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Commencement Address at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point
Remarks by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Michie Stadium, West Point, NY, Saturday, June 02, 2001

Thank you. Thank you, General [Daniel] Christman [Superintendent of the United States Military Academy], for a very warm introduction. Please be seated. You neglected to mention that 25 years ago, when we were very young, we were working together to persuade the Congress not to take fine Army forces out of Europe. And with the help of a lot of other people, we succeeded. Those forces stood watch in the Fulda Gap and other places around the continent of Europe, and the result was one of the great strategic victories of history of which every member of the Armed Forces and every member of the U.S. Army that participated in that effort is justly proud.

I also want to complement General Christman and the Army on the great spirit with which they said, we’re going to go ahead and hold this ceremony outdoors even in this terrible weather, because it’s more important to have all the families able to come than to be inside warm and comfortable. [Applause.] Coming from Washington where, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished, it’s wonderful to see this good deed rewarded with a break in the weather.

Senator Jack Reed, Congresswoman Sue Kelly, Congressman and old friend Ben Gilman, Congressman Saxby Chambliss, and Congressman Charlie Norwood; Commandant [of Cadets Brigadier General Eric] Olson, Dean [of the Academic Board Brigadier General Daniel] Kaufman, distinguished staff and faculty, ladies and gentlemen, parents and family, and most of all, members of the class of 2001:

I want to thank the Class of ’01 for giving me the honor of sharing with you this very special day. I went to school just up the road a ways in a place called Cornell where I studied mathematics. According to my calculations, if you take the corps of cadets and add a speech longer than 20 minutes, by the time you’re done, you’ll have 40% that won’t be listening, 40% who will be sleeping, and 20% will be asking for their money back. [Laughter.]

So, the responsibility of a commencement speaker is heavy indeed. Your remarks should be sentimental to please the parents, substantive to please the faculty, and short to please the cadets [Laughter.] When we say the word "short" to the class of ‘01, I’m told that we’re talking to experts. In fact, I can see that this class is so short [audience: "how short are we?"], you have fewer hours until you receive your diplomas than the plebes have years to graduate [Cheers and laughter.] But, plebes … your day will come, too.

Today also marks the last time that the distinguished Army leader General Dan Christman will stand before a graduating class as Superintendent. But, there was even a time when General Christman was a plebe. Back then, in May 1962, he and his fellow cadets gathered in the mess hall to hear General Douglas MacArthur deliver the "Duty, Honor, Country" speech that became so famous.

Dan Christman left the Academy first in his class and answered MacArthur’s call, a call to serve "a goal that is high…to reach into the future…to…remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom…." From fields of fire in Vietnam to the peaceful Plain of West Point, from commanding troops in Korea and Europe to advising senior leaders in the Pentagon and the White House, General Christman has commanded, led and served with the simplicity and open-mindedness that MacArthur spoke of.

General Christman brought an agile mind and a visionary spirit to his tenure as your "Supe"—building West Point to keep it at the forefront of the nation’s great educational institutions. For the thousands of cadets that he has led and loved, his legacy is simple and profound—West Point is a stronger and better institution because he was here. For our nation, his legacy is a whole generation of soldiers enriched by Dan Christman’s 36 years of leadership. And his great supporter and partner, Susan Christman, was with him. Now as they prepare to leave their final assignment in the active duty Army, we thank them for their lasting contributions born of a lifetime of service. [Applause.]

There are many others who’ve been instrumental to the achievements that we are honoring here today, but no one deserves more credit than the parents who have supported and encouraged you. May I ask all the parents and guardians of the class of 2001 to stand, so that we can give you a fitting Army tribute? [Applause.]

Today, in the year that all math majors know is really the first year of the Twenty-first Century, you graduate. Congratulations to the first West Point class of the Twenty-first century! [Applause.]

As you leave, you leave well prepared for the demands of future duty. Four years have tested you in ways you probably never imagined. In Beast Barracks, you learned that you can meet any challenge if you attack it with determination. You learned that the soldier who inspires others to work together can be an agent of change. You learned that one person can make a difference, but that infinitely more is possible when one person joins a greater commitment—to a common good. Perhaps most importantly, you learned how many days are left until Army beats Navy. [Laughter.]

Extensive scientific research has demonstrated that on an average day in June, the average human brain is capable of remembering at most one thought from a commencement speech. But since today is cooler than average, and West Pointers are definitely above average, I will challenge you to think this morning about two words: "surprise" and "courage."

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of a military disaster whose name has become synonymous with surprise—the attack on Pearl Harbor. Interestingly, that "surprise attack" was preceded by an astonishing number of unheeded warnings and missed signals. Intelligence reports warned of "a surprise move in any direction," but this made the Army commander in Honolulu think of sabotage, not attack. People were reading newspapers in Hawaii that cited promising reports about intensive Japanese diplomatic efforts, unaware that these were merely a charade. An ultra-secret code-breaking operation, one of the most remarkable achievements in American intelligence history, an operation called "Magic," had unlocked the most private Japanese communications, but the operation was considered so secret and so vulnerable to compromise that the distribution of its product was restricted to the point that our field commanders didn’t make the "need-to-know" list. And at 7 a.m. on December 7th, at Opana radar station, two privates detected what they called "something completely out of the ordinary." In fact, it was so out of the ordinary that the inexperienced watch officer assumed it must be friendly airplanes and told them to just forget about it.

Yet military history is full of surprises, even if few are as dramatic or as memorable as Pearl Harbor. Surprise happens so often that it’s surprising that we’re still surprised by it. Very few of these surprises are the product of simple blindness or simple stupidity. Almost always there have been warnings and signals that have been missed--sometimes because there were just too many warnings to pick the right one out, sometimes because of what one scholar of Pearl Harbor called "a poverty of expectations"—a routine obsession with a few familiar dangers.

This expectation of the familiar has gotten whole governments, sometimes whole societies, into trouble. At the beginning of the last century, the British economist Norman Angell published a runaway best seller that must have drawn the attention of professors and cadets of West Point at that time. Angell argued that the idea that nations could profit from war was obsolete. It had become, as he titled his book, The Great Illusion. International finance, he argued, had become so interdependent and so interwoven with trade and industry that it had rendered war unprofitable.

One of Angell's disciples, David Starr Jordan, the President of an institution on the West Coast called Stanford University, argued that war in Europe, though much threatened, would never come. "The bankers," he said, "will not find the money for such a fight; the industries will not maintain it; the statesmen cannot. There will be no general war." Unfortunately for him, he made that prediction in 1913. One year later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand fell to an assassin’s bullet, plunging Europe into a war more terrible than any that had come before it. The notion of the Great Illusion yielded to the reality of the Great War.

One hundred years later, we live, once again, in a time of great hopes for world peace and prosperity. Our chances of realizing those hopes will be greater if we use the benefit of hindsight to replace a poverty of expectations with an anticipation of the unfamiliar and the unlikely.

By doing so, we can overcome the complacency that is the greatest threat to our hopes for a peaceful future, the kind of complacency that took the life of General John Sedgewick at the Battle of Spottsylvania during the American Civil War. General Sedgewick looked over a parapet toward enemy lines, and waved off his soldiers’ warning of danger, declaring: "Nonsense, they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance." Those were the last words that he spoke at the very moment that a Confederate sharp shooter took his life.

I am told that in your time here, you grew accustomed to looking beyond the next parapet, to anticipate where you wanted to take this corps. You convinced your leaders to give you unprecedented authority in the day-to-day running of the corps. That kind of innovation and initiative are the keys to anticipating the unlikely and preparing for the unfamiliar, to being prepared to overcome the surprises that are almost inevitably going to come. Perhaps the simplest message about surprise is this one: Surprise is good when the other guy can’t deal with it. Let us try never to be that other guy.

Tomorrow, you, the Class of 2001 will become leaders in transforming the Army. General Shinseki has called on each soldier to embrace change, to make the Army of the future lighter and faster. It’s a big undertaking, one that will not happen overnight. Fundamental change like that is like turning a supertanker—it can’t be done on a dime. To redirect a massive vessel takes planning, patience, and time. But it will build an Army that is able to deal with the unfamiliar and the unexpected.

A century ago, on a peaceful day in 1903, with great foresight, Secretary of War Elihu Root told Douglas MacArthur’s graduating class, "Before you leave the Army…you will be engaged in another war. It is bound to come, and will come. Prepare your country."

One day, you too will be tested in combat. And if you fail that test, the nation will fail, too. We are counting on you, all of you. You must prepare yourselves—with the day-to-day choices that you make. And nothing is more important than that other word I’d like you to think about today: courage.

Today, America’s lieutenants demonstrate physical courage as they lead combat patrols in Korea on the Demilitarized Zone. In Kuwait, soldiers stand ready to fight on a moment’s notice. In Kosovo, young lieutenants have been leading patrols to keep warring ethnic groups in check, always at most one breath away from combat. And in Bosnia, since 1995, the courage of American soldiers has brought an end to a terrible war. Every day, our young soldiers face situations that require tact and diplomacy, but also toughness, discipline and courage.

Courage comes in many forms. Sometimes even more demanding than the physical courage to face danger is the moral courage to do what’s right: doing your job the way it’s supposed to be done, even if others advocate the easy way; choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, even if you have to take a hit for speaking up for what you think is true.

Moral courage means taking responsibility for the decisions you make, not shifting blame to others if something goes wrong. It’s standing alone—when your only company is the knowledge that you did your best; your only comfort that you answered MacArthur’s higher call.

On the eve of the great invasion at Normandy, having made the final fateful decision to go ahead in the face of great risk and uncertainty and warnings of bad weather, knowing full well that failure was a real and terrible possibility, General Dwight Eisenhower penciled a short message that he tucked away in his wallet … a few words that he planned to read if the invasion failed.

"My decision to attack at this time," he wrote, "was based upon the best information available," he wrote. "The troops, the airmen and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone." Ike was a great hero, a man of great moral courage with the willingness to shoulder responsibility that is the mark of a great leader.

The Long Gray line has never lacked for courageous leaders. General Barry McCaffrey, class of ’64, and General Ric Shinseki, class of ’65, both proved their courage in combat in Vietnam, where they suffered horrendous wounds.

It took great moral courage to come back from that experience and decide to stay in an Army that had been shattered by Vietnam. But, by that choice, and the choice of so many like them, were able to rebuild that Army into what it is today: an Army without equal.

Courage comes in all ranks—all shapes and stripes. Look to your left—look down the line to your right—you may well be seeing a hero; you may be looking at another Rocky Versace.

After graduating from West Point in 1959, Rocky grew bored with stateside duty and volunteered for Vietnam where he served with enthusiasm and distinction. In October of 1963, just weeks shy of completing his second tour, he was captured by the Viet Cong.

When Rocky was tortured and left for dead in a three-by-six-foot cage—he sang "God Bless America." When he was dragged from village to village with a rope around his neck, he cursed his captors in English and French and Vietnamese. His will could not be broken.

A fellow captive recalled that for Rocky, "as a West Point grad, it was duty, honor, country. There was no other way. He was brutally murdered because of it. He valued that one moment of honor more than he would have a lifetime of compromises."

Rocky Versace exemplified honor and courage. Forty years after his death, his life, his determination, his patriotism, and his courage call out for recognition. If Congress agrees, we will answer that call and recommend to President Bush that Captain Rocky Versace, class of 1959, be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. [Applause.]

Like Rocky, like Generals McCaffrey and Shinseki, you that know your profession is about leadership. To lead soldiers, you must first become one—in body, mind and spirit. You must know your job, set the example, lead from the front. Most of all you must be a model of moral courage and integrity for your soldiers, the way your role models at West Point were for you.

Yours will not be a life of personal gain, but it is noble work. You will man the walls behind which democracy and freedom flourish. Your presence will reassure our allies and deter the enemies of freedom around the world. Be prepared to be surprised. Have courage. And remember what General Eisenhower said to those American and Allied troops before they were about to land on the beaches of Normandy. "You are about to embark on a great crusade," he told them. "The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you."

Today, as you, the Class of 2001, go forth on your own crusade, our hopes and prayers go with you. Thank you, God bless the Class of ’01, and God bless America. [Applause.]