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U.S. Military Academy Commencement

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, West Point, New York, Saturday, May 23, 2009

          Thank you. Thank you, General Hagenbeck.
          It’s an honor to be here to deliver my first commencement address at the United States Military Academy here at West Point. Many of you might remember the last time I was here I gave a 45 minute evening lecture. Some of you may have even been awake at the end. A British nobleman, Lord Birkett, known for his long-windedness, once said: “I do not object to people looking at their watches when I am speaking. But I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain that they’re still going.”
          As someone who presided over some 40 commencements as a university president, and who has given a number of graduation speeches since my assuming this current post, I am well aware that at this point I am just about the only thing standing between you and a great party.
          In contrast to when I spoke here last year, my remarks today are not about the great and challenging policy issues of the day. Today I want to talk about you, and your families – because when you signed up, you also signed up all those who love you most.
          To the parents: Four years ago you dropped your son or daughter off on these grounds with no shortage of pride, as well as anxiety – about the famed rigors of the U.S. Military Academy, about the known dangers that come with the profession of arms at this time. That pride was well founded, the anxiety hopefully at least partially relieved. And I thank you for everything you have done to make them the outstanding young people they are, and for supporting them on the honorable yet arduous path they have chosen.
          To the faculty: In addition to being scholars and teachers, many of you are also veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and shared those experiences with your students. They will be wiser and better prepared leaders as a result, and I thank you for that.
          To the graduating class of 2009: Congratulations! Let me dispense with the easy and fun part first – which is, on behalf of our commander-in-chief, to grant full amnesty for any minor conduct offenses. I will leave the definition of “minor” to the superintendent.
          Consider that you were filling out your academy applications in the fall of 2004, at about the time of the second battle of Fallujah – when thousands of Marines and soldiers clawed their way through that city house by house and block by block. As the class of 2009, you made your decision to serve knowing not only that America was at war – as did every man or woman who joined the military after September 11th – but that this war would be bloody and difficult, of indefinite length and uncertain outcome. In doing so, you showed courage, commitment, and patriotism of the highest order.
          One of the reasons I look forward to coming back to this bend in the Hudson River is the history of this place – a corner of the continent George Washington once called “the key of America.” Just down the road is Verplanck’s Point, a Continental Army encampment at the end of the Revolutionary War. It was later recorded that a group of officers got together there and issued a creed. It read:
          “We believe that there is a Great First Cause by whose Almighty [will] we are formed, and that our business here is to obey the orders of our superiors. We believe that every soldier who does his duty will be happy here, and that every such one who dies in battle, will be happy hereafter. We believe that George Washington is the only fit man in the world to [lead] the American Army … We believe that Baron Steuben has made us soldiers, and that he is capable of forming the whole world into a solid column, and deploying it from the center … We believe in General Knox and his artillery. And we believe in our bayonets. Amen.”
          Though the tools and tactics of soldiering have changed, the basic principles of soldiering and leadership certainly have not. Now, this former Air Force lieutenant and CIA officer cannot pretend to offer you advice on soldiering. However, as someone who is now working for his eighth president, I can say that leadership is something that I have observed and thought about for a good long time. I’ve come to believe that few people are born great leaders. When all is said and done, the kind of leader you become is up to you, based on the choices you make. And in the time remaining, I’d like to talk about some of those choices, and how those choices will be shaped by the realities of this dangerous new century.
          I would start with something I tell all the new generals and civilian executives that I meet with at the Pentagon. It is a leadership quality that is really basic and simple – but so basic and simple that too often it is forgotten: and that is the importance, as you lead, of doing so with common decency and respect towards your subordinates. Harry Truman had it right when he observed that one of the surest ways to judge someone is how well – or poorly – he treats those who “can’t talk back.”
          In this country, going back to its earliest days, the American soldier has been drawn from the ranks of free citizens, which has implications for how those troops should be led and treated.
          Two anecdotes from our country’s founding capture the independent thinking of the American soldier and the greatness of the Army officer who led them. During the Revolution, a man in civilian clothes rode past a redoubt being repaired. The commander was shouting orders but not helping. When the rider asked why, the supervisor of the work detail retorted, “Sir, I am a corporal!” The stranger apologized, dismounted, and helped repair the redoubt. When he was done, he turned toward the supervisor and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your Commander-in-Chief and I will come and help you again.” Too late, the corporal recognized George Washington. The power of example in leadership.
          On another occasion, Washington was making his rounds and came across a Private John Brantley drinking some stolen wine. Brantley invited Washington to have a drink with him. The general declined, saying, “boy, you have no time for drinking wine.” Brantley responded, “Damn your proud soul – you’re above drinking with soldiers.” Washington turned back, dismounted and said, “Come, I will [have] a drink with you.” The jug was passed around, and as the general re-mounted, Brantley said, “Now, I’ll be damned if I don’t spend the last drop of my heart’s blood for you.” A lesson in the independence of the American soldier and his loyalty, when treated with respect and decency.
          In a novel about ancient Greece, the warrior Alcibiades is asked how to lead free men, and he responds: “By being better and thus commanding their emulation.” “How to lead free men? Only by this means: the summoning of each to his nobility.”
          Treating soldiers decently also extends to making sure that they – and their families – are properly taken care of – body, mind, and soul. It is the families who often bear the harshest brunt of a soldier’s overseas combat tour, particularly when it is a second or third or fourth deployment. And as a small unit leader you must create a climate where those soldiers who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress or other mental illness are willing to step forward and get the help they deserve.
          A second fundamental quality of leadership is doing the right thing when it is the hard thing – in other words, integrity. Too often we read about examples in business and government of leaders who start out with the best of intentions and somehow go astray.
          I’ve found that more often than not, what gets people into trouble is not the obvious case of malfeasance – taking the big bribe or cheating on an exam. Often it is the less direct, but no less damaging, temptation to look away or pretend something didn’t happen, or that certain things must be okay because other people are doing them; when deep down, if you look hard enough, you know that’s not true. To take that stand – to do the hard right, over the easier, more convenient, or more popular wrong – requires courage.
          Courage comes in different forms. There is the physical courage of the battlefield, which this institution and this army possess beyond measure. Consider, for example, the story of Lieutenant Nicholas Eslinger, Class of 2007. He was leading his platoon through Samarra, Iraq, when an enemy fighter threw a grenade in their midst. Eslinger jumped on the grenade to shield his men. When the grenade didn’t go off, the platoon leader threw it back across the wall. And then it exploded. At the time of this incident, then-Second Lieutenant Eslinger was only 16 months out of West Point. He would later receive the Silver Star.
          But, in addition to battlefield bravery, there is also moral courage, often harder to find. In business, in universities, in the military, in any big institution, there is a heavy emphasis on teamwork. And, in fact, the higher up you go, the stronger the pressure to smooth off the rough edges, paper over problems, close the proverbial ranks and stay on message. The hardest thing you may ever be called upon to do is stand alone among your peers and superior officers. To stick your neck out after discussion becomes consensus, and consensus ossifies into groupthink.
          One of my greatest heroes is George Marshall, whose portrait hangs over my desk in the Pentagon. As I said here last April, Marshall was probably the exemplar of combining unshakeable loyalty with having the courage and integrity to tell superiors things they didn’t want to hear – from “Black Jack” Pershing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As it turns out, Marshall’s integrity and courage were ultimately rewarded professionally. In a perfect world, that should always happen. Sadly, it does not, and I will not pretend there is not risk. But that does not make taking that stand any less necessary for the sake of our Army and our country.
          The moral principles of leadership I’ve just discussed are timeless – they apply to any military leader in any generation. So do a range of other choices you will face about the leader you aspire to become. I refer to those relating to the kind of judgment, wisdom, and mental skills – the intellectual attributes, if you will – that will be most needed to be successful as an Army leader in the 21st century.
          It has always been one of the hallmarks of the U.S. military to push decision making down to the lowest possible level. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we rely on our junior- and mid-level combat leaders to make judgments – tactical, strategic, cultural, ethical – of the kind that much more senior commanders would have made a generation ago.
          The Army has always needed agile and adaptive leaders with a broad perspective and range of skills. Now, in an era where we face a full spectrum of conflict – where high-intensity combat, stability, train-and-equip, humanitarian, and high-end conventional operations may be occurring in rapid sequence or simultaneously – we cannot succeed without military leaders who are just as full spectrum in their thinking. We will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers – as one might find in a manual – but you should look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions.
          Maxwell Taylor – who was an Asia specialist in the 1930s before becoming the famed commander of the 101st Airborne Division and later Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – once observed of his fellow academy grads that, “The ‘goats’ of my acquaintance who have leapfrogged their classmates are men who continue their intellectual growth after graduation.”
          To this end, in addition to the essential troop commands and staff assignments, you should consider, and in fact embrace, opportunities that in the past were considered off the beaten path, if not a career dead end. Those might include further study at graduate school, teaching at this or another first-rate educational institution, being a fellow at a think tank, advising indigenous security forces, becoming a foreign area specialist, or service in other parts of the government – all being experiences that will make you a more successful military leader in the 21st century.
          In 1974, when I left the CIA mother ship to take a staff job at the National Security Council, I was told by my boss at Langley that there probably would not be a job there for me when I returned. My career as a CIA officer was considered over. So you never know when taking some risks in your career will pay significant future dividends.
          It is important to remember that none of what I have talked about these past few minutes is alien to the best traditions of Army leadership – particularly at times of great peril for this country:
          • Grant and Sherman were not exactly spit and polish soldiers – and in fact left the military for a time before they returned to lead the Union Army to victory.
          • George Marshall spent 15 years as a lieutenant and never commanded a division; and
          • Eisenhower spent years toiling in obscurity as what General MacArthur later called a “clerk” in the Philippines.
          Just over a half century ago, no less an Army institution than General Eisenhower said here at West Point: “Without the yeast of pioneers, the United States Army, or any other organization…cannot escape degeneration into a ritualistic worship of the status quo.” Keep Ike’s admonition in mind in the years ahead – be a pioneer in the assignments you take, the learning you pursue, the assumptions you question.
          Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, reflecting on his service as a Union soldier in the Civil War, later said that “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” I hope that as a result of coming to this place, in the instruction you have received, and in the friendships you have formed, that your hearts, minds, and spirits have been touched in a way that will prepare you for the trial by fire that may await you.
          In closing, as I said last April, know that I think of each of you as I would my own son or daughter. I feel a deep, personal responsibility for each of you. I have committed myself and the department I lead to see that you have everything you need to accomplish your mission and to come home safely to your families. Know, also, that your countrymen are grateful for your service, and will be praying for your safety and your success.
          A final thought. We all seek a world at peace. After each war, we always hope we fought the final war, the war to end all wars. I believe that such hopes ignore all of human history. I believe that for so long as we seek to be free men and women, for so long as the bright light of liberty shines, there will be those whose sole ambition, whose sole obsession, will be to extinguish that light. I believe that only strength, eternal vigilance, and the continuing courage and commitment of warriors like you – and your willingness to serve at all costs – will keep the sacred light of American liberty burning: A beacon to all the world.
          You will shortly take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and we, the American people. The nation stands in awe of you. And I salute you.

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