During a blunt and well-received address to The American Legion National Convention on Aug. 28, the top military advisor to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that, at the root of it, the United States' war on terror is based on philosophical differences – and is a war that the country neither cannot nor will not lose.
U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, senior military assistant to Panetta and the future head of U.S. Southern Command, broke down in simple terms the enemy America is facing while praising the men and women defending the country.
"We didn't start this fight," Kelly said. "It came to us motivated by a visceral loathing of everything we are. It will not end until our adversaries and their allies around the world – state and non-state alike – understand that we will never lose our faith and our courage as a people. Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, (and) has a single focus, that is kill every one of us here at home or enslave us with a sick... extremism that serves no god and no purpose that any decent man or woman could ever understand.
"I don't know why they hate us, and I don't care. But we are America, and we must prevail because we remain mankind's best hope for the future. Not them. It's about us and our freedoms as a people. About the way we worship our god. It's about the value and dignity we place on human life, and our intense belief in the inherent value of every man, every woman and every child and their equality in the eyes of God and under the law. We cherish what our ancestors worked for, fought for and sometimes died for to give us. (The enemy) loathes who we are. These are irreconcilable positions. There is no compromise."
But the quality of the men and women fighting that fight, Kelly said, is the reason the United States will not lose this war.
"They were as good our service people, as any who came before them in our history – as good as what their fathers and grandfathers did in the wars they had to fight for America," he said. "But like those who came before them, they were not born killers. Rather, they are overwhelmingly good and decent kids without thought of self (who) perform remarkable and often unsung acts of bravery to a cause they decided is bigger and more important than they are themselves. Any one of them could have done something more self-serving. But they didn't. They chose to serve, knowing full well a vicious war was in their future. They welcome the most basic and esteemed responsibility of a citizen: the defense of country. Men and women of their spirit know no other way. They're the best of the best of their generation."
Kelly told the story of when he made a trip to Afghanistan with then-DoD Secretary Robert Gates. Speaking with several Marines, Gates asked what he could do for them. "Sir, don't let them forget what we did here," one young Marine answered. "Don't let them ever forget what we did here and the friends that will never get home."
But many in the United States don't fully understand the sacrifices made by these men and women every day, Kelly said.
"America, as a whole today, is certainly not at war – not as a country, not as a people," he said. "Only a tiny fraction of American families fear all day and every day a knock at the door that will shatter their lives. They bear this faith and sacrifice with grace and honor, and they carry it for the rest of the nation. It is their sons and their daughters who serve, who continue to believe in this country enough to put their lives in harm's way without thought of personal gain. They willingly pay in full the bill that comes with being free – not only for themselves, but for our country and the entire world."
With a sense of pride in his voice, Kelly pointed to the U.S. military as the model for diversity in the United States. "Our servicemembers discover early, and on their own, while looking at their comrades standing with them in the ranks, that it is not about the color on the outside, but about the character on the inside," he said. "That it's not about where on earth you were born, but only why you came to America and what you did once you got here. That it's not about the god you worship – if you worship any god at all – but you will respect the right of your neighbor to honor any god he or she damn well pleases. That it's not about what you, as an individual, can achieve, but all about achieving together as a people, as friends and neighbors."
And U.S. citizens should never, ever shy away from singing the praises of their country, Kelly advised. "There is an exceptionalism about America, and we should treasure who we are and why we are extraordinary," he said. "We should not be embarrassed about who we are or give excuses about what we have."