This past weekend, my wife and I drove up to Connecticut to attend my 50th high school reunion (which was a great event). But on the way there, we stopped off at a local B&B to drop off our luggage since we’d booked the place for that night. While we were standing just outside the open entryway of the 250-year-old house talking with the innkeeper, there was a loud explosion and a blast of air. It turned out there had been a gas explosion in the inn’s kitchen which, while it didn’t ignite a fire, did severely burn two chefs whose restaurant was catering an event that evening, as well as three waiters.
The victims were brought outside the home and laid on the ground with blankets and we all tried to ease their intense pain, to comfort them as best we could and to keep them from going into shock while waiting for fire trucks and rescue vehicles (including a helicopter to whisk one critically injured man to a specialty burn unit) to arrive.
I mention this because it was so impressive to see the mostly volunteer firefighters from this rural area who raced to the scene in minutes rush straight into the house, unafraid of another blast, to search for any possible victims still inside and to ensure that there wouldn’t be any further explosions. Meanwhile, a few firefighters with EMT training started more serious evaluation and treatment of the victims’ injuries.
Firefighters have always impressed me with how astonishingly dedicated and brave they are – and the volunteer ones especially, since they put their lives on the line all the time like that for no remuneration.
This came to mind as I thought of President Trump’s stuffed shirt chief of staff, the retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, and his recent dissing of Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL), whom he disparagingly called an “empty barrel” and just a former public school teacher. In Kelly’s stated view, America’s soldiers, especially the ones killed in battle, are the “finest one-percent” of all Americans “because they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required.”
He also said that America’s soldiers “are not making a lot of money,” but “love what they do.”
Clearly, Gen. Kelly thinks that America’s firefighters, it’s EMT workers, or others who work in dangerous, stressful, and often low-paid jobs that are critical to the functioning of this American society, are of a lower caliber than soldiers like himself.
This is the most repulsive kind of militaristic jingoism.
First of all, let’s be honest: in today’s American volunteer military, most soldiers don’t sign up because of love of country, though some or even many of them may well love it. They sign up because they need a job, and maybe even envision a military career, they sign up to get trained for a future career outside the military, they sign up for the GI benefits that include paying for college. But the majority of them do not ever go into combat, or even want to go into combat. Many opt to go into the National Guard for that very reason. Eighty percent of the positions in the military are non-combat in nature, and even fewer than one in five in the military ever actually see a combat zone even when there is a major war on. Most people in uniform in today’s modern military work in offices. Others work on bases as mechanics, drivers, clerks, etc.
Remember, a private in the U.S. Army today earns $21,000 and a sergeant $27,000. That may not seem like a lot, though it’s a damned sight better than the $15,500 someone pushing a broom or flipping burgers or working as a nurse’s aide at minimum wage earns (before taxes) if they can manage to get a 40-hour week. And don’t forget, the soldier living on a base and earning that money has no rent to pay, no food bills and no state and local taxes, and they get excellent health benefits free. Even a corporal with three years’ service who earns $27,778 and who lives off base doesn’t do too badly when you add in a basic allowance for subsistence of $4419 and a basic allowance for housing of $7373, bringing total compensation to $39,570 – a princely sum for an unskilled worker. As for career military, consider that an Army MP with six years’ service and the rank of Sergeant would earn, in basic wage and allowances, $57,600, according to the Army’s own marketing literature, which compares favorably to the $47,912 an average cop with six years’ experience could expect to earn.
I’m not saying some people don’t sign up for the military simply to “serve their country,” but let’s not get all teary-eyed and see everyone in a uniform as a selfless patriot. The Pentagon is promoting enlistment by selling it as a good career choice, and it is one – and for most enlistees, a pretty safe one at that.
Let’s compare that to volunteer firefighters who risk their lives to save people for free. Does Gen. Kelly really think that they don’t rate right up there with his late son who died in combat, or any of the others of America’s tens of thousands of casualties in America’s post 9-11 wars?
But really, why stop there? What about America’s public schoolteachers? Theirs is a profession that was once highly respected but today they are widely trashed by the likes of Trump Education Department Secretary Betsy Devos and Republican politicians in Congress. The average starting pay of a public school teacher in New York City – for a person who has earned a bachelor’s degree – is $45,560. That’s a lot higher than the U.S. military is paying a new enlistee. But how about a recruit just out of college and ROTC, which is more comparable? That person starts out in the Army at an E-4 rank earning $25,000, but again, will be posted on a base with no cost of living expenses. The starting teacher, meanwhile, living in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, will be spending probably $18,000 on rent alone, and also will be paying city and state taxes which the ROTC grad won’t. And starting pay for teachers in many school is far lower than in NYC. (Also the ROTC recruit got most of her or his college tuition covered and received a stipend, while the young teacher starts off deep in college loan debt for her or his degree.)
But how about that teacher’s motivation? Many, like my daughter who taught math for five years in inner-city New York high schools, went there by choice, because she felt that as someone with a masters degree in mathematics, she could really make a difference in the lives of kids who were from poor and struggling families – and she did. Does Gen. Kelly think that kind of dedication – and it’s a dedication shared by many teachers who choose to teach in schools that serve such children, rather than seeking out better-paying teaching posts in wealthy suburban districts – is somehow of a lower order than people who opt for a career in the military? Apparently so.
For that matter, is serving the U.S. military in a combat zone, for most military personnel, that much less dangerous than being a teacher in many U.S. inner cities riven by drugs and gang violence and drive-by shootings? Just getting to and from work in cities like Camden, Philadelphia, parts of New York City or Chicago or many of our larger cities takes courage. And remember, teachers aren’t riding in armored Humvees or flying high above the fray in virtually invincible fighter-bombers. Most of them are walking to work or riding on public transit.
As far as I’m concerned Gen. Kelly is full of it and himself. It takes nothing away from America’s men and women in uniform to say that there are unsung heroes all around us, right here in America. They don’t wear desert camo; they wear the clothes appropriate to their jobs as teachers, nurses and nurse’s aides, firefighters, EMTs, etc. People don’t applaud them as they pass, thank them for their service or give up seats for them on airplanes but they are heroes all the same.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, singled out as an “empty barrel” by Gen. Kelly in his lie-laced tirade against her, was an urban schoolteacher before she became an urban school principal, and before she decided to run for and win a seat in Congress. And nobody can tell me she isn’t as noble a public servant and hero for what she’s done in her life as the four-star General whose current assignment in retirement is supposed to be keeping our sociopathic president from going off the rails.
Gen. Kelly, for his shameless libeling of Rep. Wilson, ought to do penance by taking a leave of absence from his White House job and try teaching a semester of introductory algebra in a Camden, NJ school, or working as a nurse’s aide at Chicago’s Cook County hospital. Better yet, after a little basic training, he should join a local fire department, and after a few months of rushing into burning buildings to look for trapped victims, he can see how he feels about singling out soldiers as deserving our special and unquestioning support as they fight secret wars that we American citizens are not supposed to ask questions about…unless according to this general we happen to be Gold Star family members who’ve somehow earned the special right to ask (though not necessarily to receive answers).
The sad truth is that when it comes to America’s wars these days, it’s hard to see how any of them have much to do with “defending America” or “defending freedom.” Let’s remember that no Iraqis or Afghanis were on those planes on 9-11, and that no Taliban or Iraqi insurgent fighter has ever attacked the territorial U.S. Nor have Yemen, Somalia, Libya or Syria in any way posed a threat to the United States. Gen. Kelly’s “heroes in uniform” have really been lured by slick Pentagon marketing and by carefully calibrated financial inducements into signing up for what that most decorated Marine hero in history, Major General Smedley Butler, called “high-class muscle men for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers.”
Those who really did join the military out of a pure desire to do good and to “defend America” would do better to go into those professions like teaching, firefighting or caring for the sick.
As for Gen. Kelly, if he won’t go see what the real everyday heroes of America are doing, he should just stick to keeping our tender-egoed President Twitter from launching a nuclear war, and STFU when it comes to defending his boss for his racism, misogyny and abusive tirades.