Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, goes “over the side for the last time” with 45 years of perspective on U.S. war-fighting and its future.
“This will sound strange to you,” said Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, the U.S. military’s longest-serving general. “My greatest fear was that I would be offered another job.”
The four-star head of U.S. Southern Command will hand over his final command on Thursday and retire at the end of the month. In an exclusive interview, Kelly reflected with his characteristic off-the-cuff candor on nearly half a century in the military, spanning from the Vietnam War to three tours in Iraq to overseeing the Defense Department detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I won’t be any more or any less honest than I’ve been in all of my career,” he said in Boston brogue. “I’ve been doing it a long, long time.”
Kelly led troops through some of the most violent days of the Iraq War in Anbar province, where the U.S. military once again is helping Iraqi forces oust the Islamic State four years after the war’s ostensible end. He had the ear of Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta as their senior military assistant. Two sons followed him into the Marines — one, Robert, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, making the general the highest-ranking officer since 9/11 to lose a child in combat.
When Kelly visited the Walter Reed military hospital and wrote letters to the families of those who had died under his command in Iraq, he said he tried to think of what it’d be like to lose a child, to better empathize. “You can't imagine until it happens,” he said Friday in his last briefing at the Pentagon.
For other parents in his situation, he said, “I think the one thing they would ask is that the cause for which their son or daughter fell be carried through to a successful end, whatever that means, as opposed to ‘this is getting too costly,’ or ‘too much of a pain in the ass,’ and ‘let's just walk away from it.’”
Later in the press conference, a reporter, citing recent losses in Afghanistan, asked the same question Kelly said these families occasionally ask: “Was it worth it?” He gave the same answer: “Not my question. It’s his,” he said, referring to his son Robert. “He answered it.”
‘One Pair of Boots is Boots on the Ground’
“It’s almost impossible for any man or woman in uniform to not give his or her honest assessment ... because you can’t make a good decision without straight-forward advice,” Kelly told Defense One. Kelly says he’s never been muzzled from giving that advice during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Kelly expressed disagreement with the Obama administration over Guantanamo; the decision to open all combat positions to women, despite the Marines’ objection; the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq; and the rhetorical gymnastics officials are using to avoid acknowledging U.S. troops are again in combat in the Middle East, in spite of Obama’s pledges.
“If there’s a country and it’s dangerous and we deploy a U.S. military man or woman, if there’s only one there, and they never leave the capital, that is ‘boots on the ground,’” Kelly said. “We do a disservice to the sacrifice of these people, particularly if they are killed, when we say there’s no boots on the ground.”
When Kelly took Southern Command, an area of responsibility from the Southern Cone to Mexico’s southern border where much of the action consists of drug interdictions, some observers thought the lower-profile post was intended to sideline the unreserved general.
Yet Kelly explained Friday, “I was given some options. And I was kind of tired of the war.” Southern Command would, “allow me to unleash other energies and talents.”
For years, Kelly has been asking Congress for more money for SOUTHCOM. In July of 2014, he told Defense One that “near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow” were existential threats. “If the average American doing a little blow on the weekends thinking there is no harm in it knew the harm is it results in countries being destroyed,” he said, things may change. As it is, “We don’t get very many assets.” A number of countries in the region are seeking intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance resources elsewhere, turning to Israel, Russia and China for drones.
The Middle East’s wars still touched his region, but Kelly said claims that terrorist groups such as ISIS are taking advantage of the instability to infiltrate either the U.S. or its backyard are divorced from reality. Officials have observed a slight increase in recruits travelling to Syria — from roughly 100 last year to 150 or so, Kelly estimated — but he downplayed the danger. His concern now, he said, was ISIS’s encouragement for recruits to stay home — so-called “lone wolf” attacks.
“It seems like the Islamic extremists and terrorists have shifted a lot of their message, and that is, ‘Hey, rather than come to Syria, why don't you stay at home and do San Bernardino, or do Boston, or do Fort Hood,’” he said. “Even just a few of these nuts can cause an awful lot of trouble in the Caribbean.”
‘Gitmo is Gitmo’
Kelly oversees Guantanamo, a divisive issue he alluded to from his Pentagon podium Friday. “I do not do policy — whether it opens or closes, whether it ever should have opened.”
He bristles at reports he and other military officials have stymied the president’s push to transfer out detainees and close the detention facility for good.
“It's an insult, frankly, to a serving military officer or a civil servant in this building to be accused of — whether we agree or disagree with any of the policies, that we would in any way impede the progress,” he said. “My only role in transfers is give me a name, give me a country, give me a timeframe, and I will get the person to that country.”
Kelly facilitated the infamous swap of five Taliban for captured U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. “I said, ‘Is this on the up-and-up?... he said, ‘Paperwork will be coming, but it's got to go quick.’ So I said, ‘As long as I get the paperwork afterwards,’” Kelly recounted. He put the detainees on a plane to Qatar behind the backs of visiting reporters and the families of victims of 9/11. “We never got caught,” he grinned.
Kelly said the swap was “unusual,” but he never questioned the legality. “I would never assume that anyone, in this building for sure, broke the law,” he said.
But the general also undermined key aspects of the administration’s argument for why Guantanamo must be closed: that the so-called “worst of the worst” can be held in the U.S., and that its mere existence poses a national security threat by serving as a propaganda tool.
“Bombing the living shit out of ISIS in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, that would maybe irritate them more than the fact we have Guantanamo open,” he told Defense One. For terrorist groups and rights activists alike, “What tends to bother them is the fact that we’re holding them there indefinitely without trial … it’s not the point that it’s Gitmo. If we send them, say, to a facility in the U.S., we’re still holding them without trial.”
Obama administration officials argue that ISIS executing hostages in orange jumpsuits is purposeful stagecraft in protest of Guantanamo. Kelly disagrees, saying, “What I see are animals acting like brutal animals.” He pointed out detainees now wear beige. “If they execute these poor sons of guns in orange jumpsuits and we say, ‘ah, see, that’s a good example of how Gitmo —,’ that’s full of sh... — I think it’s not accurate.”
Kelly said he didn’t know whether Guantanamo would be closed in the next year, calling it a “civilian leadership issue.” But if it were agreed Guantanamo should be closed, he said, logistically, it wouldn’t be hard, and remaining detainees could be held in the U.S. — “They’re not going to escape, for sure.” Reiterating he’s not a lawyer, he added, if all the issues with moving detainees to U.S. soil had been resolved, “I think it would be done already.”
As for critics’ argument that detainees transferred to other countries are returning to the fight, Kelly concluded the briefing, “If they go back to the fight, we'll probably kill them. So that's a good thing.”
‘Man on the Moon’
To Kelly, one of military’s biggest evolutions over the past 15 years is a shift to problem solving: a whole-of-government approach to conflict resolution beyond “typical, kinetic-type stuff.” As Kelly recounted, the Iraqis would give the example, “‘Look, you people put man on the moon … how come you can’t get me electricity?'”
Though this shift is also one championed by Obama, Kelly implicitly criticizes decisions made in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the war against ISIS.
“When I left Iraq, the training wheels were coming off,” he said, and like parents behind a child’s bicycle, the U.S. could have stayed closer to Iraqis learning to pedal on their own.
“This war stuff is hard, and it's not for the untrained and unadvised,” he said of Iraq now. “We obviously have a whole new war over there.”
As for Afghanistan, he also said far more than military power was needed. “If you take the point that we can't let them have safe haven, then you have to do social, economic, military action, political action to prevent that.”
“Some of the recommendations might be distasteful or out-of-the-box in terms of some of the policy-makers' thinking,” he said. “We know how to do it, but it generally translates to more expensive and longer-term than what maybe the nation hopes for.”
The future of warfare requires case-by-case strategy picked from a range of options by policymakers and the public they represent, Kelly said.
“If you want to just go after and try and kill senior leadership of this organization with hopes it eventually just kind of goes away, that’s maybe a drone strike option,” he said. “Or I can put a million men and women on the ground and we can reconstruct the country and government and everything else. So that’s the spectrum, policy maker ... you tell me what you want to do.”
Kelly’s passionate belief that the military positively impacts the country is as obvious as his bemused resignation toward policy makers and Beltway bureaucracy. He’ll return to northern Virginia, but hopes to stay away from Washington.
Someone recently asked what it’d be like no longer being a Marine. “I’ll always be a Marine,” he said.
“I’d love to find a way to keep giving,” he continued. “My fear was of being offered a job that would be kind of a full-time position at a veterans organization or even in the government … I’d prefer to not be that, to come up the Beltway every day."