ARLINGTON, Va. — Something remarkable happened last week, but we are a peripatetic nation, trying to keep up with incessant tweets, natural disasters, and unnatural disasters, like mass shootings, that rob us of sleep and perspective.
So while few noticed, three guys who grew up around Boston played musical chairs at the highest level of the American military.
General Joe Dunford, who grew up in Quincy before he joined the Marines, will step down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and will be succeeded by General Mark Milley, who grew up in Winchester, who in turn was replaced as chief of staff of the Army by General Jim McConville, who grew up near Dunford in Quincy.
So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s South Shore 2, North Shore 1.
Milley, like most Army guys when it comes to the Navy game, challenged the scoring method and tried to claim as North Shore guys a host of senior military leaders who grew up in places like West Roxbury. While showing Catholic-school deference to General Milley, I attempted to point out that West Roxbury borders Dedham and is getting dangerously close to the South Shore. But the good general doubled down.
“What about John Kelly?” Milley offered. “Before he left for the White House, he ran Southern Command.”
This was getting ridiculous. I was trying to be a bigger homer than the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I was losing.
Kelly is from Brighton, more specifically Oak Square, which is practically Newton, which is practically MetroWest.
Milley was having none of it.
“We’re claiming Kelly,” he said.
I never served, but my dad and my son did, so I know enough not to fight with guys who have more bars on their shoulders than there are bars on Dorchester Avenue.
If you take their accents away, what becomes clear about Dunford, McConville, and Milley is that they aren’t Boston guys so much as they are Americans, scholar-warriors in the classic sense of the term. Book smart, battlefield smart, briefing room smart.
They were in combat together. Ask any soldier who they’d want to be making decisions about their lives, and they’ll tell you it’s a general who has seen combat. Because generals who have seen combat do everything in their power to keep the men and women under their command out of it.
Politicians start wars. Soldiers don’t. While highly skilled at planning for and prosecuting war, modern generals like Dunford, Milley, and McConville are more focused on avoiding war at all costs, because they have seen the costs.
They saw it in battle. While assigned to desks at the Pentagon, they went to Dover Air Force Base, to be there with families when fallen service members return in flag-draped caskets. So they know. They know all too well.
I met Milley two years ago at the opening of a Charlestown clinic for Home Base, the program run by Massachusetts General Hospital and the Red Sox which treats the invisible wounds of war: post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. I’ve met Dunford and McConville at similar events.
Some worry that acknowledging the toll service takes on the men and women of the armed forces can hurt readiness. Not these guys. As Dunford prepares to take a well-deserved retirement, and Milley and McConville carry on, they believe taking care of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines they send into battle is a sacred duty.
Given Massachusetts’ reputation as the nation’s bluest state, it may seem surprising that so many of its sons are running the US military. “It’s not what’s in the water,” General McConville was saying, as we sat in his Pentagon office. “It’s what’s in the people.”
Milley, a keen student of history, likes to point out that the first shots fired by what would become the US Army were fired in Massachusetts.
And as McConville likes to say, he and his Bay State brothers and sisters in arms aren’t blue as much as they are red, white and blue.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the timing of Joe Dunford’s transition.Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org