Gen. John Kelly's mission to defend Marines: 'I'll never stop' (continued)
“I can’t count the number of times that I saw them in firefights, in Fallujah and Ramadi and other places, and I would just stand there in wonderment, thinking to myself: ‘There’s absolutely no reason on this earth why any human being would do what they’re doing,’ ” Kelly said. “Every human being naturally would want to protect themselves, crawl in a hole, get down. And they don’t.
“That’s how Iwo Jima was taken. Guadalcanal. The Chosin Reservoir. If the Marines today are doing exactly the same thing their dads did in Vietnam, and their granddads did in Korea and World War II, then how in the hell can we say that they’re not as good?”
Kelly is a career infantry Marine who left the Corps as an enlisted sergeant in 1972 before attending college and earning his commission. He’s as salty as they come — a holdover, no doubt, from his bare-knuckled upbringing in Boston — and unafraid of speaking out, especially when it means sticking up for the rank and file.
A case in point: Last year, the four-star showed up at a legal hearing for a Marine captain the Corps sought to discipline over an immature video made by several enlisted men in his unit. While testifying as a character witness, Kelly said the young captain’s treatment was heavy-handed — and that he was owed an apology.
As a one- and two-star general, Kelly spent about three years leading combat troops in Iraq’s Anbar province, where some of the war’s most explosive fighting raged. In 2011, as the senior military adviser to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Kelly spent time in Afghanistan, including one noteworthy stop at Forward Operating Base Jackson in volatile Sangin district, where only four months earlier his son, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed by an enemy IED.
At Jackson, Gates ate lunch with a small group of noncommissioned officers, some of them from Robert Kelly’s platoon with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. The secretary asked the men whether he could do anything for them, Kelly recalled.
“He again asked, emphasizing the fact that as the Secretary of Defense he could do just about anything for them,” Kelly said. “Again a long silence, and then a scruffy Marine, with a recent buzz cut, who smelled like a goat as he was living in a FOB ... on the edge of the empire, stood up. He nervously shifted his weight and then, looking directly at the boss, said ‘don’t let them forget what we did here, sir.’ Another stood up and said ‘and don’t let them ever forget the ones we are leaving behind.’ ”
It’s these profound experiences, coupled with his childhood memories of neighborhood men reliving past wars, that shaped Kelly’s thinking about the character of today’s Marines. His most recent speeches, delivered in May in New York City and Boston, refute the notion that Marines are “war weary” after 13 years of continuous conflict. “Men and women like us,” Kelly boomed, “never, ever grow weary of serving our nation.”
As he has in previous speeches, Kelly evoked the story of two Navy Cross recipients, Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter and Cpl. Jonathan Yale. Their tale of selflessness is well known throughout the Corps. On April 22, 2008, when a truck loaded with explosives barreled toward their post in Ramadi, they opened fire, causing the truck to blow up before it could enter a compound housing U.S. and Iraqi troops. Haerter and Yale were killed. Everyone inside was saved.
“You can’t convince a person to do that unless they’re very, very special,” Kelly said. “Those two heroes knew they were going to die — there’s no doubt in my mind — and they stood there blasting away until they went to God. So anyone who tells me that Marines today aren’t as good is full of sh--.”
His speech in New York addresses such extraordinary sacrifice. The willingness to risk all for a cause greater than oneself is almost lost upon American society, Kelly said.
He speaks with a father’s affection of America’s “1 percent” who espouse the same traits and beliefs as those who came before them. And in the same breath, Kelly lays waste to the notion that the troops and their families should be viewed as victims, and hammers the uninitiated “who think themselves so superior as to speak for us.”
“To all those who for their own reasons dare to so patronizingly speak for us,” he said in New York, “calling us victims and weary, but have never walked in our shoes, or stood by a flag-draped casket holding someone so precious, you can all go straight to — we’ll speak for ourselves.”
Generals are expected to speak truth to power. It’s rare, however, for one to air his frustrations. Pressed to more clearly define those in the “chattering class” whom his speeches assail, Kelly edits his response diplomatically.
The Defense Department faces endless challenges, he said. Leaders are under “extreme pressure” to mitigate any negative publicity that can emanate from acts of misbehavior in the ranks, and they deserve great credit for weathering the storm. “In particular,” he added, “the service chiefs, who I think as a group are heroic in their efforts to lead their services during this very, very difficult time.”
Kelly was to deliver another speech May 26, Memorial Day, in Miami.
“They need to hear this,” he said. “I’ll never stop.”
What Makes Marine Infantry Special? (continued)
It explains why Marine commanders routinely, even casually, combine widely disparate kinds of capabilities into small units…. Marines send junior officers and NCOs out from their line rifle companies and expect results. They get them, too.
Even a single Marine has on call the firepower of the air wing, the Navy, and all of the United States. Or at least he thinks he does. A Marine acts accordingly. He is expected to take charge, to improvise, to adapt, to overcome. A Marine gets by with ancient aircraft (the ratty C-46E Frog, for example), hand-me-down weapons (such as the old M-60 tanks used in the Gulf War), and whatever else he can bum off the Army or cajole out of the Navy. Marines get the job done regardless, because they are Marines. They make a virtue out of necessity. The men, not the gear, make the difference. Now and again, the Marines want to send men, not bullets.
This leads to a self-assurance that sometimes comes across as disregard for detailed staff-college quality planning and short shrift for high-level supervision. Senior Army officers in particular sometimes find the Marines amateurish, cavalier, and overly trusting in just wading in and letting the junior leaders sort it out. In the extreme, a few soldiers have looked at the Corps as some weird, inferior, ersatz ground war establishment, a bad knockoff of the real thing. ‘A small, bitched-up army talking Navy lingo,’ opined Army Brigadier General Frank Armstrong in one of the most brutal interservice assessments. That was going too far. But deep down, many Army professionals tend to wonder about the Marines. Grab a defended beach? Definitely. Seize a hill? Sure, if you don’t mind paying a little. But take charge of a really big land operation? Not if we can help it.
Anyone who has watched an amphibious landing unfold would be careful with that kind of thinking. The Marines actually have a lot in common with their elite Army infantry brothers, if not with all the various Army headquarters and service echelons. True, Marine orders do tend to be, well…brief. But so do those of the airborne, the air assault, the light-fighters, and the Rangers, for the same good reason: Hard, realistic training teaches soldiers hoe to fight by doing, over and over, so they need not keep writing about it, regurgitating basics every time. More enlightened soldiers consider that goodness. A three-inch thick order, a big CP, and lots of meeting do not victory make. The Marines consciously reject all that.
A Corps infused with a rifleman ethos has few barriers to intra-service cooperation. The Army talks a great deal about combined arms and does it down to about battalion level, often with great wailing and gnashing of the teeth. Marines do it all the way down to the individual Marine. Soldiers have defined military occupational specialties and guard their prerogatives like a union shop stewards. Finance clerks don’t do machine guns. Mechanics skip foot marches to fix trucks. Intell analysts work in air-conditioned trailers; they don’t patrol. Marines, though, are just Marines. They all consider themselves trigger pullers. They even like it, as might be expected of an elite body.
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