On November 12, 2010, 1st Lt Robert Kelly was killed in Sangin, Afghanistan. He died in the dismount. Boots laced. On patrol. Leading Marines.
I never cried before these wars began. Tears come easier now. Sometimes they are sad tears, when I think of friends lost, wives without husbands, or sons without fathers. And sometimes they are thankful tears, when I think of how much is at stake in all this; and how lucky we are that, at the very moment I write this, safely, from somewhere in the South China Sea, our nation’s most rugged hoplites bravely hold the line in places like Herat, Lashkar Gah, Sangin, Now Zad, and Khost, so that we can have rest and peace and raise our families in places like Houston, New York, San Francisco and Miami. But with war, violence; and with violence, death. And so, like I said, the tears come easier now. For all of us in the Marine Corps family.
I’ve been thinking a lot about family these days and I’m reminded how our Ops Chief at 1st Force, Master Sergeant Moe Pau, would always remind us that we are a family. Moe Pau is one of those men born for war. You’d instantly recognize him in a crowd of men as having an innate gift for warfighting. And it’s more than his towering Samoan frame or his regular gunfighter’s posture; it’s his steady eyes that make you conscious of his true warrior’s soul. And so he’s become one of our teachers. And of all his lessons, the most important one is on the concept of the Samoan family, or the Aiga, which he told us is what keeps our country free. It’s what keeps the platoon, the team, the individual Marine, strong.
I’ve found he’s right.
You see examples of “Aiga” everywhere. If the name of a departed Marine passes by on the ticker tape of CNN before a crowd of patrons in, say, a coffee shop, some might say: how sad. They might shake their head. Some might not even notice. Or worse, notice but not care. But if in that same crowd a former Marine sees that name, if he reads: “Lt Robert Kelly, KIA, Sangin, Afghanistan.” His heart will break. And he will feel like he lost one of his own brothers.
My mom told me once that I’d know if I truly cared for someone if I honestly felt their success was my success. I’ve used this to gauge the genuineness of my friendships and relationships along the years. It’s never failed me.
But there’s a melancholic corollary to my mom’s poignant philosophy, which is this: You know you truly love someone – you know you’re family – if their loss is your loss. This is the essence of the Marine Corps Aiga.
I didn’t know Lieutenant Kelly. But when I heard the news, my heart collapsed as it always does whenever I hear about one of ours lost in the offense. And then someone said…”hey, that was Lieutenant General Kelly’s son.” And I thought: the General has a son? In the Marine Corps? And I was told he has two. Two sons in the Marine Corps. Both combat veterans…
The fact he was the son of a General didn’t change the magnitude of my sadness – a Marine is a Marine – but it reminded me what’s so incredible about the Marine Corps (and all of our military services, actually): here, no one judges you by who your father is. Here, you are judged by your own strength of mind, spirit, body, character and abilities.
Here you make your own name and you are judged by your Marines.
In the Marine Corps, in order to have the privilege to lead Marines you must earn it. Marines are a national treasure and an Officer’s Oath to the President affirms his charge to the defense of this land and her people. And so your Oath is also then to those Marines you lead. Robert Kelly wasn’t bestowed this supreme privilege because his father was a General Officer. Robert Kelly was bestowed the privilege to lead men in combat – the highest privilege of an Officer’s life – because of who he was as a man and a leader of men. Because he earned it.
He understood that the Oath is a warrior’s bond implicitly understood among men in a platoon: they will not fail you in bringing violence and death to the enemy at the decisive point in the most horrifying conditions. And you will not fail them either. Your leadership will be steady. And you’ll never order them to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. Something like walk a combat patrol in the Sangin. Something like meet the enemy. Something like give your life for your country and for the Marine to your left and right. In this painful way, our nation’s battles are won.
In this very Hellenic way, Robert Kelly was the finest among us.
And this idea – the idea that a man would give his life for the men he loved and led and in defense of his country – is the very reason why ours is a different war from that of Alexander the Great or Seleucus. It’s the reason it’s different from the Mongols who razed Bamiyan and Balkh, or from Gurgin. Different than the “Great Game” between the empires of Russia and Britain, which divided the lands and the people of Afghanistan to serve their own political end. Different than the Soviets who attempted holocaust but were repelled, finally, by an extremely popular uprising. And absolutely morally divergent from the Taliban, who came to power by extortion and murder and who ruled by fear and brutality and hate.
Everyone who has come to fight in Afghanistan has failed because they came to conquer and when they went to war, they sent slaves or conscripts. Everyone except this NATO coalition, of which we are a part. When we went to war, we went to liberate and prevent future attacks on our soil, and to give a brave people with a tragic history a chance at Democracy…and America’s Generals send their very own sons. Sons that fight not because they had to. Sons that fought because they wanted to.
To 1st Lt Robert Kelly, USMC, and all the brave warriors now guarding us from above. My tears are first sad, and then thankful. You have our eternal gratitude.