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Command And General Staff College (Army Leadership)

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Ft. Leavenworth, KS, Friday, May 07, 2010

Good afternoon.  Thank you, Kevin, for the introduction.  I can tell you it is good to be out of D.C. and back in my home state – at least for a short visit.

However, I realize that it is Friday, and after lunch, so I will be content with thanking you for staying awake, or trying to anyway.

Of course, falling asleep in a leadership class or here is one thing.  Falling asleep in a small meeting with the president of the United States is quite another.  But it happens.  I was in one cabinet meeting with President Reagan where the president and six members of the cabinet all fell asleep.

In fact, the first President Bush created an award to honor the American official who most ostentatiously fell asleep in a meeting with the president.  This was not frivolous.  He evaluated candidates on three criteria – first, duration – how long did they sleep?  Second, the depth of the sleep; snoring always got you extra points.  And third, the quality of recovery – did one just quietly open one’s eyes and return to the meeting, or did you jolt awake – and maybe spill something hot in the process?  Well, you will appreciate that the award was named for Air Force Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, who was the national security adviser at the time.  He was, as you might suspect, the first awardee, and, I might add, won many oak leaf clusters.

Today, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you about the Army and your role in its future before taking your questions. 

Fort Leavenworth and the Combined Arms Center could easily be described as the intellectual center of gravity for the Army.  Just like the Army it represents, this post has undergone fundamental changes in the last decade – nine years of which we have been at war.  Gone are the days when part of your school year was spent learning to defend against an armored land invasion through the Fulda Gap. 

This institution has adapted to our current war footing with speed and flexibility.  Leaders here have learned and explored the latest technologies and are currently using the web, social media, and other tools to rapidly turn battlefield lessons learned into usable tactics, techniques, and procedures.  The development of the next generation of counterinsurgency doctrine under then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus is perhaps the most famous recent example.  Combining sources as diverse as David Galula, a British “Small Wars” manual from the 1890s, plus the hard fought experience of the post-9/11 campaigns, it was used to great success during the surge in Iraq, and is helping guide our strategy in Afghanistan.

The Center for Army Lessons Learned is shouldering the herculean task of codifying and collating an enormous amount of information flowing in from the battlefield and around the world.  This information is then distilled down into products providing guidance on topics ranging from counter-IED operations to tribal customs – products that maintain our combat leaders’ decision-making superiority over an adaptive and implacable enemy. 

Carrying that spirit of innovation forward, Army senior leaders have sought real-time feedback – online and off – on a range of issues including the spectrum of current operations, the Army’s force generation system, and stress on the force.

With regard to reducing the strain on soldiers and their families, we have made some headway but are not where we need to be.  At the height of the Iraq war, the Army was operating at roughly a one-to-one dwell time ratio for certain specialties while others were deploying rarely, if at all.  It was unsustainable; as you know, the Army has now set a goal of two years at home for one year deployed for the active duty, and four to one for the Guard and Reserve.

Part of the solution is increasing the pool of soldiers available to deploy.  One of my first acts as defense secretary was to increase the end-strength of the Army by 65,000 active-duty troops, and last year I later authorized a temporary increase of more than 20,000 for this high-demand period.  The Army has met that goal three years ahead of schedule.  With this increase and our coming drawdown in Iraq, we have made strides towards the goal of one to two, but we aren’t there yet.  In reality, the current strain will probably continue at least well into next year as the drawdown in Iraq is partially offset by the troop increase in Afghanistan, where a gradual transition to Afghan security responsibility will begin next summer.

The increase in end-strength is only half of the picture.  The Army is rebalancing billets and units within and between the active and reserve component to better reflect the capabilities needed now and in the future.  We are disbanding or reducing Cold War era companies – for example, air defense in the National Guard – and standing up high-demand, low-density units like special operations, military police, and others.  All told, the Army has undergone its largest organizational transformation since World War II and done so with 100,000-plus soldiers continuously deployed since the beginning of the Iraq war. 

Now, apart from prosecuting the wars, my highest priority is the continuing care of our wounded and injured.  This means ensuring they receive world-class medical, mental, and transitional support.  I remain concerned about soldiers’ outpatient care, which has again received some less-than-flattering reviews in recent weeks.  General Casey and General Chiarelli, my former senior military assistant, are championing the Army’s efforts to care for those suffering from post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury as well as comprehensive suicide prevention efforts and doing everything possible to address and reduce the disturbing increase in suicide rates. 

But efforts from the top are not enough.  As military leaders, you must care for your subordinates and make sure they have the information, resources, and skills they need to be successful soldiers and members of society.  Strong unit-level leadership is needed not just to prevent soldiers from ending their lives, but to open the door for them to seek help.  You must make this a visible and vocal priority within your organizations.  We all have our part to play to end the stigma of seeking help for mental-health issues.  If someone is struggling with what they have seen in combat or adjusting to a home environment, it is your duty to give them the support they need. 

This care is not just for the soldier.  It must extend to the family as well.  The saying goes you recruit a soldier, but you reenlist a family.  This year’s defense budget includes $9 billion for family support:  child care, spousal services, and housing, among others.  We also shifted funding for many family support programs from supplemental war requests to the base budget – to ensure that these programs won’t go away when the wars do.

Something that has always concerned me is that we have very good programs, but they are not taken advantage of because too often families do not know they are available.  As leaders, getting the word out about these resources is as important as knowing they exist. 

Let me say a few words about the future capabilities of the Army as they relate to the evolving nature of conflict.  There has been a concern that our force is too focused on counterinsurgency, and has lost its edge for complex, conventional operations involving multiple brigades or divisions.  The experiences of the British colonial army before World War One have been given as an example.  This is a legitimate concern, and we continue to work toward finding the right balance.  But the notion that the U.S. Army is turning into some sort of nation-building constabulary that is losing its core competencies – above all, to shoot, move, and communicate – does not reflect the realities of the tough combat that has taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan – as you know all too well. 

We are moving ahead with substantial programming and funding that supports the full spectrum of capabilities.  The Army is accelerating the development of the Warfighter Information Network and will field it – along with proven and viable FCS spinoffs.  I remain committed to the Army’s ground-vehicle modernization program – but it has to be done in a way that reflects the lessons we’ve learned the last few years about war in the 21st century.

To some extent, much of the debate between low-end and high-end misses the point.  The black-and-white distinction between conventional war and irregular war is becoming less relevant in the real world.  Possessing the ability to annihilate other militaries is no guarantee we can achieve our strategic goals – a point driven home especially in Iraq.  The future will be even more complex, where conflict most likely will range across a broad spectrum of operations and lethality.  Where even near-peer competitors will use irregular or asymmetric tactics and non-state actors may have weapons of mass destruction or sophisticated missiles.

So, even as you institutionalize what we have learned about counterinsurgency, the CGSC must also be at the forefront of thinking ahead to future conflicts that will traverse that broad spectrum of operations.  You must develop the analysis, doctrine, strategy and tactics needed for success in 21st century conflicts that are likely to be very different from 20th century conflicts – and different from conflicts we are in now.  You must continue to be the visionaries, the pathfinders, the intellectual cutting edge of the Army.

As we prepare for the future and pursue modernization plans, we must always recognize the limits of technology – and be modest about what military force alone can accomplish.  Advances in precision, sensor information, and satellite technologies have led to extraordinary gains that will continue to give the U.S. military an edge over its adversaries.  But no one should ever neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of war or succumb to the techno-optimism that has muddled strategic thinking in the past. 

That is especially true for the ground services, which will be in the lead for – and bear the brunt of – irregular and hybrid campaigns in the future.  We must never forget the brutal truth spoken by General Joseph (Vinegar Joe) Stillwell “No matter how a war starts, it ends in mud...It has to be slugged out – there are no trick solutions or cheap shortcuts.”  Nor can we forget the harsh reality expressed in Anton Myrer’s classic novel of WWII, Once an Eagle.  He wrote “…once the eminent heads of state in all their infinite wisdom decide that [war] must be, once the drums begin to beat – there is nothing ahead but fear and waste and misery and desolation.  Nothing else.  Once the engine has started it must shudder and rumble to the very end of its hellish course, come what may.”  And you will bear the brunt of that reality.

The success of the Army and the security of our country in this environment will be based to a large extent on men and women like you.  As students at Command and General Staff College, roughly 80 percent of you have combat experience and more than half of you have multiple tours.  This makes your class one of the most heavily deployed, combat-tested groups of officers in military history.  You are the next generation of forged “Iron Majors” going into operations or executive officer positions, some of the most important and pivotal jobs in the Army:  charged with executing your commander’s operational vision, mentoring the next generation of junior officers, and applying lessons learned in the classroom and on the battlefield.  This next assignment for you cannot just be mastering the art of PowerPoint, moving the military decision making process along, and presenting your three required courses of action. 

I encourage you to keep the entrepreneurial and sometimes contrarian spirit that you have developed during your combat tours.  You have had unique learning experiences – from providing security for elections that determine the fate of nations to getting feuding groups to work together instead of killing each other.  You have learned how to restore infrastructure and services to places that desperately need them, and how to understand the strategic impact those improvements can have.  You have been in deadly firefights, and you have seen your soldiers wounded and die.  Now, you must incorporate all these experiences and lessons into your training cycle to institutionalize what you have learned – capabilities that will be critical to success in Afghanistan and other potential conflicts.

Your responsibilities run up as well as down.  As you have no doubt been told you are now “them” – the field graders you sometimes resented as captains and lieutenants.  Your rank and position puts you over the tactical level leaders on the team that will need, if not ask for, your mentoring and guidance.  You stand to influence the company commanders, platoon leaders, and staffs of the entire organization.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the fate of the entire organization will rest on your hard work and ability to forge a successful team.  The mentoring of the next generation of officers is essential as they will be the Army leaders that fill your roles once you have moved up.  In doing this, you will have the advantage of knowing more about 21st-century warfare than many with PhD degrees on their wall or stars on their shoulders. 

I have always been impressed by the way the Army’s professional journals like Military Review allow some of our brightest and most innovative officers to critique – sometimes bluntly – the way the service does business; to include judgments about senior leadership, both military and civilian.  I believe this is a sign of institutional vitality, health and strength.  I encourage you to take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent whenever the situation calls for it.

I say this because in the positions you will soon assume, you are certain to face situations where you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision; when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell them that you can’t get the job done with the time and resources available; or when you will know that what superiors are telling the press or the Congress or the American people is inaccurate.  There will be circumstances when speaking blunt truths could offend superiors and your peers as well.

Whenever I visit the military academies, I remind cadets and midshipmen of the example of George Marshall – whose portrait hangs behind my desk.  In late 1917, during World War I, U.S. military staff in France was conducting a combat exercise for the American Expeditionary Force.  General Pershing was in a foul mood.  He dismissed critiques from one subordinate after another and stalked off.  But then-Captain George Marshall took the arm of the four-star general, turned him around and told him how the problems they were having resulted from not receiving a necessary manual from the American headquarters – Pershing’s headquarters.  And the commander said, “Well, you know, we have our problems.”  And Marshall replied, “Yes, I know you do, General . . . but ours are immediate and everyday and have to be solved before night.”

After the meeting, Marshall was approached by other officers offering condolences for the fact he was sure to be fired and sent off to the front line.  Instead Marshall became a valued adviser to Pershing, and Pershing a valued mentor to Marshall.  As a general, Marshall had similar exchanges with President Roosevelt before and during World War II.

Like Marshall, you must always ensure that your moral courage serves the greater good:  that it serves what is best for the nation and our highest values – not a particular program nor pride nor parochialism.  I would encourage you to be principled, creative, and reform-minded.  And I say that knowing full well the risks that entails.

A final piece of advice:  through it all, try to keep a sense of humor.  President Ronald Reagan used to tell a story about a businessman who once sent flowers to the grand opening of a friend’s new branch office.  Unfortunately, there was a mix-up with the delivery and the flowers arrived with a card that read, “Rest in Peace.”  The businessman was none too pleased and contacted the florist to demand an explanation.  The florist replied, “Just think of it this way. Today someone was buried in this city beneath a flower arrangement with the inscription, ‘Good luck in your new location.”

As you each go up to your new duties and new responsibilities, I wish you good luck in your new location.  And please pass along my personal thanks to your troops and their families for the sacrifices they make every day.  Without your and their dedication and courage, without the support of your and their families, nothing would be possible.  The security of our beloved country is in your and their hands.  And we are tremendously grateful to you.

Thank you.

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