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Knowing the cost of war and of being unrealistic

General John Kelly spoke to reporters at the Pentagon on Jan. 8.Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press/File

John Kelly grew up in Brighton, the son of a postal worker. He went to UMass Boston, and he went to war, as a Marine.

He has been tapped to be the next secretary of homeland security, a position he is well-suited for, not just because he is the epitome of a modern military general, a soldier-scholar-statesman. The job was made for him.

It seemed fitting that news of his new job came on the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, because the job that Kelly has been tapped for is a direct result of this century’s Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks of 2001.


Kelly knows the cost of war, and he knows the cost of being unrealistic.

In 2010, Kelly’s son, First Lieutenant Robert Kelly, was killed when he stepped on a land mine while leading a platoon of Marines on a patrol in Afghanistan. He was 29.

Four days later, on Veterans Day, John Kelly stood in a crowded hotel ballroom in St. Louis and gave a speech in which he cited, not his son’s name, but the sense of duty that led his son and so many others like him to volunteer to be in harm’s way.

Re-reading that speech, it seems impossible to conclude anything but that John Kelly was destined to lead the governmental agency that rose out of the ashes of World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The speech was tough, sentimental, prescient, and discomfiting in its realistic assessment of the challenges faced in protecting the United States.

Kelly’s speech began by recalling that day in 2001 when, like everyone from a generation that was alive in 1941, people could recall exactly where they were when they learned of the attacks.

“As a nation, we were scared like we had not been scared for generations,” he said. “Parents hugged their children to gain as much as to give comfort. Strangers embraced in the streets, stunned and crying on one another’s shoulders, seeking solace as much as to give it.


“Instantaneously, American patriotism soared not ‘as the last refuge’ as our national cynical class would say, but in the darkest times Americans seek refuge in family, and in country, remembering that strong men and women have always stepped forward to protect the nation when the need was dire, and it was so God awful dire that day, and remains so today.

“There was, however, a small segment of America that made very different choices that day, actions the rest of America stood in awe of on 9/11 and every day since. The first were our firefighters and police, their ranks decimated that day as they ran towards not away from danger and certain death. They were doing what they’d sworn to do, ‘protect and serve’ and went to their graves having fulfilled their sacred oath.

“Then there was your Armed Forces,” he continued. “When future generations ask why America is still free and the heyday of Al Qaeda and their terrorist allies was counted in days rather than in centuries as the extremists themselves predicted, our hometown heroes — soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines — can say, ‘Because of me and people like me who risked all to protect millions who will never know my name.’

“As we sit here right now, we should not lose sight of the fact that America is at risk in a way it has never been before. Our enemy fights for an ideology based on an irrational hatred of who we are. Make no mistake about that no matter what certain elements of the ‘chattering classes’ relentlessly churn out. We did not start this fight, and it will not end until the extremists understand that we as a people will never lose our faith or our courage.


“If they persist, these terrorists and extremists and the nations that provide them sanctuary, they must know they will continue to be tracked down and captured or killed. America’s civilian and military protectors both here at home and overseas have . . . fought this enemy to a standstill and have never for a second wondered why. They know, and they are not afraid. Their struggle is your struggle.

“They hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs, and even their lives.

“As a democracy, ‘We The People’ — and that by definition is every one of us — sent them away from home and hearth to fight our enemies. We are all responsible,” Kelly said. “If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service and not support the cause for which they fight — America’s survival — then they are lying to themselves and rationalizing away something in their lives. But, more importantly, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to the nation.


“Since this generation’s ‘Day of Infamy’ the American military has handed our ruthless enemy defeat after defeat, but it will go on for years, if not decades, before this curse has been eradicated. We have done this by unceasing pursuit day and night into whatever miserable lair Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their allies might slither into.”

Kelly is not a partisan. He is a realist.

“We are at war and, like it or not, that is a fact,” he said that day six years ago. “It is not Bush’s war, and it is not Obama’s war. It is our war and we can’t run away from it. Even if we wanted to surrender, there is no one to surrender to. Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus and that is either kill everyone of us here at home, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp.

“As Americans, we all dream and hope for peace, but we must be realistic and acknowledge that hope is never an option or course of action when the stakes are so high. Others are less realistic or less committed, or are working their own agendas, and look for ways to blame past presidents or in some other way to rationalize a way out of this war.

“The problem is our enemy is not willing to let us go. Regardless of how much we wish this nightmare would go away, our enemy will stay forever on the offensive until he hurts us so badly we surrender, or we kill him first.”


Stark words, but honest ones. John Kelly is the right person to protect the homeland because, as that speech in 2010 demonstrated so vividly, he will tell us not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear.

Kevin Cullen can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.