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Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld At United States Air Force Academy Commencement Ceremony (transcript)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Secretary Rumsfeld: Thank you very much.

General [John] Dallager [Superintendent of the Academy], I thank you for your able service to this Academy and to our country. My friend, Secretary [of the Air Force] Jim Roche, thank you for those kinds words and for your many contributions to the men and women in uniform as Secretary of the Air Force. It is indeed a privilege to serve with you.

Distinguished guests, parents and friends, leadership and supporters of the Academy, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you all very much.

And good morning to the Class of 2002.

[Response]

I thought you could do better than the first time.

[Laughter]

No limits, huh? Well, for you that's true, but for a graduation speaker there must be limits, and I know that you're all ready to get out and get at it, so I'll begin by exercising my authority as Secretary of Defense to grant amnesty for Class A and B infractions to all cadets.

[Applause]

I respect your accomplishments. For many years, not just here, you have worked and studied hard. I know that and I salute you for it. But let's also salute those who brought you into this world through love and sacrifice and who have helped you along the way. Please join me in expressing your appreciation to your parents, your families and your friends with a loud round of applause.

[Applause]

You were "Doolies" once, but now you will follow the path blazed by the legendary Colonel Jimmy Doolittle who led that daring raid over Tokyo shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It may be hard to believe, but I've been around so long I actually knew Jimmy Doolittle -- [Laughter] -- and I visited with him on many occasions. He was a true hero.

Four years ago when you arrived here the Cold War was over, the Soviet Union was long gone. It seemed as though everyone wanted to be free. To be able to vote, to enjoy free markets with choices for all. One expert even opined that we had reached the end of history. That freedom had triumphed and vanquished all enemies.

But while you entered the Academy in a time of peace you leave in a time of war. And for what that will mean to you and to your professional careers, and possibly your lives I will speak to that in a moment. But first I want to talk about our world and the global war on terrorism.

The victims of September 11th were our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and loved ones. Innocent people going about their daily lives. Many of you attended memorial services, mourned the dead, and prayed for our future. Our nation changed forever that day.

The terrorists killed thousands of our fellow citizens of all religions, races and nationalities, and if the terrorists are able to acquire weapons of mass destruction as they are trying hard to do, they will seek to kill tens of thousands more unless we stop them.

It's now clear to all that not everyone in our world wants what we want -- freedom, liberty, peace and justice. To assume otherwise would be to put our country and our way of life at grave risk.

One hundred years ago there were no airplanes except in dreamers' minds. Then most believed that manned flight was nothing more than a fantastic hope, the stuff of myths.

But in 1903 Orville Wright flew a biplane made of wood and cotton cloth off a sand dune in Kitty Hawk. He flew 120 feet in some 12 seconds. I have to confess I did not know Orville Wright.

[Laughter]

But by the end of World War II we were producing an amazing 100,000 airplanes a year and air power proved to be a decisive factor in that great struggle to determine whether mankind would live in freedom or in shackles.

By the time of the Cold War we had entered the jet age. Intercontinental bombers and ballistic missiles helped to keep the Soviet Union at bay, and thanks to the resolve of the people of all of the NATO nations we prevailed in yet another battle between freedom and tyranny. Americans once again proved that they could live in a dangerous world and do whatever was necessary to preserve peace and freedom.

Today another transformation is taking place but there's a difference. In the information age we no longer have decades to adapt. In the last century the pace of change was measured in decades. In the 21st Century, this century, it will be calculated in years and even months. So this generation, your generation's margin for error is much less and your challenge is much greater.

Since the attacks on September 11th we face new enemies. Enemies that live in shadows, they hide in caves, and indeed they hide in cities, yet they are capable of enormous destruction. Within a month we launched a deadly counterattack against the enemy in that land-locked country some 6,000 miles away. Our bombers and fighters flew over the icy mountains of Afghanistan and sent smart bombs to within feet of their targets. By October 7th, less than four weeks after we were attacked, 38 aircraft had the ability to deliver firepower to the enemy that it took 480 aircraft to deliver during the Gulf War just a decade before.

Then fewer than 10 percent of our bombs were guided by laser beams or satellites. In Afghanistan more than 60 percent were precision guided with devastating results. Coalition forces stunned the Taliban and al Qaeda and marked the beginning of the end for that very brutal regime but the global war against terrorism is far from over.

It should be noted that transformation is not just about new weapons. Sometimes it involves transforming old weapons to meet the challenges of a new century. In Afghanistan, American pilots flew B-52s that were as much as 40 years old -- much older than the pilots -- but upgraded with modern electronics and avionics. Many aircraft carried iron bombs designed decades ago, but attached to those bombs were JDAMs, guidance systems that transformed them into smart bombs.

On the ground forward air controllers marked with Afghan tribesmen carrying old Soviet rifles, but they used satellite phones and global positioning system to call in precision strikes. Perhaps most surprising, at the crucial battle at Mazar-e-Sharif last year, U.S. Special Forces rode on horseback in an attack on Taliban positions while providing precise targeting for coalition aircraft. It was a combination that carried the day.

President Bush knew I was an old-timer when he asked me to come back to serve as Secretary of Defense for a second time, but I suspect he couldn't have imagined that we would bring back the cavalry.

[Laughter]

Prevention and preemption are the best, and indeed in most cases the only defense against terrorism. Our task is to find and destroy the enemy before they strike us. And it's a big world. We must be able to project power over great distances. We need rapidly deployable, fully integrated joint forces capable of reaching distant theaters not in months but in weeks or days.

Despite the natural human resistance to change, transformation is coming. It is happening. And the question is, will we stay ahead of those who wish us ill? Will we be wise enough and determined enough to prove that this generation, your generation, can live in the 21st Century just as those who went before demonstrated that they could live in the last century to our great good fortune.

The answer to that question is not up just to the folks in Washington, D.C. The answer also lies with you. you are the most important element in transformation. You enter your commissioned service with fresh perspectives. Use them. Question why. Be bold. We need men and women in the military who aren't burdened by a zero defect mentality. When you see a process or a procedure that seems bureaucratic, that stifles your ability to do more with less, or keeps the troops from doing their jobs, ask why. Dare to propose innovative approaches. Culture can do more to transform the way we think and fight than can any weapon system.

The Air Force of the 21st Century must be flexible in all ranks, whether the mission is in a fighter, a transport, at a drone terminal, at a laboratory bench, or even on a horse. With your talents and with your discipline you could be pursuing opportunities in many walks of life but to your credit and to our benefit you have chosen to defend our country. What cause could be more noble than that?

[Applause]

No one forced you to join the military. You were not drafted or conscripted. You followed the call to serve because you knew that life is meant to have purpose. And when you entered the Academy many thought that wars for the foreseeable future would probably be like Bosnia or Kosovo with the U.S. applying its military might only to defend others. But a new era dawned on September 11th and on that day the American people were struck by the heroism of rescue workers in New York and at the Pentagon. They, like you, chose to serve, not knowing how they would be called but knowing that their service gave their lives meaning and purpose.

On September 11th and since the world has witnessed what it means to serve. Each of you made your decision to serve years before September 11th, when none could possibly know the true meaning of that decision.

As you leave the Academy today, many now recognize and admire your choice. They understand now what you knew then about patriotic service to our country.

During a recent trip to Kyrgyzstan I visited our troops at Manas Air Base before going into Afghanistan. One young serviceman said, "I can't believe that we're being allowed to do something so important." What a breathtaking and wonderful perspective. No limits.

Your class, by your choice, is the Lance Sijan class. For those who may not know, Lance Peter Sijan graduated from the Academy and flew more than 50 missions in Vietnam. In 1967 he ejected from his disabled jet. Wounded, he crawled for weeks through the jungle and then the enemy found him. After a short time in captivity he escaped back into the jungle but was soon recaptured by the North Vietnamese. His body was broken, but he never broke. Despite torture he never talked. That he died never giving the enemy what they sought was his final triumph.

At a White House ceremony on March 4, 1976 during my first tour as Secretary of Defense, President Gerald Ford awarded Lance Sijan our nation's highest decoration posthumously. I was there with his parents when they accepted the Congressional Medal of Honor on behalf of their son. They too, sacrificed.

When our country was founded it was small, poor, and weak. Yet when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, Thomas Jefferson said we act not just for ourselves alone, but for the whole human race. What a grand thought that was then and is today.

As a speaker cautioned my class some 50 years ago, he said "If American stumbles, the world could fall." That is true today as well. And we, indeed each of you, act not just for ourselves alone but for the whole human race.

You have listened to the call to serve at a time when your countrymen understand the need, they understand and honor your calling. It is a calling that has meaning and high purpose and in the end, that is how to measure a life well lived.

America and indeed the world is fortunate to have you dedicated, determined, and devoted to your truly noble work. May God bless you and each of the men and women in uniform who serve this great country of ours.

Thank you, and God bless America.

[Applause]

- END -