Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
At Commencement Ceremonies For
The Graduating Class of 1997
United States Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Wednesday, May 28, 1997
General Stein and Mrs. Stein, Secretary Widnall, General
Fogleman, Mrs. Fogleman, General Estes, Mrs. Estes, distinguished
graduates, and members of the faculty and honored guests, and
ladies and gentlemen.
First of all let me thank you for the honor of allowing me
to speak to you on this very special occasion in your lives.
You've made it a very special one for me, as well.
I've had occasion to watch you as you walked down the aisle.
I looked into the eyes of the graduates and I saw pride and
relief that you've survived four years of testing and challenge.
I was looking also into some of the eyes of your parents and
relatives, and I see pride and relief that you've survived four
years here as well.
Giving a commencement speech is a very difficult task. The
faculty would like the speaker to be substantive; the parents
would like the speaker to be sentimental; and the graduates would
like the speaker to be short.
Yale University doesn't have a commencement speaker, but
they make a very big thing of their baccalaureate service. There
was a story about an Episcopal bishop who decided that he wanted
to give a sermon to the graduating class, and
the sermon was to be based upon the wonderful letters found in Y-
A-L-E. Y, he said, stands for youth. He became so vigorous,
he talked for a full 20 minutes on the subject of youth. A,
stood for ambition. He became so ambitious he talked for a full
20 minutes on ambition. L, was for loyalty, that took another
15. And finally he said, E, stands for enthusiasm. With
that, he became so enthusiastic he talked for a full 40 minutes
on the subject of enthusiasm.
At the conclusion of his sermon as he walked down the podium
he saw a young graduate holding his head in a sort of prayerful
gesture. The bishop said, "My son, I can see that something that
I've said has touched you in a very deep and profound way. Can
you tell me exactly what was it that has touched you in this
He said, "I'm just sitting here thanking God that I'm not
graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
I can promise you, I will not base my speech on the
wonderful letters found in the United States Air Force Academy.
It's a tradition on this day to talk about the future, and I
will honor that tradition. But before I do, I also want to honor
a tradition that for some of you will resolve, or should I say
absolve, a part of your recent past. I think I know who you are.
So by the power vested me as Secretary of Defense, I hereby grant
amnesty to cadets who are marching tours or serving restrictions
or confinements for minor misconduct -- and General Stein will
have to determine what constitutes minor.
As for the future, your destiny hangs overhead like the
heavens themselves -- expansive and without limit. Your future
is the universe, the world you face, the Air Force you will serve
in, and the people you will become.
The world you face is one of accelerating change and
uncertainty. To put this world into perspective, let me site a
quotation. "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days,
bribery and corruption are common, children no longer obey their
parents, every man," and I would add woman, "wants to write a
book, and the end of the world is evidently approaching." The
statement has something of a contemporary ring to it. You might
find it on the editorial page, perhaps, of the Denver Post or the
Rocky Mountain News. It was actually written on an Assyrian
tablet some 4700 years ago. I cite it as an example that the
world has rarely been free of apprehension or danger, and it's
unlikely that it ever will be. But it's important that we always
look back and hold up the lamp light of history so that we don't
stumble on our paths to the future.
In the novel, The Six Days of the Condor, there's an
exchange between an older OSS officer and a younger CIA agent.
The younger man turns to the older officer and he said, "Tell me
something. Do you miss the good old days?" The OSS officer
looked back and said, "Not really. But I do miss the clarity of
It is the absence of clarity, the opaqueness of the present
and the future, that will test your imagination, your creativity,
your perseverance, the kind of perseverance in the face of
adversity that has been demonstrated by cadets Matt Quatrara and
Brian Bauman. It's a swiftly changing world that we live in, and
there aren't many precedents to guide you -- no wisdom that
wasn't made for a simpler age.
And in the disorderly world that you've inherited, the
Soviet Union has disintegrated, the Berlin Wall has been swept
into the dust bin of history, and where dictatorships once
prevailed, democratic institutions and free markets are now
openly embraced by freedom-loving people everywhere. Technology
has miniaturized the globe, reducing vast oceans to mere ponds.
Distant countries are now almost neighbors as our bodies travel
faster than the speed of sound and our voices at the speed of
Today the world is not much bigger than a ball spinning on
the finger of science. And yet it's also a world where, like the
sky, storm clouds gather suddenly; where rogue nations threaten
their neighbors; where ethnic rivalries result in slaughter and
anarchy; where terrorism is more sophisticated and lethal than
ever; where flat-eyed fanatics are grasping for terrifying
weapons, nerve agents, germ warfare, and even the makings of
nuclear bombs -- information that's available on the Internet. A
world where drug lords ship tons of their poison across our
borders exploiting the pain of those who seek their rainbow at
the end of a needle.
The end of the world is not approaching us any more than it
did the Assyrian prophet of doom, but the world is changing from
one era to another. And to paraphrase Boris Pasternak's
Lieutenant Schmidt, "The stake where we will stand is at the
border of two different eras of history, and we are glad to be
In standing at this historic border of portent and
possibility, we have a choice. America can stand alone like King
Lear on the coastal cliffs, railing at the churning sees and the
stormy heavens. Or America can emulate Archimedes and ,from the
position of strength where we stand, find a lever to move the
world. As the sole global superpower, America has chosen to move
the world with strength that comes from following what Lincoln
called the "better angels of our nature" -- of liberty, of our
passion for peace, of our ceaseless harboring of hope, of our
colossal willingness of the heart.
Today we send the better angels of America at large out into
the world. They are the best and the bravest and the brightest
that our nation has to offer: men and women who have learned
well, trained hard, and stand ready -- ready to bear what heaven
sends, and wear what John F. Kennedy called the "greenest
garlalands of courage."
We send you, the men and women of the United States armed
forces, you who will stand for the better angels of our nature,
and you who will serve us as the better angels of America.
What does it mean in today's world to serve as our better
angels? It means serving in an Air Force that would astonish Hap
Arnold when he was present at the creation of this powerful
institution some 50 years ago. It means you will serve to shape
the world for the better -- working with military forces of
foreign countries, spreading more democracy to more nations,
building more stability in more regions, and ensuring fewer
threats to the American people and to our interests.
You will also serve as a steady force for peace in the
world. Standing fast and firm in distant regions of vital
interest, ready to deploy every single day and night on the front
lines, the flight lines, and the supply lines. On the tip of the
spear, providing the steel in the sword of freedom, offering
comfort to allies, and caution to antagonists.
You will be trained and ready to respond quickly and
decisively to a range of calls, from rescuing civilians, to
resolving small scale crises, to containing wars, to defeating
major aggression. And by your duty, your commitment, and your
sacrifice, you will ensure that America remains the master of her
Members of the Class of '97, the nation has invested a lot
in you, just as you have invested a great deal in yourselves.
America's reward is possessing the greatest Air Force in the
world. Your reward is the right to call yourself an officer in
the United States Air Force.
In this Air Force your future is going to prove as
infinitely rich as the universe itself. You will go places and
see things and face challenges and learn skills and savor
experiences that exceed even your three dimensional dreams. It's
a great privilege and it's an awesome responsibility.
You must take care of people and their families. You must
think and act and lead in the face of danger. To serve as
America's guardians, you must uphold the highest standards of
conduct in the world -- character, integrity, excellence,
service, teamwork. You must treat every man and woman with
dignity and respect -- every
man and every woman. And you will be held to these standards
because the eyes of the nation and the world will be upon you.
You are more than warriors and sky walkers. You are the
ambassadors of this country and you spread our values and our
virtues wherever duty takes you.
Sometimes members of the force will fall short of our
standards. As Adlai Stevenson once said, "It's easier,
oftentimes, to fight for principles than to live up to them."
While harassment, abuse, and misconduct have occurred in the
ranks, these breaches of faith are the exceptions rather than the
rule, and they do not paint the true picture of service in the
armed forces, or the service that our armed forces are providing
to people the world over. We've worked hard to build a military
force based upon the values of mutual respect and dignity and
cooperation -- not because we're social engineers or determined
to be politically correct, but because these values are essential
for the teamwork that is central to the military effectiveness of
our country. You must live with these values every day, in every
aspect of life in the military, on duty and off.
There are some who now suggest that the military is
preaching Victorian values in the age of Aquarius, that our
standards are unrealistic, or maybe even undesirable when
contrasted with contemporary mors. They would have the military
define decency down. I disagree.
I believe the reason that our military is the best in the
world is because we refuse to accept the least.
Justice Benjamin Cardozo had occasion to address the
question of standards that the law demands of trustees and
fiduciaries. He said the standard is higher than the morals of
the marketplace; that trustees must possess and practice the
punctilio and honor of the most sensitive.
You are the nation's fiduciaries of freedom. We entrust to
you the heartbeat of our nation, the security of our citizens,
and we demand far more of you than any others in our society.
That has been the history of America's military and that must be
your legacy as well.
Bear in mind the unadorned wisdom of an individual named
Vernon Baker. Mr. Baker was among those World War II heroes who
half a century ago were denied the Medal of Honor earned for
courage in battle -- denied it simply because he was an African
American. It was not the content of his character that was
measured; simply the color of his skin.
When President Clinton bestowed upon him the Medal of Honor
last February, Mr. Baker described how he lived his life,
offering very simple but I think sage advice to all of us. He
said, "Give respect before you expect it; treat people the way
you would want to be treated; remember the mission; set the
example; and keep going."
Joseph Epstein wrote an essay about the absence of all the
choices in our lives, the randomness of our existence from birth
to death. But amid all of the choicelessness, he said, "We
choose how we shall live -- courageously or in cowardice;
honorably or dishonorably; with purpose or adrift. We decide
what is important and what is trivial. What makes us significant
is what we do or refuse to do. We decide and we choose, and so
we give definition to our lives."
By deciding to be an officer of the United States Air Force,
you've already chosen how you'll give definition to your lives.
Your motto is pauchi fideles -- the few, the faithful. Let me
add another Latin maxim -- one that was written on a gift that I
received when I graduated from college too many years ago. It
said the words, res non verba -- deeds, not words.
The Class of '97, may your profile always be marked by
courage and honor and high purpose. God bless the Class of 1997.