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Cohen Praises, Challenges Newly Commissioned West Point Graduates
Remarks by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, West Point, N.Y., Saturday, May 30, 1998

Thank you very much [Lieutenant] General [Daniel W.] Christman, for your generous introduction and thank you for your words about [Civil War Col.] Joshua Chamberlain, certainly a hero of mine.

Senator [Jack] Reed, Congressman [Benjamin A.] Gilman, Acting Secretary of the Army Mike Walker, General [Dennis J.] Reimer, Ralph and Anita Leonard, who are with us today from Maine, faculty, families, friends of West Point, honored guests and, of course, my wife Janet, who we call the First Lady of the Pentagon. Most of all, the Corps of Cadets of what President Andrew Jackson called "the best school in the world." Thank you for the honor that you've given to me by inviting me here to spend a few moments with you on a special occasion in your lives. You've made it a very special one for me as well.

You know, Yale University does not have a commencement speaker, but they make a very big thing out of their baccalaureate service, and there is a story about an Episcopal Bishop who decided he wanted to give his sermon to the graduating class based upon the wonderful letters found in Yale, Y-a-l-e.

He said Y stands for youth and he became so vigorous in his presentation he spoke for a full 20 minutes on the subject of youth. A, he said, stands for ambition. He became so ambitious he spoke another 15 minutes on the subject of ambition. L was for loyalty, and that took 20 minutes. Finally, he said E stands for enthusiasm and with that he became so enthusiastic that he spoke for an additional 35 minutes.

At the end of his sermon, as he walked down from the podium, he saw a student in the audience who had his head in his hand in a sort of prayerful attitude. And he said, "My son, I can see that something that I've said has touched you in a very deep and profound way. Could you tell me exactly what thought it was that has moved you so?" And the student looked back at him and he said, "I'm just sitting here thanking God that I'm not graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology." And I can only tell you that I will promise you I will not base my speech on the many wonderful letters found in the United States Military Academy.

Before I begin, let me say that by virtue of the power vested in my office, those who are either marching or confined to quarters for minor indiscretions, you are hereby absolved. However, I leave it to General Christman to define exactly what minor means.

Cadets, when you arrived at this cloister of gray granite four years ago, you were already the best of the best. West Point set out to make you better. And by the end of that first disorienting day, there was a different face in the mirror. Your hair was a little shorter. You moved a bit quicker. And you had learned the only four responses you would need for a bit of time: "yes, sir;" "no, sir;" "no excuse, sir;" and "sir, I do not understand."

Well, since that day, you've come to understand perhaps more than you realize was possible. You somehow survived Beast Barracks. You learned the value of promptly delivered mail and laundry to the upperclassmen. And perhaps most importantly you always knew, "How many days until Army beats the hell out of Navy."As I look out at this sea of gray, I know that you also now embody what Douglas MacArthur [class of 1903] called "the cardinal virtues of a soldier." You embody the discipline that's going to enable you to endure the stresses and strains of life's tests. You embody the courage that will lead you to rise above even what you may think yourself capable of. And you embody the loyalty to your country and to each other that will energize you in life's inevitable moments of doubt. These virtues defined you as West Point's cadets. They now define you as officers in the United States Army.

The world that you enter has been miniaturized by technology. We've seen vast oceans that have been reduced to mere ponds and the globe to the size of a small ball spinning on the finger of science. Each of you might well echo MacArthur's observation that, "the world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plane at West Point." And, indeed, the world you left behind just four years ago is not the world you're going to lead tomorrow.

When you took your oath on the plane, the roar of the Asian tigers echoed across the Pacific seeming to herald a new era of Asian economic supremacy. Today, many Asian nations are struggling to emerge from beneath a tidal wave of currency crises and financial shocks and political transitions.

The year you took your oath, the last Russian troops boarded trains and left Berlin and there were some who believed that NATO itself would be confined to the dust bin of history. Today, NATO is reinvigorated. It's reaching out to embrace new members and new missions across central and Eastern Europe. And from the hills in Bosnia to the hallways in Brussels, NATO and Russia are reaching across old divides to build a partnership that will be strong and enduring.

And when you took your oath, hatemongers in the Balkans held the people of Bosnia in their death grips. Today, there are new leaders who are giving hope that all Bosnians can one day live together. There's a new common flag that now flies over Bosnia's government buildings and more Bosnia families are going home while more war criminals are going to the international court at The Hague.

The year you took your oath, [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein threatened Kuwait by rushing his tanks and troops to the border, and the United States replied with thousands of our own troops and Saddam backed down. This past fall and winter, Saddam once again challenged the world by trying to cripple the efforts of the international inspectors who are working to prevent him from rebuilding his arsenal of terror. We, along with our allies and friends, responded by building a formidable force that was ready for action. And, once again, Saddam retreated because diplomacy was backed up by strong and credible military power.

With that immediate challenge checked, President Clinton last week authorized me to reduce our forces in the [Persian] Gulf toward pre-crisis levels, although we are going to configure our forces so that we retain in the Gulf a much greater firepower capacity than before the crisis and we can rapidly augment that capability in a moment's notice.

But the challenge posed by Iraq is far from over. Under the terms that suspended the Gulf War back in 1991, Iraq agreed to eliminate its programs to build nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them, and the United Nations established a team of international inspectors who would verify whether Iraq was going to live up to its obligations. Despite Iraq's seven-year effort to evade its obligations, the inspectors have found and destroyed much of Iraq's arsenal while documenting systematic Iraqi lies and fabrications about its unconventional weapons program.

Earlier this year, Iraq asked inspectors to review their compliance with these counsel resolutions, but the teams, which included Russian and Chinese scientists, found that Iraqi deception continues. They found that Iraq had provided no credible evidence that it had ended its biological weapons program, that they still retained their missile warheads and the supplies to produce as much as 200 tons of DX, a chemical nerve agent [--] a single drop of which on your finger can kill you within a matter of minutes.

On Wednesday, the United Nations inspectors are going to brief the U.N. Security Council on what they know and do not know about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Ambassador Richard Butler [executive chairman, U.N. Special Commission], who leads the inspection effort, is going to lay out for the Council what Iraq must do before the inspectors can certify that Iraq has measured up to its responsibilities. And this raises a critically important point.

It is not the responsibility of U.N. inspectors to find biologically or chemically tipped needles in Iraqi haystacks that are scattered across a 178,000 square mile landmass. Under the U.N. Security Council resolution, it is Iraq's responsibility to provide convincing evidence that it has fulfilled its obligations and the world is depending upon the U.N. inspectors to verify that it has done so.

Recent nuclear explosions detonated by India and Pakistan have stunned the world over and has called in my mind at least Winston Churchill's words that we can return to the Stone Age on the gleaming wings of science just as easily as we can glide into the mysteries of the next century.

But these explosions have served as a powerful reminder that we cannot relax or diminish our efforts to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction, nor can the world community afford to keep proclaiming the need to deny Saddam an arsenal of poisons as if it were a mantra, only to allow the passion for profit to subordinate the Gulf, and ultimately global, security.

If the U.N. Security Council is to maintain credibility in its stated goals and resolutions, it must support the U.N. inspectors both in next week's meeting in New York and in their day-to-day efforts to force Iraq to fully comply with its obligations. Because for each weapon these inspectors eliminate today, it's a weapon that our soldiers and our citizens will not face tomorrow.

I mention this today on this day of celebration because it is important to be mindful of the kind of challenges that you and we are going to face and that we measure up to them with courage and conviction.

Cadets, you are leaving a world defined by tradition, stability and order. You are about to enter a world defined by transition, instability and disorder. It's a world with some startling new dangers, of rising ethnic conflicts, of regional aggressors, of asymmetrical threats, of cyber terrorists who would send their poison arrows at our databases or financial markets or banking systems or space-based communications. But ours is also a world of momentous opportunity with booming markets and breathtaking technologies and brave new democracies.

And so we stand at a pivot point in history. We can seize these new opportunities and avoid the dangers or we can avoid the opportunities and be seized by the dangers.

I find it somewhat ironic that the very moment when our ideas and our ideals are invigorating the world, that the dark wings of self-doubt still flutter about our shoulders. We are the world's sole superpower. But many Americans are not sure what that role means. They're not sure what burdens and responsibilities go with it, or whether we should still bear those burdens.

For answers to their questions, they need to look no further than West Point, to what General George Patton [class of 1909] called "this holy place." The plaques and the portraits that line these walls, the monuments, the memorials that rise from these grounds, the names engraved in stone, they are all hallowed reminders. When America ignores the problems of the world, the world brings its problems to the doorstep of America.

There should be no doubt about it. The world that we envision -- a world of more security, more democracy, more freedom -- is impossible without America's active leadership. And, Cadets, American leadership is impossible without you.

During the American Revolution, when the hopes of a people hinged on strategic West Point, General Washington declared this to be "the key to the continent." Well, today, America's hopes for the future still hinge on West Point. You are the key to our country's future. You foresaw this when you selected your class motto: "Duty will not wait."

So, in the coming months and years, you're going to wear what President John Kennedy called "the greenest garlands of courage," to the far-flung corners of the Earth. For you, the Long Gray Line may thread its way through a Patriot missile battery in the wind-swept sands of the Middle East. The Long Gray Line may weave through the streets of Bosnia, or it may wind along the rough hills of Korea where you will stand guard along the DMZ.

But here on the Hudson, where the line begins, I am certain that America's future is in the hands of the nation's best and brightest. You are the pride of our nation, and you are the envy of the world, and being here among you on this special day is one of my highest honors as Secretary of Defense.

Members of the class of '98, the nation has invested much in you, just as you have invested a great deal in yourselves. America's reward is possessing the greatest military in the world. Your reward is the right to call yourself an officer in the United States Army. In this Army, your future is going to prove as infinitely rich as the universe itself. You're going to go places and see things and face challenges and learn skills and savor experiences that will exceed even your three-dimensional dreams. It is a great privilege, but it is an awesome responsibility.

You must take care of people and their families. You must think and act and lead in the face of danger. To serve as America's guardians, you must uphold the very highest standards of conduct in the world -- character, integrity, excellence, service and teamwork. You must treat every man and woman with dignity and respect -- every man and woman. You will be held to these standards because you are, in the eyes of the nation, more than warriors. You are ambassadors. You are ambassadors of this country, and you will spread our values and virtues wherever duty takes you.

We have worked hard to build a military based upon the values of mutual respect and dignity and cooperation. Not because we are social engineers or determined to be politically correct, but because these values are essential for the teamwork that is central to the military effectiveness of our country. You must live with these values every day in every aspect of your life in the military, on duty and off.

I know that there are some who now write and suggest that the military is somehow preaching Victorian values and that our standards are unrealistic or maybe even undesirable when contrasted with contemporary mores. I disagree. I believe the reason our military is the best in the world is because we refuse to accept the least, just as Benjamin Cardozo [associate justice, U.S. Supreme Court, 1932-1938] had occasion to address this question of standards that the law demands of trustees and fiduciaries. He said the standard is higher than the morals of the marketplace, that trustees must possess and practice the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive.

You are the nation's fiduciaries of freedom, and we entrust to you the heartbeat of our nation, the security of our citizens, and we demand far more of you than any others in our society. That has been the history of America's military and it must be your legacy, as well.

In his book, "Citizen Soldier," Steven Ambrose talks about the brave souls of World War II, upon whose shoulders our troops stand today. He wrote that, "At the core, the citizen soldier of the United States knew the difference between right and wrong and he was unwilling to live in a world where wrong triumphed, and so he fought and he won. And all of us in this day, and those who are yet to be born, are eternally grateful."

Cadets, you are America's citizen soldiers today, and you still represent America's refusal to live in a world where wrong triumphs. So as you take one last walk past Battle Monument, as you stand at the cannons for the last time and watch the sun set from Trophy Point, no matter where the Long Gray Line takes you, know that America profoundly appreciates your sense of duty, your sense of honor, and your deep love of country. Know that we are proud of you, of who you are and who you are going to become. And know that we are eternally grateful for your service and your sacrifice.

God Bless the class of 1998.


Published by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission.