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Secretary of Defense Gates' Speech at West Point

Speaker: Robert M. Gates
Published April 21, 2008

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates gave this speech at West Point U.S. Military Academy in New York on April 21, 2008.

Thank you.  Thank you, General Hagenbeck.

First things first.  Congratulations on beating Navy in lacrosse.  (Cheers, applause.)  Army football will be at Texas A&M in College Station on September 27th.  (Cheers.)  When the two teams last played in San Antonio two years ago, y'all took 10 years off my life, years I can't afford.  I expect it'll be another great game, and I think I'll stay away in a safe place, like Baghdad.  (Laughter.)

And in normal speech, I'd thank y'all for coming, but I know full well that this evening is not exactly optional – (Laughter) – and my apologies.  (Laughter.)  So I'll be content with thanking you for staying awake, or at least trying to, given the schedule that y'all have here.

Of course, falling asleep in a lecture or a class is one thing.  Falling asleep in a small meeting with the president of the United States is quite another.  But it happens.  (Laughter, applause.)  I was in one Cabinet meeting with President Reagan where the president and six members of the Cabinet all fell asleep.  (Laughter.)

But former President Bush created an honor to award the American official who most ostentatiously fell asleep in a meeting with the president of the United States.  This was not frivolous.  The president evaluated candidates on three criteria – (laughter) – first, duration – (laughter) – how long did they sleep?  Second, the depth of the sleep; snoring always got you extra points.  (Laughter.)  And third, the quality of recovery – (laughter) – did one just quietly open one's eyes and return to the meeting, or did you just jolt awake – (laughter) – and maybe spill something hot in the process?  Well, the award was named for Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft who was the first President Bush's national security adviser.  He was, as you might suspect, the first awardee, and, I might add, won many oak leaf clusters.  (Laughter.)

I actually regret a lot that I will not be here for the commencement of the class of 2008 because of an overseas commitment, but I am honored and grateful to have the opportunity to speak with you this evening.  And in fact, I think this is better than commencement, because at commencement the firsties – by then near second lieutenants – would be only thinking about how fast they could get off post.  In this way, I get to speak to all of you at least once for about 35 minutes or so – just for those of you who are checking your watches – and while I am secretary of Defense, and I have every confidence you can make it, just keep nudging the person next to you.

This evening's talk is the culmination of a day spent on the road.  And I've already made a bunch of headlines at the Air University at Maxwell, criticizing the Air Force.  So, now it's the Army's turn.  But it is always a welcome duty to be away from Washington, D.C.  The faculty should have issued a warning by now that most of you, if you stay in the Army long enough and do everything you're supposed to in your career and are successful, you will one day be punished with a job in the Pentagon.

Some of you may have already heard the jokes and stories from your instructors about the sheer size of the building and the bureaucracy. 

The late newsman David Brinkley told a story about a woman who told a Pentagon guard she was in labor and needed help in getting to a hospital.  And the guard said, "Madame, you shouldn't have come here in that condition."  And she said, "When I came here, I wasn't."  (Laughter.)

Even the great General Eisenhower was flummoxed by the experience of making his way around the Pentagon.  Soon after returning to Washington, he made the mistake of trying to return to his office all by himself.  He later wrote, quote, "So hands in pockets and trying to look as if I were out for a carefree stroll around the building, I walked…and walked and walked, encountering neither landmarks nor people who looked familiar.  One had to give the building his grudging admiration.  It apparently had been designed to confuse any enemy who might infiltrate it."  (Laughter.)

No doubt many of you have studied Eisenhower in your time here.  Last year I read Partners in Command, a book by Mark Perry.  It is an account of the unique relationship between Eisenhower and General George Marshall, and how they played a significant role in the American victory in World War II and laid the foundations for future success in the earliest years of the Cold War.  Eisenhower and Marshall are, of course, icons, legends etched in granite.  Their portraits hang in my office.

But one of the things I found compelling in Partners in Command is how they were both influenced by another senior Army officer who is not nearly as well-known and in fact, as a reader of history, I had never heard of. 

His name is Fox Conner, a tutor and mentor to both Eisenhower and Marshall.  Conner and Marshall first became friends when they served together on the staff of General "Black Jack" Pershing during World War I.  And in the 1920s, Eisenhower served as staff assistant under Brigadier General Conner in the Panama Canal Zone.

From Conner, Marshall and Eisenhower learned much about leadership and the conduct of war.  Conner had three principles of war for a democracy that he imparted to Eisenhower and Marshall.  They were: 

·         Never fight unless you have to;

·         Never fight alone;

·         And never fight for long.

All things being equal, these principles are pretty straightforward and strategically sound.  We've heard variants of them in the decades since, perhaps most recently in the Powell doctrine.

But of course, all things are not equal, particularly when you think about the range and complexity of the threats facing America today, from the wars we are in to the conflicts we are most likely to fight.  So tonight I'd like to discuss with you how you should think about applying Fox Conner's three axioms to the security challenges of the 21st century, the challenges where you will be on the front lines.

“Never go to war unless you have to.”

That one should only go to war as a last resort has long been a principle of civilized people.  We know its horrors and costs.  War is, by its nature, unpredictable and uncontrollable.  Winston Churchill wrote in January 1942:  "Let us learn our lessons.  Never, never believe that any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter… Once the signal is given, the statesman is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events."

In a dictatorship, the government can force the population to fall in behind the war effort, at least for a time.  The nature of democracy, however, limits a country's ability to wage war – and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Indeed with perhaps the exception of World War II, every conflict in America's history has been divisive and controversial here at home.  Contrary to what General Patton said in his pep talks, most real Americans do NOT like to fight.

Consider the conflicts today.  Afghanistan is widely viewed as a war of necessity – striking back at the staging ground of the perpetrators of the September 11th attack.  The Iraq campaign, while justified in my view, is seen differently by many people.  Two weeks ago I testified, in front of the Congress on the Iraq War.  I observed that we were attacked, at home in 2001, from Afghanistan.  And we are at war in Afghanistan today, in no small measure, because we mistakenly turned out backs on Afghanistan after the Soviet troops left in the late 1980s.

We made a strategic mistake in the endgame of that war.  If we get the endgame wrong in Iraq, I told the Congress, the consequences will be far worse.

Truth to tell, it's a hard sell to say we must sustain the fight in Iraq right now and continue to absorb the high financial and human cost of the struggle, in order to avoid an even uglier fight or even greater danger to our country in the future.  But we have Afghanistan to remind us that these are not just hypothetical risks.

Conner's axiom – never fight unless you have to – looms over policy discussions today over rogue nations like Iran that support terrorism; that is a destabilizing force throughout the Middle East and Southwest Asia and, in my judgment, is hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need.  And in fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels.  But the military option must be kept on the table, given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat – either directly or through nuclear proliferation.

And then there's the threat posed by violent jihadist networks.  The doctrine of preemption has been criticized in many quarters, but it is an answer to legitimate questions.  With the possibility of proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical materials, and the willingness of terrorists to use them without warning, can we wait to respond until after a catastrophic attack is either imminent or has already occurred?  Given the importance of public opinion and public support, how does one justify military action to prevent something that might happen tomorrow or several years down the road?  While "never fight unless you have to" does not preclude preemption, after our experience with flawed information regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, how high must the threshold of confidence in our intelligence have to be to justify at home and abroad a preemptive or preventive war?

Conner's second axiom was "Never fight alone." 

He recognized from the onset that the way World War I ended – and particularly the terms of the Versailles Treaty – made another major conflict with Germany almost inevitable.  Victory would require a strong partnership of the Anglo-American democracies, and the most successful Army officers would have to adapt to working with allies and partners.  Eisenhower and Marshall executed this concept brilliantly in World War II, despite the fact that, as one historian wrote about Allied generals, Eisenhower had to deal with, "as fractious and dysfunctional a group of egomaniacs as any war had ever seen."

Nonetheless, as Perry writes, “Eisenhower was a commander who believed that building and maintaining an international coalition of democracies was not a political nicety…but a matter of national survival.”  And he brought this concept to the founding of NATO.

But what do you do when, as is the case today with NATO in Afghanistan, some of your allies don't want to fight; or they impose caveats on where, when and how their forces may be used; or their defense budgets are too small as a share of national wealth to provide a substantial contribution?  Not counting the United States, NATO has more than two million men and women under arms, and yet we struggle to sustain a deployment of less than 30,000 non-U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and we are forced to scrounge, hat in hand, for a handful of helicopters.

In August 1998, after the terrorist bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, I wrote an op-ed in the The New York Times about terrorism and national priorities, and I noted that taking a more aggressive approach to terrorism would, in virtually all cases, require America “to act violently and alone.”  And even after September 11th and a string of attacks in Europe and elsewhere, the publics of many of our democratic allies view the terror threat in a fundamentally different way than we do – and this continues to be a real obstacle with respect to Afghanistan and other issues.

But as Churchill said, the only thing worse than having allies is not having them at all.  They provide balance, credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of much of the world.  And in the case of Afghanistan, one should never discount the power of the world's wealthiest and most powerful democracies coming together – as they did in Bucharest three weeks ago – to reaffirm publicly their commitment to this mission.  Nor, above all, should we forget the superb performance in combat and the sacrifices of allies like the British, Canadians, the Australians, the Danes, the Dutch and others.  And I would note with sympathy that last Friday, the same day that the general took command of the Dutch forces, his son, a lieutenant, age 23, was killed in Afghanistan.

Just about every threat to our security in the years ahead will require working with or through other nations.  Success in the war on terror will depend less on the fighting we do ourselves and more on how well we support our allies and partners in the modern Muslim world -- moderate Muslim world and elsewhere.  In fact, from the standpoint of America's national security, the most important assignment in your military career may not necessarily be commanding U.S. soldiers, but advising or mentoring the troops of other nations as they battle the forces of terror and instability within their own borders.

Finally, Fox Connor said, "Never fight for long." 

According to Perry, General Connor believed that “American lives were precious, and no democracy, no matter how pressed, could afford to try the patience of its people.”  Early on, Connor instilled the idea in both Eisenhower and Marshall, on finding the enemy, fighting the enemy, and defeating the enemy all within a short period of time. 

In World War II, the American people had already begun to lose patience by the fall of 1944, when the lightning dash across the plains of France following D-Day gave way to a soggy, bloody stalemate along Germany's western border.  And that was only two-and-a-half years after Pearl Harbor.

Eisenhower no doubt had this in mind when he became president during the third year of the Korean war.  He believed that the United States – and the American people – could not tolerate being bogged down in a bloody, interminable stalemate in Northeast Asia while the Soviets menaced elsewhere, especially in Europe.  Eisenhower was even willing to threaten the nuclear option to bring that conflict to a close.

It has now been six-and-a-half years since the attacks on September 11th, and we just marked the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.  For America, this has been the second-longest war since the Revolution, and the first since then to be fought throughout with an all-volunteer force.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, initial, quick military success have led to protracted stability and reconstruction campaigns against a brutal and adaptive insurgency and terrorists.  This has tested the mettle of our military and the patience of our people in a way we haven't seen in a generation.

At the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. armed forces were still organized, trained and equipped to fight large-scale conventional wars, not the long, messy, unconventional operations that proliferated following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The same traditional orientation was true of our procurement procedures, military health care, and more.  The current campaign has gone on longer and has been more difficult than anyone expected or prepared for at the start, and so we've had to scramble to position ourselves for success over the long haul, which I believe we're doing.

A drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq is inevitable over time – the debate you hear in Washington is largely about pacing.  But the kind of enemy we face today – violent jihadist networks – will not allow us to remain at peace.  What has been called the “Long War” is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity.  This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable.  There are no exit strategies.  To paraphrase the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the long war, but the long war is interested in us. 

How America's military and civilian leadership grapples with these transcendent issues and dilemmas will determine how, where and when you may be sent into the battle in the years ahead. 

In discussing Fox Conner's three axioms, I've raised questions and provided few, if any, answers, and that's the point.  It is important that you think about all this, not just at the Academy but throughout your military careers, and come to your own conclusions.

But in order to succeed in the asymmetric battlefields of the 21st century – the dominant combat environment in the decades to come, in my view – our Army will require leaders of uncommon agility, resourcefulness and imagination; leaders willing and able to think and act creatively and decisively in a different kind of world, in a different kind of conflict than we have prepared for for the last six decades.

One thing will remain the same.  We will still need men and women in uniform to call things as they see them and tell their subordinates and their superiors alike what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

Here too Marshall in particular is a worthy role model.  In late 1917, during World War I, U.S. military staff in France was conducting a combat exercise for the American Expeditionary Force.  General Pershing was in a foul mood.  He dismissed critiques from one subordinate after another and stalked off.  But then-Captain Marshall took the arm of the four-star general, turned him around and told him how the problems they were having resulted not from receiving a necessary manual from the American headquarters – Pershing’s headquarters.  And the commanders said, “Well, you know, we have our problems.”  And Marshall replied, “Yes, I know you do, General…but ours are immediate and everyday and have to be solved before night.” 

After the meeting, Marshall was approached by other officers offering condolences for the fact he was sure to be fired and sent off to the front line.  Instead Marshall became a valued adviser to Pershing, and Pershing a valued mentor to Marshall.

Twenty years later, then-General Marshall was sitting in the White House with President Roosevelt and his top advisers and Cabinet secretaries.  War in Europe was looming but still a distant possibility for an isolated America.  In that meeting, Roosevelt proposed that the U.S. Army – which at that time was ranked in size somewhere between that of Switzerland and Portugal – should be the lowest priority for funding and industry.  FDR's advisers all nodded.  Building an army could wait.

And FDR, looking for the military's imprimatur to his decision, said, “Don't you think so, George?”  And Marshall, who hated being called by his first name, said, “I'm sorry, Mr. President, I don't agree with that at all.”  The room went silent.  The Treasury secretary told Marshall afterwards, “Well, it's been nice knowing you.”  And it was not too much later that Marshall was named Army chief of staff.

There are other, more recent examples of senior officers speaking frankly to their civilian senior officers.  Just before the ground war started against Iraq, in February 1991, General Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, met with the president, first President Bush.  I was there in the Oval Office.  Colin looked the president in the eye and said words to this effect:  “We are about to go to war.  We may suffer thousands of casualties.  If we do, are you prepared to drive on to victory?  Will you stay the course?” Colin wanted the President to face reality.  The President gave the right answer.

I should note at this point that in my 16 months as secretary of Defense, I have changed several important decisions because of general officers disagreeing with me and persuading me of a better course of action.  For example, at one point I had decided to shake up a particular command by appointing a commander from a different service than had ever held the post.  A senior service chief persuaded me to change my mind.

On trips to the front, I've also made it a priority to meet and hear from small groups of soldiers ranging from junior enlisted to field-grade officers, and their input has been invaluable and shaped my thinking and decisions as well.  All in senior positions would be well-advised to listen to enlisted soldiers, NCOs, and company and field-grade officers.  They are the ones on the front line, and they know the real story.

More broadly, if as an officer – listen to me very carefully – if as an officer you don't tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you've done yourself and the institution a disservice.  This admonition goes back beyond the roots of our own republic.  Sir Francis Bacon was a 17th century jurist and philosopher as well as a confidante of the senior minister of England's King James.  He gave this advice to a protégé looking to follow in his steps at court:  “Remember well the great trust you have undertaken; you are as a continual sentinel, always to stand upon your watch to give [the king] true intelligence.  If you flatter him, you betray him.”  Remember that.  If you flatter him, you betray him.

In Marshall's case, he was able to forge a bond of trust with Roosevelt not only because his civilian boss could count on his candor, because once a decision was made, FDR could also count on Marshall to do his utmost to carry out a policy – even if he disagreed with it – and make it work.  This is important because the two men clashed time and again in the years that followed, ranging from yet more matters of war production to whether the allies should defer an invasion on the mainland of Europe.

Consider the situation in mid-1940.  The Germans had just overrun France and the battle of Britain was about to begin.  FDR believed that rushing arms and equipment to Britain, including half of America's bomber production, should be the top priority in order to save our ally.  Marshall believed that rearming America should come first.  Roosevelt overruled Marshall and others, and came down on what most historians believe is the correct decision – to do what was necessary to keep England alive.

The significant thing is what did not happen next.  There was a powerful domestic constituency for Marshall's position among a whole host of newspapers and congressmen and lobbies, and yet Marshall did not exploit and use them.  There were no overtures to friendly congressional committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition-building with advocacy groups.  Marshall and his colleagues made the policy work and kept England alive.

In the ensuing decades, a large permanent military establishment emerged as a result of the Cold War – an establishment that forged deep ties to the Congress and to industry.  And over the years, senior officers have from time to time been tempted to use these ties to do end runs around the civilian leadership, particularly during disputes over purchase of large major weapons systems.  This temptation should and must be resisted.

Marshall has been recognized as a textbook model for the way military officers should handle disagreements with superiors and in particular with the civilians vested with control of the armed forces under our Constitution.  So your duties as an officer are:

·         To provide blunt and candid advice always;

·         To keep disagreements private;

·         And to implement faithfully decisions that go against you. 

As with Fox Conner's lessons of war, these principles are a solid starting point for dealing with issues of candor, dissent and duty.  But like Conner's axioms, applying these principles to the situations military leaders face today and in the future is a good deal more complicated.

World War II was America's last straightforward conventional conflict that ended in the unconditional surrender of the other side.  The military campaigns since – from Korea to Vietnam, Somalia and Iraq today – have been frustrating, controversial efforts for the American public and for the American armed forces.  Each conflict has prompted debates over whether senior military officers were being too deferential or not deferential enough to civilians, and whether civilians, in turn, were too receptive or not receptive enough to military advice.

In the absence of clear lines, of advance or retreat on the battlefield, each conflict has prompted our nation's senior civilian and military leadership to seek the support of an increasingly skeptical American public, using a variety of criteria and metrics – from enemy body counts to voter turnout and more.  Then as now, the American people relied especially on the candor and the credibility of military officers, in order to judge how well a campaign is going and whether the effort should continue.

Candor and credibility remain indispensable, because we will see yet more irregular and difficult conflicts, of varying types, in the years ahead; conflicts where the traditional duties of an officer are accompanied by real dilemmas – dilemmas posed by a non-linear environment made up of civilian detainees, contractors, embedded media and an adversary that does not wear uniforms or obey the laws of war; an adversary that could be your enemy on one day or, as we've seen in Iraq's Anbar province, your partner the next.

Many of you have gone over some of these scenarios, in ethics classes, or heard the accounts from returning veterans; a situation where, for example, a beloved platoon sergeant is killed by a sniper shot believed fired from a house by the side of a road.  When the soldiers arrive, the sniper's gone.  But the old lady, who lives in the house, is still there.  The battalion and brigade commanders pass down orders to demolish the house – to teach the enemy's sympathizers a lesson and take away a possible sniper position.  The platoon leader conducts an investigation and concludes this course of action is counterproductive.  So the lieutenant makes the call not to destroy the house.  And his CO stands by him. This is a true story from Iraq – a campaign that has been dubbed the “Captain's War” because, as in any counterinsurgency, so much of the decisive edge is provided by the initiative and the judgment of junior officers.

When you are commissioned, it will all too quickly be your judgment and your leadership that your soldiers will rely upon.  As you prepare for this awesome responsibility, learn all the lessons you can learn here, from heroes with real-world experience and wisdom in and out of the classrooms – people like Master Sergeant Reginald Butler, NCO Tac Company D-3.

And speaking of lessons learned, I should note that during my time as secretary, I have been impressed by the way the Army's professional journals allow some of our brightest and most innovative officers to critique – sometimes bluntly – the way the service does business; to include judgments about senior leadership, both military and civilian.  I believe this is a sign of institutional vitality and health and strength.  I encourage you to take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent when the situation calls for it.  And agree with the articles or not, senior officers should embrace such dissent as healthy dialogue and protect and advance those considerably more junior who are taking on that mantle.

I wrote my first and far from last critique of CIA in a professional journal in 1970, four years into my career.  Without the support of several senior agency officers, my career would have quickly been over.

Here at West Point, as at every university and company in America, there's a focus on teamwork, consensus-building and collaboration.  Yet make no mistake, the time will come when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision, or when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell them that you can't get the job done with the time and the resources available – a difficult charge in an organization built on a “can-do” ethos; or a time when you will know that what superiors are telling the press or the Congress or the American people is inaccurate.  There will be moments when your entire career is at risk.  What will you do?  What will you do?

These are difficult questions that you should be thinking about, both here at West Point and over the course of your career.  There are no easy answers.

But if you follow the dictates of your conscience and the courage of your convictions while being respectfully candid with your superiors while encouraging candor in others, you will be in good stead for the challenges you will face as officers and leaders in the years ahead.

Defend your integrity as you would your life.  If you do this, I am confident when you face these tough dilemmas, you will, in fact, know the right thing to do.

I'll close with a few words to all of you but especially to the class of 2008.  Soon you will take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.  I have taken that oath seven times in the last 42 years, the first when I enlisted in 1966 and the last when I became secretary of Defense.  I want to encourage you always to remember the importance of two pillars of our freedom under the Constitution:  the Congress and the press.  Both surely try our patience from time to time, but they are the surest guarantees of the liberty of the American people.

The Congress is a co-equal branch of government that under the Constitution raises armies and provides for navies.  While you read about the intense debate over Iraq, you need to know that members of both parties now serving in Congress have long been strong supporters of the Department of Defense and of our men and women in uniform.  As officers, you will have a responsibility to communicate to those below you that the American military must be nonpolitical and recognize the obligation we owe the Congress to be honest and true in our reporting to them, especially when it involves admitting mistakes or problems.

The same is true with the press, in my view, an important guarantor of our freedom.  When the press identifies a problem in the military, our response should be to find out if the allegations are true – and if so, say so and then act to remedy the problem, as at Walter Reed; if untrue, then be able to document that fact.  The press is not the enemy, and to treat it as such is self-defeating.

As the Founding Fathers wisely understood, the Congress and a free press, as with a nonpolitical military, assure a free country – a point underscored by a French observer writing about George Washington in 1782.  He wrote, “This is the seventh year he has commanded the army and that he has obeyed the Congress.  More need not be said.”

Finally, we hear a good deal about men and women who volunteered for military service in the wake of the September 11th attacks.  For you Firsties, your admissions applications for the academy would have come due early in 2004.  By that point, it had become clear that Iraq as well as Afghanistan would be long, grinding and complex campaigns.  Your decision to come here and the decision of all the Academy classes that have followed was made with the knowledge of almost certain deployment to distant and dangerous battlefields, with the likelihood of more tours to follow.  Each of you – with your talents, your intelligence, your record of accomplishments – could have chosen something easier or safer and of course better-paid.  But you took on the mantle of duty, honor and country, passed down the Long Gray Line of men and women who have walked these halls and strode these grounds before you, and for that you have the profound gratitude and eternal admiration of the American people.

It is undoubtedly politically incorrect for me to say, but I feel personally responsible for each and every one of you, as if you were my own sons and daughters.  And so my only prayer is that you serve with honor and return home safely.  And I personally thank you for your service from the bottom of my heart.

Thank you.  (Applause.)

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