For service chiefs, speaking out isn't defiance - it's leadership

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  • John Kirby: Heads of Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force have denounced bigotry in the wake of Charlottesville
  • This was not defiance, Kirby writes. They are showing leadership; it would have been defiance for them not to speak

CNN National Security Analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who served as a spokesman for both the state and defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)As of Wednesday, each of the four service chiefs -- the heads of the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force -- have issued statements denouncing racism and bigotry in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

John Kirby
I know each of these men personally, and served on staffs with all of them. And I'm comfortable saying that none relished the idea of having to publicly weigh in on an issue like this. It's not their style, and they know it's not their place to involve themselves in what for many has become an issue of domestic politics.
Except to these men, it is most assuredly not about politics. It's about leadership.
    To a one, they are warriors in the classic sense: quiet professionals who eschew politics and who prefer to focus on mission. Gen. Mark Milley of the Army and the Marine Corps' Gen. Robert Neller have real-world combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. They know what it's like to fight and bleed alongside American men and women of every possible stripe.
    Gen. David Goldfein of the Air Force is a fighter pilot who flew combat missions in operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Allied Force and Enduring Freedom.
    And the Navy's Adm. John Richardson, who was the first chief to comment about Charlottesville, has sailed in and commanded nuclear submarines during some of the tensest moments of the Cold War. As the former head of naval nuclear reactors, he literally had his finger on the pulse of the maritime arm of nuclear deterrence.
    Not a drama queen among them.
    These warriors know firsthand that diversity in the ranks lends strength to the mission, that racism and bigotry of any kind destroys good order, discipline, unit cohesion and morale, and that the American people expect -- and have every right to expect -- that when they send their sons and daughters off to boot camp, those young men and women will find in the ranks a calling and a camaraderie that befits the sacrifices they might have to make on the battlefield.
    There is pragmatism here, to be sure. As service chiefs, they have no operational responsibilities, but they have to make sure the units they send over to their combatant commanders are ready in every respect -- including being able to serve well in a military that has grown dramatically more diverse in the last 30 years. They are the services personified.
    So, issues of race and religion, color and creed, and sexual orientation and gender identity cut right to their bottom line and to their mission. It was important for them to make clear to recruiters, potential recruits and their families -- not to mention the American people -- where they stand. This was more acutely so for Milley and Neller, who also had to contend with press reports that former members of the Army and Marine Corps were involved with the white supremacists at Charlottesville.
    But it would be wrong to suggest that what happened there in and around the University of Virginia did not also strike a visceral chord with the sensibilities of each four-star.
    Richardson's statement -- issued well before President Trump's first statement -- made clear the Navy will "forever stand against intolerance and hatred."
    If you read their tweets carefully, you can see this stuff matters to them. Notice how Milley capitalized the word "Values" in his tweet, or how Neller likewise capitalized the words "Honor, Courage and Commitment" -- the core values of the Navy and Marine Corps.
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    Yes, there are small fringe elements in uniform who sympathize with the vulgar and despicable hatred on display in Charlottesville. They are very few, but they are there. That's another reason the chiefs know they must set the example and make clear how high is the bar when it comes to moral leadership.
    I wish all of them had done so as swiftly as had Richardson, but it's gratifying to see them do it nonetheless.
    And just to be clear, this was no act of defiance. Their loyalty is to the Constitution and the American people, not the occupant of the White House.
    Frankly, it would have been an act of defiance for them not to speak up.