Remarks as delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen Yale University New Haven, Connecticut September 26, 1997
In his welcoming address to the Class of 2000, [Yale Law School] Dean Kronman described Yale not only as a college and a community, but also a coliseum of conversation. He said, "We are gathered in this place to discuss the most controversial issues of the day -- those that matter most in personal and political terms."
Tonight I'd like to continue this tradition and discuss a controversial issue: The challenge of how to maintain a strong American military in a time of great expectation, but also one of uneasy peace.
General Colin Powell once captured what makes the job of being an American defense leader so worthwhile. He said, "Meeting the troops is really what it's all about." About two weeks ago, I went out to meet the troops at Fort Riley, an Army training base in Kansas. I watched a platoon of soldiers who were training for field combat. They were trying to make the exercises as realistic as possible, so each soldier, tank and troop carrier was fitted with a laser device that would ring an alarm bell if somebody took aim and mock fired at them. It's similar to the arcade game "laser tag." But it wasn't a game. It was serious business.
For example, if North Korea tomorrow should invade or attack the South, those soldiers would leave Kansas, fly across the Pacific, charge into combat, and brave a hail of hot steel and clouds of poisonous gas. Their training at Fort Riley is going to help those soldiers come home alive, whole in mind and body, with their mission accomplished.
It's really important for me, as Secretary of Defense, to go out and see all of these young people that we have in the military. They are remarkable. You have no idea how talented, how bright, how patriotic and dedicated, and how much sacrifice these young men and women are making every day. I want to go out and see them, not only domestically but internationally, to look in their eyes and see their faces. Because I can change their lives, and I do change their lives, every day, with the stroke of a pen. Each week I have to sign deployment orders that may send several hundred -- sometimes several thousand -- of them off on a mission -- a mission that some may not come back alive from. They risk their all for our national security, which for some remains something of an abstract concept, and yet they go willingly.
We have to ask, why do they do it? It might be duty, honor, country. It might be for esprit de corps, or perhaps to get an education. But all of them have committed their lives to something important and precious.
They are important and precious to me. When I served on the Armed Services Committee, we always tried to take the troops into account in everything we did. When I was sworn in last January, I swore that I would do my level best to protect and defend the members of the armed forces who protect and defend our country. It's my heaviest duty to care for the troops, to ensure that we employ them wisely. And it's my highest privilege, I must tell you, to engage with them every day, which I do.
But it's a privilege that fewer and fewer Americans have. In his address to the new law school class, Dean Kronman quoted Justice Holmes that, "life is action and passion, and one must share in that action and passion at the risk of being judged not to have lived." But in our day there are fewer and fewer Americans who are playing a part in the issue of national defense and national security. There are fewer and fewer who are following our armed forces.
This trend is understandable, even if disturbing. The military is smaller today. It's less dispersed across the country, it creates fewer civilian jobs, and it draws people from a much smaller pool. And our nation is at peace, and in peace, military activities seem less dramatic and they attract less attention. But it's the very existence of this peace that tends to obscure the need to protect and nurture those who secure it.
Someone said that peace is like oxygen. When you have it, you don't think about it. When you don't have it, it's all you think about. Because we have peace today, we tend not to think about the successes and the sacrifices of the men and women who are ensuring that we have peace today and tomorrow.
So when the military, like any large, diverse organization, experiences problems, the problems tend to be magnified out of proportion. Molehills become mountains. Peccadilloes are magnified into the road to perdition in the eyes of some. It's a very distorted picture of what the military is doing day to day.
It's a picture, I might add, that can change rather quickly. Not long ago there were a number of prominent journalists, students of military matters, who were wondering if the armed forces were too good for America. They wanted to know whether the standards were too high, too rigid; whether we were out of touch with contemporary mores; whether perhaps the military is becoming too elitist, that a separate cult as such was developing; whether this group of highly educated, highly motivated, highly disciplined individuals might be looking down their noses with contempt upon contemporary society whose standards were not quite as high or rigid or moral. I must say, our military overall is better educated and more disciplined than society at large, and its members have higher standards than most of their civilian counterparts.
But suddenly you see the picture changing. Now the fixation is on the social issues that are facing the military, so the critics are now asking a different question -- are the armed forces good enough for America?
The answer to that question is a very strong "yes." The military's social issues are America's social issues -- issues that are gripping corporations and communities all across this country. And social issues are a lot easier to grasp than security issues, and they're far more sensational. One TV reporter who covers the Pentagon was quite candid when he admitted that if he can produce a story that has the word "sex" and the word "military" in the same sentence, he will get on national television that evening.
This is not to say that our military is perfect or pure. There are 1.4 million members of the military on active duty. If our military were a city, it would be just behind Philadelphia in size. A fair question to ask is whether we would define Philadelphia by the actions of a few lawbreakers. Would you allow a few problem alumni, if you had them, to define Yale Law School?
We have problems in the military, but they do not define us. Being human, members of the military sometimes are going to fall short of the standards. As Adlai Stevenson once said, it's often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them. And yes, while harassment and misconduct have occurred in the ranks, they really don't paint a true picture of what's going on in the military and what our military is doing all across the globe.
The fact is, the people coming into the military are leaving the military far better citizens than when they arrived. One of the joys that I have is to go around to all of our training centers in the Army, the Air Force, the Marines, and the Navy, and to watch the change in these young recruits in a period of eight, 10, 12 weeks, from the time they shave their heads and get their inoculations to the time they come out the other end. Every week there's a graduation, and the parents say, "How did you do that? How did you take this child of mine in a period of weeks and turn him or her into this soldier? 'Yes, sir!' 'Yes, ma'am.' Respect for authority, discipline, self-confidence, self-esteem. How did you do it?" It's remarkable what we're doing to these young people who are coming into the military.
We have to fight abuse and harassment in the ranks, and we're doing it. We need to treat the ranks with dignity and respect, and we're going to demand that they measure up to military ideals. We have to hold the military to higher standards of conduct; the military holds itself to a higher standard. The reason that we consider ourselves to be the best in the world is because we refuse to accept the least.
So one of the challenges for me is to somehow prevent a chasm from developing between the military and civilian worlds, where the civilian world doesn't fully grasp the mission of the military, and the military doesn't understand why the memories of our citizens and civilian policy makers are so short, or why the criticism is so quick and so unrelenting.
Some years ago, I read a book called The Recovery of Confidence. It was written by John Gardner, who was then the Secretary of HEW. He said something that stayed with me: "The problem is that our institutions" -- not the military, all of our institutions -- "have become caught in a savage crossfire between uncritical lovers and unloving critics." The unloving critics are those who see absolutely no value in our institutions, who want to tear them down with no constructive recommendations for replacements. At the other end of the spectrum are the uncritical lovers -- those who are so enamored with the status quo they will do everything in their power to blunt and nullify and stultify any hope for change.
What Gardner was saying was that we have to become loving critics. That we have to be like a moving stream instead of a stagnant pond. In a stagnant pond, we all know there's death and decay. In a moving stream that's open at both ends, we have life and regeneration. So we have to become loving critics, a moving stream, willing to take in new ideas at one end and slough off old ideas and obsolete notions at the other.
All of us bear that social responsibility to be loving critics of the military. To stand by the people in uniform when they are right; to correct deficiencies when we see them; to make sure that we have the best military in the world. The world is still a very dangerous place. It's full of risk. Having a strong military is our best insurance policy.
I had a law professor once who said if you have ideals without technique, you've got a mess. But if you have technique without ideals, you've got a menace. The same applies to the military and to diplomacy. If you only have great diplomacy, you're going to engage in endless conversation. If you have only a strong military, you run the risk of simply having chest-beating chauvinism. What we need is great diplomacy and a strong military working together.
Several years ago, Vaclav Havel spoke to a joint session of Congress and said, "Things are happening so rapidly we have little time to be astonished." You may recall the thesis written by Francis Fukayama saying that when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire collapsed, it signified "the end of history." That thesis was a bit overstated, but as Dean Kronman was saying just a moment ago, this is a tremendous time to be alive. And what a tremendous opportunity we have to help shape the world for the better -- to become engaged throughout the world -- morally, militarily, diplomatically, economically -- helping it to conform to the highest ideals. We have that opportunity now. Yale Law School's tradition of looking past our borders and out into the world is testament to this.
But there are a few people in our society, some in Congress, some in the Senate, that say something different. They say, "Let the world take care of the world. We've had enough of this. Let's just retreat back to the good old continental United States." Well, we all know we can't zip ourselves into a continental cocoon and watch the world unfold on CNN. We've got to remain engaged if we're going to, in fact, help shape the world in ways that are beneficial to mankind.
And so, let me conclude with a story of Churchill, from the book called Stay of Execution, by Stewart Alsop, the great journalist. He talked about a time he met Churchill at a dinner in London. They had several bottles of wine, and a couple glasses of champagne, and that famous brandy that Churchill loved so much. At one point Churchill looked over at Alsop and said, "America, America. A great and strong country. Like a work horse ready to pull the rest of the world out of the slough of despair and despond." Then, looking directly at Alsop with his cold blue eyes, he said, "But will America stay the course?"
Fifty years later, we can answer his question. America has stayed the course, because that is our legacy. America is going to continue to stay the course, because that is our destiny. And those of you who are here, who are committed to the ideals that the law school represents, will guarantee that this country will measure up in every way to Churchill's question. Will we stay the course? And the answer is yes.
Thank you very much.