“He Knew What He Was Getting Himself Into”

At a White House news conference, these are the words Gen. John F. Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, said he advised Trump to say to grieving widow, Myeshia Johnson, whose husband Army Sgt. La David Johnson was killed in Niger, along with three other U. S. soldiers — and five Nigerian soldiers in a joint mission.  Kelly said that these are the words his “best friend, [Gen.] Joe Dunford told” him when his own son, Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.  And in his “son’s case in Afghanistan – when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.  That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day.” (“Full Transcript and Video: Kelly Defends Trump’s Handling of Soldier’s Death and Call to Widow,” The New York Times, Oct. 19, 2017)

So, Gen. Kelly was “stunned . . . and brokenhearted at . . . a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion – that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted.  There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted,” Kelly emphasized.  “And he was where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.”  Kelly said, “That was the message that was transmitted.” ( Ibid)

The message being transmitted by General Kelly himself is racist.  His comments also serve to divert attention from America’s imperialistic policies, which Sgt. Johnson did not know “he was getting himself into,” and for which he and his three comrades – and Kelly’s son and countless others – have needlessly died.    First, Kelly’s racist projections in defense of his white supremacist boss, and the racist behavior of his boss.

Gen.  Kelly reported that he was “stunned” as he “listened to this woman and what she was saying and . . . doing on TV.” (Ibid)  “This woman” has a name.  She is Fla. Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson who, as reported, was in the limousine with Mrs. Johnson, her two and six year old children, and Sgt. Johnson’s aunt and uncle who raised him since he was five years old.  They were waiting for Mrs. Johnson’s husband’s body to arrive by transport at Miami International Airport.   When President Trump’s call came to the limousine, Mrs. Johnson asked the Army attendant to put it on the speakerphone so everyone could hear the president’s words.  Thus Wilson did not violate a confidential conversation as Kelly said.

What was Rep. Wilson “saying and . . . doing on TV” that “stunned” Gen. Kelly?  Just as Kelly couldn’t say her name, Wilson said that President Trump couldn’t say Sgt. La David Johnson’s name.  When the call from Trump ended, Wilson reported that Johnson’s wife said, “‘He didn’t even know his name.  He kept calling him ‘Your guy.’  . . . And he never said his name because he didn’t know his name.  So he kept saying, ‘Your guy.  Your guy.  Your guy.’  And that was devastating to her.”  The Congresswoman also described Trump’s tone as “harsh” as he told the six-months pregnant grieving widow, “ ‘I guess he knew what he was signing up for but it still hurts.’ “  Wilson also described Mrs. Johnson’s physical response to Trump’s words: “Myeshia, the entire time, was in a ball, rolled up almost like in a fetal position crying.” (“Rep. Frederica Wilson on Trump” ‘That Is Not What You Say to a Grieving Widow,’ ” By Yamiche Alcindor, The New York Times, Oct. 18, 2017)

Gen. Kelly’s racism is seen in him being “stunned” and “brokenhearted” at what “this woman was saying and . . . doing on TV.”  “Rep. Wilson had mentored Sgt. Kelly since he was a little boy, attending the elementary school where she taught.  She became a school principal, and even has “an elementary school named after her in Miami Gardens, Sergeant Johnson’s home town.”   As also reported, she has been close to the Johnsons and their family for decades. (Ibid)  Similar to Kelly’s “best friend” Gen. Joe Dunford, whose words comforted Kelly when his son was killed in Afghanistan, Wilson was a best friend of Sgt. And Mrs. Johnson, which is why she was in the limousine.  A fact beyond Kelly’s comprehension.

Revealing is the fact that a white general was “stunned and “brokenhearted” because “this [black] woman” shared with the media President Trump’s phone call to Mrs. Johnson.  Never mind how heartbroken this grieving wife and pregnant mother of two small children was over the death of her husband and how devastated she was reported to be by Trump’s phone call.  A call made 12 days after her husband’s death and only after he boasted to the press, that, unlike President Obama, he calls grieving families of soldiers killed overseas, yet still had not called the bereaved loved ones of the four soldiers killed in Niger.

Gen. Kelly ended his comments to the White House press corps with a lie about Rep. Frederica Wilson.  He said that he attended “the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami,” named after two fallen FBI agents.  “And a  congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building.  . . . She just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money.”  Kelly added, “And she sat down, and we were stunned.  . . . Even for someone that is an empty barrel, we were stunned.” (“Full Transcript and Video: Kelly Defends Trump’s Handling of Soldier’s Death and Call to Widow,” Ibid)

A video of Rep. Wilson’s comments at the dedication of the new FBI field office reveals that Gen. Kelly lied about her claiming credit for the new FBI office.  She did not refer to any phone call to President Obama about money for the building.  Rather, “she acknowledged the help of several Republicans, including John A. Boehner, then House speaker; Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlo Curbelo; and Senator Marco Rubio.” (“After Video Refutes Kelly’s Charges, Congresswoman Raises Issue of Race,” By Yamiche Alcindor and Michael D. Shear, The New York Times, Oct. 20, 2017)

“Even for someone that is an empty barrel, we were stunned.”  With this falsehood, Gen. Kelly reveals much about his own racist conditioning in defense of his white supremacist boss.

Gen. Kelly reveals more of the conditioning that prevents him from connecting with a grieving black family and their “best friend.”  He tried to make sense of Sgt. Johnson’s death by saying his own son “knew what he was getting into,” and in his son’s case, “he was . . . exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.” (“Full Transcript and Video: Kelly Defends Trump’s Handling of Soldier’s Death and Call to Widow,” Ibid)

It cannot be assumed that Sgt. La David Johnson was “exactly where he wanted to be.”  His wife is six months pregnant with their child.  One could assume that where he wanted to be was home with his wife and their two and six year old children during this critical time.  Also, “when he died,” this black soldier was not “surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.”  He was separated from the three other soldiers in his unit.  And it took two days to find his body.  Which raises a question about the Army’s ethic regarding  “no soldier is left behind.”

For a career military person, General Kelly appears to be either naive or, in that press conference, willfully withholding of what motivates many young men and women to enlist in the military.  He said about Sgt. Johnson: “He’s a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted.  There is no reason to enlist; he enlisted.  And he was where he wanted to be.” (Ibid)

For many young black and brown and white men and women, there are various reasons to “enlist”.  The military offers employment, which is scarce, and money for college, which is the only way most poor persons will ever walk on a college campus as students.  The military also offers enlistment bonuses, and even a matching funds retirement. (See “I Want You . . . Badly: A complete guide to Uncle Sam’s recruiting incentives,” By Phillip Carter and Brad Flora, Slate, Nov. 7, 2007)

“There is no reason to enlist.”  With these words, Gen. Kelly made America’s capitalistic inequities disappear, and in their place “duty” and “honor” and “service” in the “protection of country.”

Sadly, Gen. Kelly is assumed to have to believe this militaristic propaganda to justify his own son’s tragic death and his own life-long military career in the service of “the greatest country in the world’s”  capitalistic pursuit of world domination.  Thus Sgt. Johnson “enlisted” and “was where he wanted to be.”  And Congresswoman Wilson, whom he couldn’t name, is “an empty barrel” and where she should not be.

Gen. Kelly was “absolutely stunned . . . that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation.”  He “thought at least that was sacred.”  When he was “growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country.”  Like, “women were sacred.   Looked upon with great honor.”  Kelly lamented: “That’s obviously not the case anymore.” (“Full Transcript and Video: Kelly Defends Trump’s Handling of Soldier’s Death and Call to Widow,” Ibid)  Kelly is actually saying that Congresswoman Wilson should keep her mouth shut and stay on the mindless patriarchal pedestal assigned to women, rather than getting on TV and speaking her mind.

“Women were sacred [and] looked upon with great honor.”  These are the words of a chief of staff who takes orders from a self-professed sexual predator of women.  Gen. Kelly’s commentary reflects who Kelly is, not “this woman.”

Like Gen. Kelly, President Trump’s racism led him to dismiss Rep. Wilson as “wacky” and her account of his telephone call to Mrs. Johnson “totally fabricated.”  Never mind that Mrs. Johnson herself backed up Wilson’s account.  Mrs. Johnson was quoted as “angry at the tone in his voice and how he said” her husband “ ‘knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway.’ “  What “hurt” her “the most,” she said, was that “he couldn’t remember my husband’s name.  . . . If my husband is out here fighting for our country, and he risked his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name?’ “ (“Soldier’s Widow Says Trump Struggled to Remember Sgt. La David Johnson’s Name,” By Yamiche Alcindor and Julire Hirschfeld Davis, The New York Times, Oct. 23, 2017)

In effect, President Trump called Sgt. Johnson grieving wife a liar.  He dismissed her account of his phone call, tweeting, “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”  (Ibid)  Trump then resorted to the common defense of denial, which is a tried and true way to justify himself to his base:

“I can only say this.  I was really nice to her.  I respect her family, I certainly respect La David – who, by the way, I called David right from the beginning, they put a chart in front, La David, it says, La David Johnson.  So I called right from the beginning,

There is no hesitation, one of the great memories of all time, no hesitation. (“Trump Says Soldier’s Widow Must Be Wrong Because He Has ‘One of the Great Memories of All Time,’ “

By Ben Mathis Lilley, www.slate.com, Oct. 25, 2017)

Who are you going to believe?  A documented white narcissistic pathologically liar and his lap dog chief of staff, or black mourners: slain Sgt. La David Johnson’s grief-stricken wife, Rep. Wilson, and Sgt. Johnson’s foster parents, Cowanda Jones-Johnson and her brother Richard, Sgt. Johnson’s aunt and uncle, who raised him since he was seven years old?

My work as a hospital chaplain for some 23 years involved developing empathetic relationships with diverse patients and their loved ones.  I would not have lasted a month if I had imposed my personal experience and beliefs on to patients and their families.  Comforting people involves experiencing their reality, not interpreting – or denying – it.  General Kelly and President Trump, two white men, provide classic examples of how white hierarchically-controlled power structures prevent many white persons from seeing, never mind walking in, the footsteps of people of color.

Lying is not a problem for President Trump.  Therefore, lying is not a problem for his chief of staff.  So Congresswoman Wilson’s demand that Gen. Kelly apologize for lying about her has fallen on knowing ears.  Remember:  as a presidential candidate, Trump said he could shoot someone in Times Square and his base would still vote for him.  Since his base would still support him even if he committed murder,  there is no need to think twice about lying.  According to Trump, his base is motivated by power, not morality and truth — many by white supremacist power.  So why worry about a little white lie.

No worry at all.  Iuiun an Oct. 30 interview with Laura Graham on Fox News, Gen. Kelly said he would “never” apologize to Congresswoman Wilson.  He also revealed more of his own white supremacist conditioning, saying that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”  Numerous persons criticized him for that comment, including Wilson who responded, “It is inconceivable to me that anyone of his age and stature could believe, let alone say aloud, that an inability to compromise is what led to the Civil War.”  She added, “I’m also curious to hear what kind of compromise he thinks would have been acceptable given the choice between enslaving people and treating them like chattel or returning to them their God-given freedom.” (“White House Chief’s Remarks on the Civil War Elicit an Angry Response,” By Glenn Thrush, The New York Times, Nov. 1, 2017)

So much for Gen. Kelly reported to be one of three people supervising the White House’s “adult day care center,” and protecting America from a chaotic president. (See “Bob Corker: White House is ‘adult day care center’ and Trump may start WWIII,” By Martin Pengelly and Ben Jacobs, theguardian, Oct. 9, 2017)  Kelly shares Trump’s white nationalist beliefs, which is why Trump selected him to be Secretary of Homeland Security.   And, as reported, Kelly, “protected” America by following Trump’s xenophobic order and issuing “a directive to immigration officials across the country to try to portray undocumented immigrants swept up in mass raids as criminals.” (‘TOP TRUMP OFFICIAL JOHN KELLY ORFDERED ICE TO PROTRAY IMMIGRANTS AS CRIMINALS TO JUSTIFY RAIDS,’ By Alice Speri, The Intercept, Oct. 16, 2017)

With all the media coverage of President Trump’s conflicting phone call to grieving Mrs. Johnson, one would think that it would lead reporters to focus on why her husband was even in Niger, which is reported to be “one of the poorest places on the planet.” — and in no way a threat to the United States. (“A journey to the poorest place on earth,” By Matt Wade, The Sidney Morning Herald, June 3, 2012)  In fact, some senators were reported to be unaware that U. S. soldiers were in Niger.  It is also assumed that America’s military footprint in Niger would lead investigative reporters to start raising questions about why soldiers are in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Japan, South Korea — and “in at least 172 countries and territories . . . in nearly every country,” a New York Times editorial reports. (“America’s Forever Wars,” Oct. 22, 2017)

Sheldon Richman writes that one ”must be grateful when a prominent institution acknowledges how much the government intervenes around the world.”  But, he says, “the editorial drips with irony since the Times has done so much to gin up public support for America’s imperial wars.” (“New York Times Acknowledges US Global Empire,” Counterpunch, Oct. 30, 2017)

Our government tells us that America’s military is spread far and wide to protect us from “terrorists.”  One example is Iraq, which former president George W. Bush falsely accused of having threatening weapons of mass destruction and ties to those who attacked America on 9/11.  Bush used the horrible 9/11 attacks as a pretext for launching a so-called “global war on terrorism,” and then unnecessarily invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, causing unconscionable deaths and destruction.  The “global war on terrorism” provides cover for America’s imperialistic pursuit of world domination.  Perpetual war creates endless enemies and thus endless profits for the military/industrial/energy/intelligence/ religious complex.

Most mainstream media have avoided the critical issue of why U.S. soldiers are deployed around the world.  In fact, they serve as apologists and guardians of the status quo.  An example is numerous media transforming America’s worst war criminal into a statesman.  Thus we have front-page news coverage of former president George W. Bush providing implied commentary on President Trump’s insensitive phone call to Mrs. Johnson and divisive “Make America Great Again” rants.  Bush “spoke out at a news conference he convened in New York to support democracy,” saying, “ ‘We see nationalism distorted into nativism, forgetting the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.’ ” He even said, “ ‘We’ve seen the return of isolationist sentiments, forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places.’ ” (“Without Saying ‘Trump,’ Bush and Obama Deliver Implicit Rebukes,” By Peter Baker, The New York Times, Oct. 19, 2017)  “The chaos and despair” his administration, with bipartisan support, set in motion.

America is in great need of patriotic soldiers and political and faith leaders who dare to speak reality and moral truth to power regarding what Sgt. La David Johnson unknowingly “was getting himself into.”  Patriotic soldiers like Major General Smedley Butler, “the most decorated Marine in U.S. history,” who served in Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Haiti.  Butler said of his over thirty-three years in the Marines:

I served in all commissioned ranks from second lieutenant to Major General.  And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers.  In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.  I suspected I was just part of the racket of all time.  Now I am sure of it. (“Major General Smedley Butler,” Americans Who Tell The Truth: Major General Smedley Butler, www.americanswhotellthetruth.org)

America desperately needs faith leaders to speak truth to imperialistic power, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did in response to the Vietnam War.  For him, the Vietnam War was “a time to break silence.”  He said that he was led to speak out as he “walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men . . . in the ghettos of the North.”  He “told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems . . . that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.”  But their rightful response was: “What about Vietnam?”  King said, “Their questions hit home.  And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government. “  King went on, “For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.” (“Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence,” Delivered 4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York City, American Rhetoric)

This is also “a time to break silence.”  The Senate recently passed a $700 billion defense bill, ostensibly to protect American citizens.  Never mind that this decision will merely continue to support America war profiteers at the expense of tens of millions of citizens who lack adequate health care and other life-sustaining supports in their rightful pursuit of happiness.  Never mind also the continuing blowback violence in response to our government’s violation of other countries’ national sovereignty and killing of their citizens.  The latest being the horrible terrorist attack in New York City on October 31, which left eight persons dead and 15 injured.

Sgt. La David Johnson, like so many American soldiers, did not know “what he was getting himself into” in Niger.  But faith leaders should know by now that our bipartisan government, serving capitalistic interests, is getting our young men and women into immoral wars in the pursuit of profit, under the pretense of protecting America from “terrorists.”  As with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “this is a time to break silence.” 


Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Amazon.com. Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.