The following speech was given by Major General (Select) John F. Kelly, USMC, before the San Diego Military Advisory Council on 5 September 2007.
I want to open by offering LtGen Mattis’ apologies for missing this event.
Until recently he certainly looked forward to being here, but an unexpected change in a three and four star executive offsite in Washington prevents him from joining you today. I am his recently joined deputy at the First Marine Expeditionary Force at Pendleton, and will have the honor of taking the next Marine rotation to Iraq early next year. I was also General Mattis’ deputy once before when he commanded the 1st Marine Division on the march to Baghdad, Tikrit and beyond four years ago, and when we went back into Iraq in March 2004 relieving the 82nd Airborne in Al Anbar Province.
I am just two months out of the pentagon where I served as the Commandant’s Legislative Advisor, and deputy advisor to the SECNAV, so I know the Congress and the Secretary’s and Commandant’s Hill agendas pretty well. I’ll be glad to speak to amphibious ship requirements, V-22 Ospreys, VSTOL Joint Strike fighters, a Marine Corps growing by 27,000 or anything else for that matter during the Q+A.
I left Iraq three years ago last month. I returned a week ago after a two week visit of getting the lay of the land for my upcoming deployment. It is still a dangerous and foreboding land, but what I experienced per sonally was amazing and remarkable – we are winning, we are really winning. No one told me to say that, I saw it for myself. The higher command in Baghdad told us four years ago when we first took responsibility for the Al Anbar not to worry about victory, as no one-military or civilian-thought it possible.
That thirty years from now when the rest of Iraq was a functioning democracy, Al Anbar would still be a festering cancer within…
Our success, so we were told, would be in containing violence, not defeating the Al Qaeda and other foreign born terrorists that were deeply entrenched in the Province. The reality is that today the incidents of attack in Al Anbar-mostly by Al Qaeda-are down by over 80% in the last six months-that translates to dozens and dozens everyday then, to perhaps three or four today. Since the spring local inhabitants and their sheik leadership, are now joined with us at the shoulder in fighting the extr emists that plague their country. Three weeks ago I went to a gathering of sheiks from the Province outside of Ramadi that numbered over 300 of the most influential men in the west.
Three years ago my entire days and nights were devoted to tracking many of these same men down, and capturing or killing them, which is exactly what they were trying to do to me. However, by relentless pursuit by a bunch of fearless 19 year olds with guns who never flinched or gave an inch, while at the same time holding out the carrot of economic development, they have seen the light and know AQ can’t win against such men. By staying in the fight, and remaining true to our word, and our honor, AQ today can’t spend more than a few hours in Fallujah, Ramadi, or the Al Anbar in general, without being IDed by the locals and killed by the increasingly competent Iraqi Army, or by Marines. That’s the way it is today in this war, but it is also the wa y it has been since the birth of our nation.
Since our Declaration of Independence 42 million Americans have claimed the honor of having served the nation in its military forces. Since that time over a million have lost their lives serving the colors, with millions more wounded. Since George Washington first took command of the Continentals besieging Boston, America’s warriors have stepped forward and endured horrors unimaginable to most Americans, and saw it all with their young eyes so those safe at home would never have to. With all this service and loss of life, we as Americans can be proud of the kind of people we are as we have never retained a square foot of any country we have defeated. We possess no empire. No man or woman call us master, as we have never subjugated any society. On the contrary, billions across the planet -and billions more yet unborn-are today free and increasingly prosperous because America took a s tand; but it has always fallen on the shoulders of our soldiers, sailors, airmen Coast Guardsmen, and Marines that the task fell to…and they have never wavered. Never, with the exception of World War II, has it been particularly crowded at the recruiting offices, and in recent years it’s an increasingly slim slice of the American public who believe in this country enough to put life and limb on the line particularly in the Army and Marine Corps to serve without qualification, and without personal gain. Yet still for whatever reason they come-even though there is great pressure from our society to sit it out and not get involved.
The reality was that when many in this room grew up, and I know I am showing my age here, we were surrounded by men, real men, who had gladly worn the country’s cloth in wars against fascism and communism. The earliest memories we had as kids back then were of comic books and paper backs that honored the sacrifices of the super heroes of those conflicts.
It was a time when little boys could play guns, and weren’t considered at risk to be psychopaths. To stand up when the national anthem was played or say the pledge of allegiance and a prayer to any God you worshiped before school, wasn’t considered offensive to the sensitivities of the nation’s self-proclaimed intellectual elite. Places like Guadalcanal, Coral Sea, Normandy, Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir, and Hue City, were real to us then, and we knew without thinking that we owed the nation a debt.
We live in a very different world today, and we have indeed lost something of quality over the years. We don’t always see that same selfless devotion to something bigger than self, which the lucky among us learned from past generations. Today, unfortunately, to most it’s about quick gratification, and what’s in it for me. Memorial and Veteran’s Day are more about a day o ff to take advantage of the big sales at the malls, or fighting the traffic to get a long weekend at the seashore. But we should not forget that as we stand here today we are at war, and a new Greatest Generation is fighting a merciless enemy on our behalf in the terrible heat of Iraq, and mountains of Afghanistan. Like it or not America is engaged in – and winning – a war today against an enemy that is savage, offers no quarter, whose only objectives are to either kill every one of us here in our homeland, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that rational men and women can ever understand. Given the opportunity to do another 9/11, our vicious enemy would do it today, tomorrow, and everyday thereafter. In addition to killing thousands of innocent victims that day, they also killed hundreds of heroes: police, firefighters, and first responders of every sort that were not victims in their deaths, bu t the first fallen warriors of this generation’s war. Given nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons-and the experts bet they will get them-these extremists would use these terror weapons against our cities, and smile. I don’t know why they hate us, and I frankly don’t care and they can all go to hell, but they do hate us and they are driven irrationally to our destruction. The best way to fight them is somewhere else, and for whatever reason they want to destroy our way of life I thank God we still have enough, just enough, young people in American today willing to take up the fight and defend us all.
This fight is today, not against some potential peer competitor that might emerge 30 years from now, and will be with us for another generation or more. Our enemy is on a 100 year campaign to victory, and believes without question that he is winning. We, on the other hand, look out two years at best and seem to be wavering a nd looking for a way to rationalize our way out. The problem is our enemy is not willing to let us go. Regardless of how much we wish this bad dream would go away, he will stay with us until he hurts us so badly we surrender, or we kill him first. To him this is not about jobs, economic opportunity, or solving social problems in the Middle East. It is about way of life, about everyman’s and every woman’s worth and equality in the eyes of the law, about the God given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He doesn’t believe in these cherished concepts – we do. Our positions are irreconcilable.
The good news is our service members are as good today, as their fathers were in Vietnam, and their grandfathers were in Korea and World War II. In my two tours in Iraq as an infantry officer with the 1st Marine Division I never saw an American hesitate, or do anything other than lean into the fire and with no apparent fear of death or injury take the fight to our enemies.
As anyone who has ever experienced combat knows, when it starts, when the explosions and tracers are everywhere and the calls for the Corpsman or medic are screamed from the throats of men who know they are dying – when seconds seem like hours and it all becomes slow motion and fast forward at the same time-everything in one’s survival instinct says stop, get down, save yourself -yet they don’t. When no one would call them cowards for cowering behind a wall or in a hole looking to their own self preservation, none of them do. It doesn’t matter if it’s an IED, a suicide bomber, mortar attack, fighting in an up stairs room of a house, or all of it at once; they talk, swagger, and, most importantly, fight today in the same way our young warriors have since the Revolution. They also know whose shoulders they stand on, and would die before anyone of them shamed any veteran of any servi ce, living or dead.
You should see them. They have a look in their eye and a way of walking that marks them as warriors as good as any that have ever marched to the guns, but they are not born killers. They are, on the contrary, good and decent youngsters mostly from the neighborhoods of our cities, and small towns across America. Almost all are from “salt of the earth” working class homes, and more often than not are the sons and daughters of cops and firemen, factory workers and farmers.
Kids who once delivered your papers, stocked shelves in the grocery store, played Little League, and served Mass on Sunday morning. They were athletes, as well as “couch potatoes,” drove their cars and motorcycles too fast, and blasted their music a bit louder than they should. They are ordinary young people, performing remarkable acts of bravery and selfless acts of devotion to a cause bigger than themselves. They could have done so mething more self serving, but chose to serve knowing full well Iraq and Afghanistan was in their future. They did not avoid the most basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen, on the contrary they welcomed it.
They did not fail in school and without prospects, as the chattering classes believe is why they are in the military and fighting and dying for the nation, but rather are the best our nation has to offer and have put every one of us above their own self interest. They are all heroes, but they know and understand fear in a way that few Americans do. It is not as much the fear of death or maiming they think about, but, rather, they are most terrified of letting their buddies down…but they never do.
Ladies and Gentlemen I had a unique experience a few years ago when serving as the Assistant Division Commander, of the 1st Marine Division. We were just south of Iraq along the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, and poised to launch an attack that would take us over the next three weeks 650 miles into the guts of Iraq, far beyond Baghdad and indeed to Saddam’s hometown palace in Tikrit. When the artillery fires commenced just as the sun went down, and the evening sky above us was one endless formation of Marine, Navy and Air Force fighter aircraft speeding north to smash targets deep in Saddam’s vitals, I was sitting taking it all in with my driver Cpl Dave Hardin from Dallas, and with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. The reporter asked me a question that I’d never considered in my entire 36 years in the Marine Corps as both enlisted man and officer before the asking, but one I took up in my mind when he did. He pointed out the size and capability of the Iraqi forces in front of us that was many, many times bigger than we were in men, tanks, and artillery. He emphasized much to my discomfort the massive supplies of chemical weapons Saddam was thought to h ave, and the multiple means he had to rain their terrible kind of death upon us. He asked if I’d ever contemplated defeat. If it was even possible? My thoughts immediately took me back to trips I’d made to Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Inchon Korea, and Vietnam, and the conversations I’d had with veterans of those battles, mostly old men now. They tell of friends who made it, and many who didn’t.
About the good times, and the bad, but mostly about the good as is typical of our veterans. My response to the reporter was something like: “hell these are Marines. Men like them held Guadalcanal and took Iwo Jima, Baghdad ain’t shit.” This same sentiment could, and does, apply to any American serviceman or woman. We who serve, who are sent to fight wars and have nothing whatsoever to do with starting them, have never known defeat on the battlefield. When we have lost, we lost at home, and others declared defeat – not us.
America’s A rmed Forces today know the price of being the finest men and women this nation has to offer, and pay it they do everyday in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over four-thousand one hundred in all services have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, over a thousand of this number Marines, and Sailors serving with Marines – our precious Docs. And the sacrifice continues as Americans have gone to God since we all went to bed last night and slept free and protected. Their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, aunts, uncles, cousins and fiancés have only just learned of their deaths and begun to deal with the unimaginable pain that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Thousands more have suffered wounds since it all started, but like firefighters and cops who fall protecting us here in America, they are not victims as they knew what they were about, and were doing what they wanted to do.
Many of today’s pundits and media commentators want to make them and their families out to be victims but they are wrong, and this only detracts from the decision these patriots made to step forward and protect the country that has given so much to all of us. We who are serving, and have served, will have none of that. Those with less of a sense of service to the nation never understand it when strong men and women stand tall and firm against the our enemies, just as they can’t begin to understand the price paid so they and their families can sleep safe and free at night-the protected never do. What they are missing, what they will also never understand, is the sense of commitment, joy, and honor, of serving our country in its uniform, but every American veteran, and their loved ones who supported them and feared for them everyday, do.
It’s been my distinct honor to have had the opportunity to be here today with you. Rest assured, my fellow citizens, the nation you are a part of, this young experiment in democracy called America started just over two centuries ago, will forever remain the “land of the free and home of the brave” so long as we never run out of tough young Americans willing to look beyond their own self interest and comfortable lives, and go into the darkest and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down, and kill, those who would do us harm.