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Virginia Military Institute Commencement
As Delivered by Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Lexington, Virginia, Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Thank you very much.  Thank you, Michael.  Thank you.

Superintendent Peay, thank you so much for your service to our country.

Cadet Michael Pasquale, or should I call you Mr. President?  Thank you very much.

I noted that Michael was the captain of his high school wrestling team.  I can tell you from personal experience that wrestling is a fantastic preparation for service in Washington, D.C.  So that background will serve you very well if you ever head in that direction, Michael.

Cadet Hogan, thank you for your thoughtful remarks.  I didn’t understand some of it, but I noticed everyone else in the Corps did.  Congratulations on your achievement.

I’d like to offer a special word to a few of the many dignitaries here.  Mr. Minor, President of the Board of Visitors.

General Knapp -- I should say Mayor Knapp, General Walker, Dr. Sculley, General Newman, I think all of your for your service to our country.

And where is Jack Marsh?  Over to my right somewhere.  Right there in the front row.  Let me say a word about this fellow.  I want to say a very special greeting to my friend of some 54 years over there.  We were elected to Congress back in 1962 and we were just down the hall from each other.  Jack, of course, is a former Secretary of the Army, a former Member of Congress, a former White House official.  He has received the VMI New Market Medal known for the battle that took place 140 or 150 years ago.  Jack, thank you for being here and congratulations for your five-plus decades of public service.

Members of the faculty and parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and family members, VMI alumni.  I congratulate all of you for what you’ve done to help these fine young men and women before me make it to the finish line -- or I guess more appropriately, the starting line I think is probably the way to think of it.

As you depart this very distinguished institution I have no doubt that what you’ve learned here will hold you in good stead in whatever career you may choose.

Over the course of my lifetime I’ve had periods in the Navy, in Congress, in government, out of government, in business, in the academic world.  I mention this because while your careers may go in a number of directions you might find, as I have, that you seem to remember the lessons learned early on.  For me it’s things I experienced in the United States Navy.  I have no doubt that you too will find strength and guidance from what you’ve learned here at VMI.  Lessons of honor and discipline, courage, and service.

Today I want to talk briefly about service, and offer a few thoughts that you might consider as your generation takes on the responsibilities of citizenship.

When this great republic was founded, now almost 230 years ago, it was small, poor, and weak.  Yet when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, Thomas Jefferson advanced the audacious notion that Americans acted not just for themselves alone but for the whole human race.  What a grand thought that was then, and I believe you’re going to find that it is still true today.  What Americans do and what our still-young nation stands for affects the whole human race.

A speaker to my senior class a long time ago, back in 1954 if you can believe it, was Adelai Stevenson.  He was between his two presidential runs against Dwight Eisenhower.  He lost them both.  He was a thoughtful man.  He put it this way.  He said, “If America stumbles, the world could fall.”  That places an enormous burden on each generation of Americans and it’s required that America depend for its very survival on the men and women who are willing to step forward to defend our country.

That calling has long been answered by graduates of VMI.  I know that each of you who survived the many months of the rat line may have found yourself saying if I can get through this, I can get through anything.  And as challenging as it may have been, I’m confident that it’s instilled in you the importance of preparation and the noble idea of serving a cause larger than yourselves.  Your experience here will benefit you throughout your entire lives.

I was recently told about a VMI grad -- a Marine -- who was deployed to Iraq a few years ago.  He recalled that when he first crossed the Kuwait border, he reached in his pocket and he put on his VMI ring.  Whenever he went on patrol thereafter he would slip that ring on.  He said he just didn’t feel right doing something so important without it.

I have a feeling that throughout your lives, whether serving our country in uniform or out of uniform, you might also look to that ring and draw strength from what it stands for -- excellence, honor, and courage.

The courage lives in men like Jim Hickey in the Class of 1982, who like others wanted to attend VMI for much of his life.

When a friend heard that he had gone to Iraq to take command of the unit that was hunting down Saddam Hussein, he predicted that “They’re going to catch Saddam Hussein within a week.”

Actually, it took a bit more time, but his friend was correct.  Jim’s unit did help pull Saddam Hussein from a spider hole at that farm north of Baghdad.

Each of these individuals are part of the VMI tradition.  And as of today, so are each of you.

You enter the world at a complicated time.  Today’s world is actually freer than it has ever been in history, but those freedoms are threatened as never before.  We’re a nation at war, but it’s a war unlike any that our country’s ever had to fight.  for the first time in American history the full view of war -- its glories and its horrors -- are on display to the world -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Today’s warfighters are conducting battles in an era of digital cameras, satellite phones, the Internet, 24 hour news, blogs, and because of these new technologies the American people are seeing things they never saw before about the realities of conflict and of post-war violence.  They will need the help of those of you who have studied military strategy to better understand what it is they’re seeing every day, and to become more aware that war requires continuous adjustments and calibrations, just as the enemy, an enemy with a brain, is constantly adjusting its tactics.

Today, for example, we remember the D-Day invasion in World War II as a great American victory.  That’s how it’s taught.  But many historians also remember it for a series of strategic and tactical errors and decisions based on imperfect intelligence, difficulties that cost lives and delayed the Allied advance.  Actually, it was undoubtedly both of those things, which of course is often the nature of warfare.

You might also want to remind folks that for every story of failure we know there are hundreds more of courage and self-sacrifice, and America’s proven “can-do” spirit.

When we think of VMI, of course, we think of that great strategist and visionary General George C. Marshall.  I just went over and visited the museum nearby.  There are so many things one could say about him -– the Nobel Prize that’s located over in the museum; the author of the Marshall Plan; held in awe by giants like Churchill and Eisenhower and Roosevelt.

But what some of you may not have heard as much about was his knack for improvising and quick decisionmaking -- quintessential American traits.  One story goes that in 1941, an aide called General Marshall out of a meeting spoke to him with a great deal of urgency in his tone about a new vehicle they were considering producing.  The aide said the vehicle was fast and sturdy and mobile.  It’s said that General Marshall asked a few questions and a moment or two later said, “Do it.”

That vehicle was the jeep and within a few short years the Army had produced 640,000 jeeps.  Impressive.

You’ll need to remind your fellow countrymen about these great leaders and remind them as well that our freedom is not inherited -- it’s been earned.  And it has been earned by each new generation of Americans, as it must be.

You might tell them about Dave Williams in the VMI Class of 1991.  One of his fellow cadets remembered him as a mentor who taught him a love of literature and the importance of an honorable life.  Dave, he said, was by no means a famous person but he was, quote, “a young man, a loving husband and a wonderful father.  By any definition he was a successful person.”  He went on to say, “He was my hero.”

A few years ago Dave Williams served in a post in the Pentagon.  He was on duty there the day he died, September 11, 2001.  That husband and father was a casualty of war.

Yours is the first class to have entered VMI since September 11, 2001.  Tell your fellow citizens that since then our forces have gone on the offensive.  Our forces are fighting the enemy on their territory so they will not have to fight them on our territory.

You may have to tell them something else as well.

You may find people who will contend that patriotism is something to be a little bit embarrassed about, or that honor is somewhat outdated as a notion, and that concentrating on America’s imperfection makes you a realist.  Not so.  That’s the sign of a cynic.

Being a cynic is easy.  You can just sit back, heckle from the cheap seats while others serve, storm beaches, build nations, and meet their destinies.

Idealists write history’s stirring chapters.  Cynics read those chapters and seem not to understand.

Choose to be an idealist.

There have always been those who contend that what’s wrong with the world is America.  Don’t believe them.

Remind people why you’re proud of our country and our values and why those values are worth defending.

Remind them today that somewhere in Lexington, Virginia an entrepreneur arrived at a small business free to invest, to take risks, to fail and to try again.  A family ate breakfast in a kitchen full of love and laughter and hope.  Morning prayers were said all across this country, not by dictates of theocracy but by choice, probably in a dozen different languages through a thousand different prayers.  And even those down in their luck remained blessed by the liberty of America.  Such are the blessings that we’re privileged to enjoy and such is the freedom that we must defend and preserve.

It’s the power of freedom that has helped each successive generation of patriots prevail over every form of tyranny -- even when success seemed unlikely, and that was often.  Freedom is our secret weapon, but it’s not the only one.

Back in the early days of World War II someone asked General Marshall if our country had a secret weapon that could win the war.  His famous reply was that we did indeed have a secret weapon: we had, he said, “the best darn kids in the world” and he was right.

I can tell you something from personal experience.  Over the past five years I have been to several dozen nations, to scores of military bases here and abroad, and personally visited with literally tens of thousands of young men and women in uniform.  Some I know once wore the VMI uniform and marched in the gray jacket of a VMI cadet.  Today they stand on the front lines against enemies who are determined to again do our people grave harm.  I’ve seen the pride and the courage in the eyes of the wounded soldiers at Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Hospital and in the eyes of their proud family members who stand vigil.  Their dedication is truly an inspiration.

And have no doubt: we still have what General Marshall called the “best darn kids in the world.”

Today here in this hall your parents and families and friends I know feel exactly that way about each of you -- as well they should.

You’ve been a part of an important institution.  Be proud of its tradition.  Take heed of those words carved in the Jackson arch here on this campus.  “You may be whatever you resolve to be.”  And do full justice to the diploma you’ve earned by living a life of principle and purpose.

At his Valedictorian speech here in 1961 a student named Jonathan Daniels said, “I wish you the decency and nobility of which you’re capable.”  He went on to seminary and then to Alabama where he was jailed for protesting with Civil Rights activists.

After six days in a crowded jail the group was released, only to be confronted by a violent segregationist, who aimed his shotgun at a 16 year old girl.  It’s said that Daniels pushed her aside and was hit by the burst.

He died -- a foot soldier for a cause beyond himself, and a believer in a power beyond this world.  Today he’s considered by the Anglican Church to be one of 15 modern martyrs.  His life was one that mattered.

Whether you serve in uniform or out, serve a cause worthy of yourself.  And, in the words of Jonathan Daniels, “Serve with the decency and nobility of which you are capable.”

And never forget how privileged we all are to live in the greatest country on the face of the earth.

You have my very warm congratulations, my best wishes.  Go out and make history and resolve to live a life knowing you will leave footprints.

God bless you all.