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Presentation of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award to Steven Spielberg
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, The Pentagon, Washing, D.C., Wednesday, August 11, 1999

Thank you very much. Steven [Spielberg]; I was going to say Senator [Strom] Thurmond, who was here earlier today, and pay a special tribute to Strom, who in fact dropped into Normandy so many years ago; Deputy Secretary [John] Hamre; General [Hugh] Shelton [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and Mrs. Shelton; Admiral [Jay] Johnson [Chief of Naval Operations] and Mrs. Johnson; officers of the armed forces; Janet [Cohen]; and ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to begin with a quote from Euripides, one of the great Greek tragedians. He asked in one of his plays, he said, "How do I praise thee and not overpraise, yet mar thy grace by stint thereof?" It’s a challenge to praise a man who has won nearly as many awards as we have forces deployed, [laughter] well, at least as many peacekeepers as we have in the Sinai and in Haiti. [Laughter.]

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who was the father of one of our greatest Supreme Court justices wrote that, "The first thing naturally when one enters a scholar’s study or library is to look at his books. One gets a notion very speedily of his tastes and the range of his pursuits by a glance at his book-shelves."

Well, if we substitute the words "films made" for "books read," then we take the mark of Steven Spielberg rather quickly. He has the wonderful, multicolored imagination of a child, where fancy can take futuristic flight on gossamer wings, as it did in E.T., or descend into the terrifying phobias of Poltergeist or Jaws or Jurassic Park.

But, for me at least, what displays the range of his mind is his fascination, not only with where we can go rocketing into the future, but where we’ve been in canvassing our painful past. And here we point to Amistad, The Color Purple, and Schindler’s List. And it’s his respect for our history —the articulate, audible, and visual voice that he gives to our experience at a time when so much of its substance is being erased by the PC’s delete key —that illuminates his soul.

He is determined, through his art and through his philanthropic works, to help America avoid the fate of Robert Frost’s "Hired Man," who "had nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope."

Which brings me to the reason why we are all here today, and that is to express the Defense Department’s gratitude for what this visionary liberal-slash-conservative —I could say "compassionate conservative," but that would be wrong [laughter][and] what he has done for the men and women who have worn our nation’s uniform and who wear it today, who were and are prepared to rappel into the hell of war and, for so many, into annihilation itself, for a cause greater than self.

It was just about a year ago today that Jack Valenti — a decorated World War II veteran, who had 51 flights, [and] who, along with Strom Thurmond, is a member of Tom Brokaw’s "greatest generation"—that Jack invited Janet and me to a private screening of Saving Private Ryan. And when the last of the credits rolled and the lights came up, almost everybody in the theater that evening had tears in their eyes. Others were so stunned they could not speak. Most wouldn’t make eye contact with one another. All we could hear were the sounds of silence. Everyone simply wanted to leave the theater so we could go home and reflect on the meaning and on the power of that film.

Then, some weeks later, when the Army paid tribute to Steven, the eloquence of his words there only added to the force of his message. He spoke very movingly about how he wanted to make this movie as a way of saying thank you. Thank you to his father, who had served aboard a B-25 during World War II, and thank you to his father’s generation for their service and sacrifice during that war. Well, we are here today in turn to say thank you for what you have given all of us.

I think one of the most remarkable results of that film was not only that it prompted us to go back into the past, but that it prompted so many of the veterans to come forward. Because for decades, many of the veterans struggled to find the right words or the right way to share with family and friends what they had suffered through during war. But over the past year we have heard so many stories of veterans who, after seeing this film, finally ventured forth to tell a son, a daughter, or a grandchild of their experience.

And so this film has provided not only an emotional catharsis for yesterday’s veterans, but a reminder to today’s soldiers that the "gift outright was many deeds of war," that blood and bone and soul were sacrificed so that a mechanized evil in Europe would not triumph and stamp out the fires of freedom.

Ryan, I must be quick to point out, is not a recruitment promotional for the Pentagon. It speaks to us, however, about the importance of values of discipline, of determination, and of sacrifice. And [it] forces us to confront those unsettling, existential questions that go to the very marrow of what it means to be an American. Is our generation worthy of the sacrifices of our forefathers? Are we upholding their legacy? What is the price of freedom? Are we willing to pay the price? And, if so, how high?

Well, there was a book I read some years ago, which remains one of my favorites. It was written by Alistair Cooke. It was a book called America. And in one of the chapters, he made the inevitable comparison between America and Rome. He suggested that we, like Rome, were in danger of losing that which we professed to cherish most, that "liberty is the luxury of self-discipline" and that those nations who have failed to impose discipline on themselves have had it imposed upon them by others.

Then he said, "America is a country in which I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism —the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism —and the race is on between its vitality and its decadence." Then he went on to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, and he said "we have a great country and we can keep it, but only if we care to keep it."

Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out into the faces in this audience. If you look at the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Shelton, if you look at Admiral Johnson, if you look at the faces of the men and women who are serving in our military today -- there are 23,000 who come to work here [in the Pentagon] every day, and [there are] the 1.2 million-plus who wear the uniform every day of the year -- then you know that the race is being won by our vitality and not our decadence.

It is because of people like Steven Spielberg, who remind us of the duty that we have to carry forward, who remind us that we have a great country and that we keep it, but only if we care to keep it.

So for that Steven, I want to say thank you on behalf of all of us, who care so much about this country and want to see that the legacy that we have inherited is passed on to those who will follow us and that the fires of freedom will continue to burn, and that the people who we represent will carry forth the same pride, the same commitment, the same sacrifice of our forefathers. [Applause.]