Remarks by Robert M. Gates
On Receiving the Harry Byrd Jr. Award
Oct. 26, 2012
Thank you General Peay for that kind introduction, and for your half-century of service to our country and to VMI.
My thanks to the Virginia Military Institute for this great honor. I am humbled to follow in the footsteps of the persons who have received this award, most recently senator Sam Nunn and Justice Sandra day O’Connor – both old friends and great Americans.
I met Harry Byrd a couple of times during the early 1980s when he was a senator and I was at CIA. I am glad to see he is still going strong and nearing the century mark. Senator Byrd’s life and career – both during and after his time in the U.S. Senate – embodied the highest values of public service and this commonwealth.
On that note, I also want to say it is a real pleasure to be back in Virginia, a state that was my professional and personal home for many years back in my CIA days. And, it is a special honor to, once again, be back at the Virginia Military Institute. The last time I was strode these grounds was for the spring graduation ceremony of the class of 2008. Back then I was expecting to be on the job as defense secretary for another 8 ½ months – at most. That turned out to be the second of several failed retirements – and escapes – from Washington, D.C. – a city that, with good reason, has been described as a town of northern charm and southern efficiency.
My congratulations to all the cadets, the rats especially, for having made it through a VMI experience that tests you in every possible (and impossible) way. Your motto “no ordinary life” is an understatement. On a lot of campuses, bricks covered with ivy are a nice architectural feature, but as rats you had to “stand on the bricks,” in formation, and get to know your upperclassmen up close and personal. Keeping students on their toes, elsewhere, might have meant giving a pop quiz or asking the occasional question to the guy half-asleep at the back of the class. For you, it was more literal: penalty tours, push-ups, buddy carries, running up and down stadium stairs without end.
VMI’s is a culture grounded in patriotism, religious faith however expressed, love of family, loyalty to one another, an old-fashioned work ethic, a sense of duty and the importance of service to others and to the country, and a shared belief of the supreme importance of character and integrity.
Almost 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt gave a now-famous speech called “Citizenship in a Republic.” He observed: “In the long run, [our society’s] success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty. . . The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed.” Roosevelt then went on to say: “the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.” The graduates of this institution are not average citizens – and so you can never be content to be merely “good citizens.” You must be great citizens.
Each of you, upon leaving this place, will go out into the world to pursue a wide range of callings and careers – military, civilian, or a combination of both. Whatever path you choose, the common denominator is that here at VMI you have learned the importance of public service and duty to your fellow citizens.
We hear a lot of cynical and jaded talk these days about the state of our country and the character of its people. My advice is: don’t succumb to that kind of thinking. Consider instead the millions of Americans who have chosen to serve with in the belief they can help make this country and the world a better place. We know all too well about the achievements and sacrifices of those who wear our nation’s uniform. Think also about the diplomats like the late ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya, Peace Corps volunteers, intelligence officers, police and firemen; teachers; nurses; elected and appointed officials – local, state, and national; and countless more. All too often, the pay and working conditions are challenging. All operate in the public spotlight and often find public criticism to be the reward of their labors.
They are each, in their own way, reflecting the values of this institution and the experience of its most noble graduate. When General George Marshall retired as Army Chief of Staff in November 1945, he had been on active duty for more than 43 years – a career in which it took him 15 years to make Captain and 34 years to get his first star. He had been Chief of Staff through 74 months and a world war. If there was anyone who deserved a leisurely retirement with his family – it was General Marshall.
A week after retiring, he arrived home at Leesburg and the phone rang. It was President Truman, and he wanted Marshall to be his special envoy to China. As his biographer put it, “arms were stacked, but the soldier’s task was not ended.” Marshall accepted on the spot. And as a result of taking on that assignment and others that followed – Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense – George Marshall, the great architect of victory in World War II, would be practically tarred and feathered. Joseph McCarthy and others vilified him for allegedly “losing” China, and for supporting President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur. A newspaper cartoon of the period depicted Marshall as a senile clown cutting out paper dolls.
Despite the sacrifices, the hard work, the calumnies to which a person can be exposed, what drew Marshall, and countless others from this institution and from every corner of this country, is a willingness to serve a cause higher than their own comfort, their own convenience, and their own self-interest. If you scratch deeply enough, you will find that most of those who serve, no matter how outwardly tough or jaded or egotistical, are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists. And optimists. We actually believe we can make the lives of others better, that we can make a contribution to the life of the greatest country in the history of the world.
The single best decision I ever made – after marrying my wife Becky, of course – was deciding as an undergraduate to pursue a career in public service. I joined CIA in 1966 to defend our country against the former Soviet Union, and with any luck, to help bring down the entire rotten structure. Twenty-five years later, as director of central intelligence, I watched the Soviet empire crumble, liberating hundreds of millions of people and ending what had been a near constant threat of nuclear Armageddon. Talk about closure.
In a national radio address on the anniversary of VMI’s founding, Marshall spoke of the Institute and the values it instills. He said: “Our graduates seldom amass great wealth, but just as seldom do they display weakness or indifference to their duties as citizens. They are trained to be soldiers, if there be need for soldiers . . . ; but what is far more important, they are trained to be good citizens.”
Four years ago Jonathan Ives, class of 1980, commanded about a thousand NATO troops in Afghanistan. Colonel Ives, an Army Reservist, named his organization “Task Force Cincinnatus” – after all, what else would a citizen soldier and VMI graduate call his unit? The Afghan troops thought the name was strange until they learned a little more about its origin and the citizen-soldier tradition – taking up arms when you must, putting them down when you can. Many of these Afghans, after all, had left their village, farms and families first to fight the Soviets and then later the Taliban.
Then, last year, as leader of the 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, now Brigadier General Ives would help oversee the final withdrawal of U.S. troops and equipment from Iraq. More than 4,000 vehicles carried about a million tons into Kuwait in less than three months – arguably the largest and most concentrated feat of military logistics since World War II.
In all, roughly half of VMI graduates have taken military commissions in recent years and some 1500 have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Thirteen of them have not returned. One of them was Marine Corps Captain James Edge, VMI class of 1996, and a former classmate and rat-year roommate of one of my senior special assistants at the Pentagon, himself a combat veteran with the Rangers in Afghanistan. As defense secretary I made it a point to surround myself with people – military and civilian – with direct experience fighting in the post-9/11 conflicts or commanding those who did.
These young men and women – all of whom joined knowing what would be asked of them – represent the tip of the spear of a military that has been at war for nearly a decade – the longest sustained combat in American history. The Iraq and Afghan campaigns represent the first protracted, large-scale conflicts since our Revolutionary War fought entirely by volunteers. Indeed, no major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time – roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members out of a country of over 300 million, less than one percent.
This tiny sliver of America has achieved extraordinary things under the most trying circumstances. It is also true that for most Americans, whatever their fond sentiments for their military, the wars remain an abstraction. A distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally. In the absence of a draft, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do. With each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle. According to one study, in 1988 about 40 percent of 18 year olds had a veteran parent. By 2000 the share had dropped to 18 percent, and is projected to fall below 10 percent in the future.
The nearly four decades of all-volunteer force has also reinforced a series of demographic, cultural, and institutional shifts affecting who is most likely to serve and from where. In this country, that propensity to serve is most pronounced in the South and the Mountain West, and in rural areas and small towns nationwide – a propensity that well exceeds these communities’ portion of the population as a whole. Concurrently, the percentage of the force from the Northeast, the West Coast, and major cities continues to decline.
The military’s own basing and recruiting decisions have reinforced this growing concentration among certain regions and families. With limited resources, the services focus their recruiting efforts on candidates where they are most likely to have success – with those who have friends, classmates, and parents who have already served. No doubt VMI and this corner of Virginia are considered target rich environments. For otherwise rational environmental and budgetary reasons, many military facilities in the northeast and on the west coast have been shut down, with their functions and people relocated to the south, leaving a void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces in their wake. On the other side of the equation, these trends have created a military force that increasingly feels separate from, and in some cases superior to, the country and society they have sworn to protect.
I would urge those going into military service to do what you can to keep yourself – through the assignments you take in your career and choices you make in life – better connected to an American society of which you are an integral part. It is of particular importance to graduates of this institution, who like the service academies, but unlike many of your ROTC colleagues, will have been steeped in a monastic military environment pretty much since leaving high school.
Reconnecting the citizen with the soldier – or the airmen, sailor, or Marine – is so important because a civil-military divide can expose itself is an ugly way during a protracted and frustrating war effort. One of the achievements of the post-Vietnam Army leadership was preventing a corrosive “stabbed in the back” narrative from putting down roots within the service at a time that many officers were inclined to blame American society, the media and politicians in particular, for allegedly tying their hands and not seeing the effort through. When I came on board as defense secretary at pretty much the low point of the Iraq war, I worried about the recriminations, finger-pointing, and resentments – over a lack of support by civilian leaders and agencies, over a non-mobilized, unengaged civilian society – already starting to crop up; a situation that might have turned toxic if the U.S. military were to experience a humiliating retreat from Iraq.
Military and civilian leaders alike must be cognizant of as we enter a delicate and difficult transition phase in the Afghanistan campaign, an effort of which the American public and increasing number of politicians have grown weary, even as so many of our military leaders believe that we are finally on the right track.
A little over two centuries ago Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her son John Quincy: “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are found in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”
Once again we live at a time of “great necessities” and great challenges for America. Around the world we see:
• The rise of china as our preeminent economic, political, and potentially military competitor;
• Rogue nations like north Korea and Iran adding to their nuclear arsenal or seeking to build one;
• A destabilized middle east spawning Islamist regimes more hostile to Israel and less friendly to the U.S.; and
• A nuclear-armed Pakistan with a weak and corrupt government dominated by its military and threatened by radical Islamists; and
• A vicious Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan where, let there be no doubt, America’s military remains very much at war;
At home, we see:
• Sluggish economic growth and stubbornly high unemployment;
• Massive annual budget deficits that threaten national solvency, and I would argue our security as well; and
• A political system unable to come together to put America’s finances in order, or to accomplish the most basic functions and purposes of government.
Yet, through it all, I remain optimistic about the future. Though we have a lot of work to do to put America back on track, and enormous obstacles ahead of us, we also have the power and means to overcome them – just as Americans have time and again over the past two centuries – think of the civil war, the great depression, Vietnam, Watergate, and 9/11.
Since I entered government 46 years ago, I’ve shifted my views and changed my mind on a good many things as circumstances, new information or logic dictated. But I have yet to see evidence that would dissuade me from this fundamental belief: that America does have a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet. We must not forget what Winston Churchill once said, that “the price of greatness is responsibility…the people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.”
This responsibility provides enormous benefits -- for allies, partners, and others abroad to be sure. But in the final analysis the greatest beneficiaries of American leadership around the world are the American people, in terms of our security, our prosperity and our freedom. One thing we cannot do is repeat the mistakes of the past, when during tough economic times, or in the wake of major conflicts, our government sharply cut back on America’s ability to defend our interests and engage with the rest of the world – a pattern repeated in the decade prior to 9/11.
The prospect of the United States going down that path again is sends chills through much of the free and civilized world. All told, whether the united states sustains our global economic, political, cultural and military pre-eminence depends not on the success or failures of others – on what other countries do, but what we choose to do. On the decisions made by our leaders, on the courage and determination of the American people.
And it is precisely during these times our country needs its best and brightest, from all walks of life, to step forward and contribute to the great cause that is America – in or out of uniform, in sectors public or private. In your choice to attend this great institution and in having the grit and gumption to make it this far, you are already well on your way – as good leaders, as great citizens. My thanks again to V.M.I. for this great honor.