Superintendent Peay, thank you very much. Cadet Burnette, I appreciated your remarks. And to Cadet Webb, thank you for the kind introduction, and for inviting me to speak at commencement.
Members of the faculty, proud parents, distinguished guests, and, most of all, distinguished members of the Class of 2008: it is an honor to join with you in celebration as 246 young men and women take their place among the generations of graduates of Virginia Military Institute.
Congratulations to all of you. You have made it from the “Rat Line” to the finish line. And it was undoubtedly hard – not just a demanding curriculum, but all the things that you had to do that students at other places don’t.
On a lot of campuses, bricks covered with ivy are a nice architectural feature, but you had to “stand on the bricks,” in formation, and get to know your upperclassmen.
Keeping students on their toes, elsewhere, might have meant assigning a low classroom grade or giving a pop quiz. For you, it was more literal: penalty tours, push-ups, buddy carries, running up and down stadium stairs without end.
And just when you thought you were at that finish line that I mentioned, one more hurdle pops up: that would be my speech.
To the parents: you must be welling up with pride at the achievements of your children. Having put two children through college, I know there are many sighs of relief as well. You are probably already planning how to spend your newly re-acquired disposable income. Forget it. Trust me on this. If you think you’ve written your last check to your son or daughter, dream on. The National Bank of Mom and Dad is still open.
I guess I am supposed to give you graduates the secret to success in life. I could quote the billionaire J. Paul Getty, who offered advice on how to get rich. He said, “Rise early, work late, strike oil.” Or, Alfred Hitchcock, who said, “There’s nothing to winning, really. That is if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.”
Well, instead of those messages, let me substitute the advice of two great women. First, opera star Beverly Sills, who said, “There are no short cuts to anyplace worth going.” And second, Katharine Hepburn, who wrote: “Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well find some way that is going to be interesting. And you don’t do that by sitting around wondering about yourself.”
Presiding over 39 commencement ceremonies as president of Texas A&M taught me well the importance of brevity on these occasions. George Bernard Shaw once told a speaker he had 15 minutes. The speaker asked, “How can I possibly tell them all I know in 15 minutes?” Shaw replied, “I advise you to speak very slowly.” I’ll try to speak quickly.
For generations, VMI has graduated young people ready to raise their right hand and defend their homeland. This is something to be grateful for in any time period, but never more so than in a time of war. During the past four years, the percentage of VMI first-year cadets taking a military commission has risen, and is now more than half of the class of 2008. What a tribute to this institution, to the values it instills, to the men and women who are drawn to its rigors and to its duties.
Each of you are being sent out into the world to pursue a wide range of callings and careers. 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.
Such service has never been in higher demand, or those duties more daunting. It has now been six-and-a-half years since the attacks of 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 in our history since the Revolution, and the first since then to be fought throughout with an all-volunteer force. In Iraq and Afghanistan, initial military success has given way to stability and reconstruction campaigns against brutal and adaptive insurgents. This has tested the mettle of our government, our military, and the patience of our people, in ways we haven’t seen in a generation.
One of the strengths of America is that we have institutions like VMI, and young men and women like those sitting here today, who are answering this generation’s challenge. From Kabul to Kirkuk, former VMI cadets are serving throughout the armed forces and the U.S. government in many roles: in military intelligence; organizing the reconstruction efforts; building infrastructure; and commanding troops in the field. Many young men and women have interrupted their studies at VMI when called up by the National Guard or Reserve. Since 2001, 75 cadets here have been mobilized to active duty during their time, and 41 of them have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
More than 1,200 graduates of VMI have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since the start of the War on Terror. Eight of them have not returned.
The VMI community mourns the recent loss, just last month, of Marine First Sergeant Luke Mercardante in Afghanistan. A VMI alum said of this honorary “Brother Rat”: “His legacy lives in his cadets and others who served with him, who are now taking the field across the globe.”
In a national radio address in 1940, on the anniversary of VMI’s founding, its most distinguished graduate, General George 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.”
Taking on the full mantle of citizenship through public service is not for the timid or the faint of heart, even without the dangers of combat or rigors of military life. In fact, public service can often seem like a burden. Many have said so. President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, wrote: “There could be no greater madness than for a man to encounter what I do for anything less than motives that overleap time and look forward to eternity.” Lord Cornwallis complained, “I have been obliged to say yes, and to exchange a life of ease and content, to encounter all the plagues and miseries of command and public station.”
Even Benjamin Franklin, of famously cheerful disposition, carped: “The public is often [stingy], even of its thanks, while you are sure of being censured by malevolent critics and bug-writers, who will abuse you while you are serving them, and wound your character in nameless pamphlets; thereby resembling those little dirty insects, that attack us only in the dark, disturb our repose, molesting and wounding us while our sweat and blood are contributing to their subsistence.”
Consider the situation facing General Marshall in November 1945 when he retired as Chief of Staff from the United States Army. He had been on active duty for more than 43 years, and it took him 15 years to make Captain and 34 years to get his first star. He had been Chief of Staff for 74 months and through an entire world war – longer than anyone before or since. If there was anyone who deserved a leisurely retirement with his family in Leesburg – 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.
We see this idealism in northeastern Afghanistan, near the mountains of the Hindu Kush. There, Colonel Jonathan Ives commands about a thousand NATO troops. Their name? Task Force Cincinnatus – what else would a 1980 graduate of VMI call a task force?
The Afghans find this name pretty odd. They ask about it. And this gives this army reservist a chance to reach out. He says: “I relate to them that I’m a citizen-soldier and I come forward to serve and then go back . . . to being a civilian among all the people of the United States.” And he said it strikes a chord – especially with the "mujahideen [who defeated] the Russians and then again . . . stood up as part of the Northern Alliance." These men take up arms when they must but put them down when they can.
Afghanistan is a desperately poor place. Part of a NATO commander’s job is assisting the birth of a new generation of Afghan leadership – one that will withstand the urge to abuse power or put a hand in the till. Governors of the northeastern provinces sit down with Colonel Ives, and there, again, he often brings forth Cincinnatus, the Roman consul who, over two thousand years before George Washington, voluntarily left a high position rather than milk it for all it was worth.
A role model once lit a fire within Jonathan Ives. He tries to spread that spark – on the chance that it might, as he said, move others to act as “visionary leaders – not selfish leaders.”
The citizen-soldier of which you have been told for four years is no myth. He is real. I have seen him in my travels around the world, manning posts far from hearth and home. I have seen reflected in our young men and women the values and qualities on which this nation was built and from which it still draws its strength. They have answered the call to service.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that the trumpet call is “the most inspiring of all sounds, because it summons men to spurn ease and self-indulgence and timidity, and bids them forth to the field where they must dare and do and die at need.” All who serve the American people, in and out of uniform, have answered the trumpet call.
When Roosevelt and Marshall lived and served, the United States came to the realization it could not avoid the burdens of leadership in this world. We, too, live in such a time.
Listen to the words of Abigail Adams, the wife of our second president. In her letter to her son John Quincy Adams, she wrote: “These are 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 formed in contending with difficulties . . . Great necessities call out great virtues.”
Our country faces many challenges at home and abroad. We live in a time of “great necessities” – a time in which we cannot avoid the burdens of global leadership. The stakes are too high. And it is precisely during these times that America needs its best and brightest, from all walks of life, to step forward and commit to public service – to exchange the life of ease and contentment and take on the burdens and the bug-writers.
If, in the 21st century, America is to continue to be a force for good in the world – for freedom, justice, the rule of law, and the inherent value of each person; if America is to be, still, a beacon for all who are oppressed; if America is to exercise global leadership consistent with our better angels, then the most able and idealistic of today’s young people must step forward and agree to serve their country with the same honor, and courage, and dignity that marked the service of the long line of patriots that came before them. Your country asks nothing more than that you live up to the values you have learned and lived in this place for these past four years. You owe yourself nothing less.
Congratulations. Godspeed. Return with honor.