have again failed to earn the right to question General Kelly, while had her brother died and her sister lived, she’d have been home free. But what if she’d lost no sister, nor mistakenly thought she’d lost a brother, but only watched her young nephew and even younger niece die slowly, which she did? On Kelly’s analysis she again becomes morally negligible, not even remotely entitled to question him at his press conference. What if she’d been the widow of a murdered policeman, or a fireman killed in the course of his work? What if she’d been the mother of a very young civilian killed on 9/11? As a reporter covering General Kelly, she’d still be out of luck.
I think there are broad implications to General Kelly’s claim. The notion that only soldiers, their families, their acquaintances and those who’ve worn a military uniform can imagine the pain of losing a child in combat is a Trumpean version of the epistemology of identity politics. In this tradition only the members of imagined moral elites of suffering—a soldier’s relatives, a woman, someone with a certain skin tone—can understand or legitimately speak about various urgent matters. Kelly has made this bad theory a bit worse, because within living memory Americans often claimed to honor our dead as fellow citizens who’d died insuring that the rest of us retained the right to speak, which of course meant that any reporter could question a general at a press conference. Kelly’s anger at and apparent contempt for the majority of his fellow citizens suggested something else: only one kind of suffering and experience confers moral and political authority. To query him would have been, to coin a phrase, civilian-splaining.
Condemning politicization while performing it, General Kelly has risked real harm to the armed services. He may have made them look, to ungenerous eyes, the cynical political instruments of a miles gloriosus. How can a man who pronounces on military honor as a prerequisite for moral authority do so while serving an apparent draft-dodger who’s claimed that risking STDs in ’70s Manhattan was his Vietnam, that the McCain who’d refused early release after protracted torture was no hero, and that most American generals are fools and failures who knew less about ISIS than Mr. Trump does? Kelly looked like either a hypocrite or a man blinded by political animosity, and in politicizing military service Kelly probably weakened popular reverence for it. By demanding a greater share of moral authority than any group can deserve—a monopoly on the right to speak during a political controversy—he has revealed something simultaneously silly and ugly about our political and cultural moment. We’re not yet all identitarians, but we seem to be getting ominously close.