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Air Force Academy Commencement (Colorado Springs, CO)
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Thank you, Secretary Wynne.

General Moseley, Senator Bunning.  Distinguished guests, members of the public, leaders of the Air Force – past, present, and future.

One of the great advantages of being Secretary of Defense is that I have many opportunities to interact with our military’s top leaders – and I even have quite a few opportunities to pay tribute to them publicly when they retire or move on to new commands.

I don’t, however, have nearly as many chances to pay tribute to our nation’s youngest leaders – to thank them for their service.  So I am grateful for the chance to thank the Class of 2007 [applause] for their choice.

And I am particularly honored to be able to say to the Class of 2007 [applause]: Congratulations on this achievement!  You’ve certainly earned it.

I presided over 39 commencement ceremonies as president of Texas A&M University.  One thing I learned from 39 commencement addresses: keep it short.  [Laughter, applause] Because to paraphrase President Abraham Lincoln, “you will little note nor long remember” what is said here today.

George Bernard Shaw once told a speaker he had 15 minutes to speak.  The speaker replied, “15 minutes?  How can I tell them all I know in 15 minutes?”  Shaw responded, “I advise you to speak very slowly.”  [Laughter]  I’ll try to speak quickly.

On the way out here, my Air Force pilots had a chance to give me a few minor suggestions for my speech.

They said that I should definitely mention Billy Mitchell and Curtis LeMay and Hap Arnold.

And Eddie Rickenbacker and Dick Bong and Steve Ritchie.

And the Doolittle Raiders and the Flying Tigers and the Tuskegee Airmen.

And even Old Chicago’s and Phantom Canyon and Hap’s Place.  [Applause]  I told them I wasn’t sure if I could work them all in, but I’d do my best.  They responded by telling me they weren’t sure if they could avoid heavy turbulence on the flight home, but they’d certainly do their best. [Laughter]

I was commissioned as an Air Force second lieutenant in 1966.  By that time, the importance of airpower was an accepted fact.  But people forget that it wasn’t always so.

In the early 1900s, right after the dawn of flight, other services had no great love of airplanes.  The cavalry in particular was opposed to their use, because they were afraid the planes would scare the horses.

The intellectuals weren’t much better.  In 1908, one of the nation’s leading astronomers wrote in the trade magazine Aeronautics that – and I quote – “another popular fallacy is to suppose that flying machines could be used to drop dynamite on an enemy in [a] time of war.”

Even the guys who invented the airplane had their share of trouble.  On a test flight for an Army contract, Orville Wright took to the skies with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who served on the Army’s contract board.  

After a few minutes in the air, disaster struck and the plane crashed to the ground.  Lieutenant Selfridge’s last words were, “Take this damn thing off my back.” [Laughter]

I should note that the Wright brothers eventually got the Army contract.

Since then and throughout the 60-year history of the Air Force, Americans have stood in awe as airmen pushed the limits of technology and courage.  Airmen have crashed through the sound barrier many times over, and extended the range, scope, and nature of air missions beyond what anyone could have imagined – to the point of running 7,000-mile B-2 bombing sorties in Iraq from Whiteman Air Force Base, where I was assigned to a Minuteman missile wing more than 40 years ago.

It is upon this great tradition of technological innovation that the Air Force was formed, and it is this great legacy of personal courage that lives within each and every graduate of this institution.

Four years ago you joined the Air Force Academy as lowly fourth classmen.  Today you leave as officers in the United States Air Force – the sword and shield of the United States [applause], its sentries and its avengers.

So it’s not an easy path.  You are one of the first classes to begin the arduous process of application to the Academy since September 11th.  You knew the dangers of the world you were entering, but you still chose to step forward.  You still chose to embark on the journey that brings us here today.

Along the way, you learned a tremendous amount about the Air Force – its history, its traditions, its great personalities, its evolution, its future.

But, just as important, you learned a tremendous amount about yourselves.  About your commitment.  About your endurance.  About what it takes to be a leader.

There were also many successful ventures outside the classroom – from setting a world record for a free-fall formation, to having the best basketball season in the Academy’s history [applause], to learning about the dangers of dancing alone in your dorm room [laughter, applause] if your roommate happens to own a video camera.  And yes, I’ve seen the video.  Don’t give up your day job.

Even embarrassment is part of growing up.

And forcing all of you to grow up – to live up to the highest standards personally and professionally – is a large part of what the Academy has done over the past four years.  This institution strives to create not just a better officer, but a better individual – even if at times it seemed unclear exactly how SAMIs and rifle runs would do that.

But we are not here today just to look back to the past and recognize all that you have achieved.  We’re also here to look ahead to the future – to recognize all that you will achieve in the coming years.  

It is by no means an easy future.  We are engaged in two wars on the other side of the world – and we are engaged in a global ideological struggle against some of the most barbaric enemies we have ever faced.  There are also many threats on the horizon, both traditional and non-traditional, and as always there are the threats that still lie beyond the horizon, threats we cannot yet even perceive.

The world you are entering is much more complicated than it was when I was an Air Force officer during the Cold War.  You will not always know who your enemies are.  You will not always be able to understand their motivations.  And you will not always be able to rely exclusively on technology to win battles or wars.

The challenges you face will test both your spirit and your resolve.  At the Academy you have undoubtedly heard much about what it takes to be a leader.  Well, the time for words has now passed.  From this day forward, you will have to demonstrate that you can live up to the standards you were taught.  That you can perform in a military that is unique in the world in terms of how heavily it relies on the judgment and integrity of its junior officers.

I can tell you that it will rarely, if ever, be easy.  Far too often today we see the results of a failure of leadership at too many levels – whether in the home, in schools, in business, in government, and yes, even in the armed forces.  It certainly does not have to do with the natural capabilities of our leaders.  They are for the most part smart, educated, driven.  They did not rise to positions of leadership by accident – but by demonstrating a capacity, and a willingness, to lead.

But the ability to lead carries with it great responsibilities – for it is just as easy, if not easier, to lead people down the wrong path.  It is easy to try to cover your tracks if you make a mistake.  

It is easy to give your superiors good news even when you know it is not warranted.  It is all too easy to sacrifice the long-term interests of the service and the nation for short-term personal gains.

All these things are easy, but they’re wrong.  Moral quandaries of the sort you will face are made more difficult by the realities of the world today.

We live in an age where friends and enemies alike will seek out and focus on any and all mistakes made under great stress; where the irregular battlefield will present life-and-death decisions, often with no good choices.  Where the slightest error in judgment – or even the perception of an error – can be magnified many times over on the Internet and on TV and circulated around the globe in seconds.

You will face enemies who possess no conscience and no remorse – who will lie about and distort your actions, and who will purposefully blur the line between civilians and combatants.

Your actions will also be under scrutiny by those who support you – by the Congress, the press, and by everyday citizens.  And make no mistake about it – your supporters at home will be watching – and setting their expectations high. 

There is only one way to conduct yourself in this world – only one way to remain always above reproach.  For a real leader, the elements of personal virtue – self-reliance, self-control, honor, truthfulness, morality – are absolute.  They are absolute even when doing what is right may bring embarrassment or bad publicity to your unit or the service or to you.  Even when doing what is right may require sacrificing personal allegiances and friendships for professional duty and ethics – for personal honor.

Those are the moments that will truly test the leader within you – test whether you will take the hard path or the easy path, the wrong path or the right path.  Always remember, as a wise man once said, “following the path of least resistance is what makes men and rivers crooked.”

The willingness always to take the right path, even if it is the hard path, is called character.  In every aspect of your life, whether personal or professional, you must always maintain the courage of your convictions – your personal integrity.  President John Adams wrote to one of his sons: “A young man should weigh well his plans.  Integrity should be preserved in all events, as essential to his happiness, through every stage of his existence.  His first maxim should be to place his honor out of reach of all men.” 

And, I would add, don’t kid yourself.  More often than not, doing this involves traveling a difficult and lonely road.

In today’s age, it may sometimes seem as if ideas like character and honor and patriotism are ideas whose time has passed.

A Scottish general recently told the Pentagon press corps, “I still believe in duty, service, and sacrifice.”  But, he added that “may be a bit old-fashioned.”

By your decision at a young age to choose the path of service, you have already proven that the time for these ideas has not passed – that they are not old-fashioned – that in fact right now, with all the challenges we face, this is the time when we most need to recommit ourselves to them.

The values of duty and service and sacrifice may be old, but that is because they are timeless.  They may be obvious, but that is because they are true.  They are interwoven into the very fabric of our nation’s past, present, and future.

Almost 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered an extraordinary speech called “Citizenship in a Republic.”  In an oft-cited passage, Roosevelt said:

“In the long run, [our society’s] success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty. . . . The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed.”

But Roosevelt went on to say something else that’s not often quoted.  He added that “the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”

You are not average citizens – and so you can never be content to be merely “good citizens.”  You must be great citizens.  In everything you do, you must always make sure that you are living up to the highest personal and professional standards of duty, service, and honor – the values of the Air Force, the values of the American armed forces, indeed the values of the United States.

And when you are called to lead, when you are called to stand in defense of your country in faraway lands, you must hold your values and your honor close to your heart.  You must remember that the true measure of leadership is not how you react in times of peace or times without peril.  The true measure of leadership is how you react when the wind leaves your sails, when the tide turns against you.  If at those times you hold true to your standards, then you will always succeed.  If only in knowing you stayed true and honorable. 

A final point.  Today you will take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.  I have taken that oath seven times over the last forty years – the first when I enlisted in 1966 and the last when I became Secretary of Defense.

Today, as I did with your Naval Academy colleagues last Friday, I want to encourage you always to remember the importance of two pillars of our freedom under the Constitution – the Congress and the press.  Both surely try our patience from time to time, but they are the surest guarantors of the liberty of the American people.

The Congress is a co-equal branch of government that under the Constitution raises armies and provides for navies and air forces.  Members of both parties now serving in Congress have long been strong supporters of the Department of Defense, and of our men and women in uniform.

As officers, you will have a responsibility to communicate to those below you that the American military must be non-political and recognize the obligation we owe the Congress to be honest and true in our reporting to them.  Especially when it involves admitting mistakes and problems.

The same is true with the press, in my view a critically important guarantor of our freedom.  When it identifies a problem, as at Walter Reed, the response of senior leaders should be to find out if the allegations are true – as they were at Walter Reed – and if so, say so, and then act to remedy the problem.  If untrue, then be able to document that fact.  The press is not the enemy, and to treat it as such is self-defeating.

As the Founding Fathers wisely understood, the Congress and a free press, as with a non-political military, assure a free country.  A point underscored by a French observer writing about George Washington in 1782.  He wrote, “This is the seventh year that he has commanded the army and that he has obeyed the Congress; more need not be said.”

Those of us in the chain of command, as well as all of your fellow citizens, are proud of everything the Class of 2007 [applause] has accomplished.  We are proud of the courage you have displayed by stepping forward to volunteer.  We are proud of the courage you have displayed by making it through four years at the Academy.  And we are proud of the courage you will display tomorrow as you go out to face great and daunting challenges, and as you face them with unwavering resolve.

We expect great things from you in the years to come.  The safety of the nation is in your hands – and there is nowhere else the American people would rather it be.

Congratulations, may God watch over all of you, and these United States. [Applause]