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Remarks by Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks at the Army War College Commencement (As Delivered)

Well good morning, everyone, and it is truly glorious weather out here.

To Major General [Dave] Hill, and the Army War College faculty and staff, who continue to provide leadership and scholarship here in Cumberland Valley —

To the family, friends, and loved ones of the graduating class, whose support has been vital to their success, not just this year but for many years before —

And of course, to the Army War College Class of 2024 — thank you, all — most especially for taking time to dress up on what would otherwise be a Functional Friday. (Laughter.)

I'll begin with a promise: there will be no afternoon guest speakers today. (Laughter.)

I know your bags are packed, you're ready to go. If you don't have a car loaded up, chances are you're leaving on a jet plane. So I'll try to be brief. At a minimum, I guarantee I won't take as long as "The History of the Peloponnesian War." (Laughter.) It's a low bar, I know. (Laughter.)

Really, I just want to tell one story.

Many years ago, a lieutenant colonel came to the Army War College. 

Like many of you, he'd been serving for just over 20 years by that point. And he'd already had his share of deployments overseas.

Now, history doesn't record if he partook in what are now time-honored Army War College traditions, like the Duck Derby, Jim Thorpe Sports Day, the "Know Your World" expo, or the so-called Boat Yard Wars. 

So we don't know if he ever dressed up like Colonel Carlisle the Eagle, or if he had to cross a local pool using nothing but cardboard, tape, and determination. 

But we can presume that he took a staff ride to Gettysburg. So he probably walked the terrain at Cemetery Ridge like all of you.

And we can be sure that after leading formations for so long, coming to the Army War College was a chance for him to catch his breath.

To be able to pause, think, and reflect. 

To spend time and take care of his family, and himself. 

And also, a chance to debate candidly and learn alongside peers, without judgement.

To forge bonds with joint, interagency, even international counterparts, from ally and partner militaries. 

We'll get back to that lieutenant colonel's story in a little bit — but for now, I'd like to focus on how, over the last year, you've gained from "the Carlisle Experience."

Not just because you earned it or deserve it. 

But rather, because you needed it to stay ready, and for the challenges ahead. 

Think back to when your military or civilian national security career began.

For those of you in uniform, the majority commissioned knowing that you would likely deploy to — or in support of — active war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

Many if not most of you did deploy, clad in those desert cammies and the digi-cam we all remember. It was the era of stop-move, up-armored Humvees, and IBA vests — followed by the era of surges, MRAPs, and "Golden Hour" cas-evacs. 

Over two decades, a good number of you — and your loved ones — endured multiple deployments. Throughout, you made immeasurable sacrifices, as did your families. 

Of course, some of your teammates made the ultimate sacrifice. I know you carry their memories with you every day.

And like every veteran of the 9/11 generation, many of you also bear the scars of those decades of conflict — wounds seen and unseen. For that, the nation owes our deepest debt of gratitude.

Yet despite all that, you chose to stay. To keep serving. To make service your career. 

So even if it does seem a little odd to graduate from a war college some 20 years after you first encountered war, this is part and parcel of your further development into the leadership ranks of U.S. and international security. 

And for your families and you, I also hope it's provided some respite. We owe that, in gratitude to your families: your spouses and your kids, for their love and support. For their service and sacrifice.

We have the fiercest fighting force in the world because we have the finest military families in the world. So let's take a moment to give all those here a round of applause. (Applause.)

Having grown up in a military family, I know what it means to have a parent absent for holidays and birthdays, recitals and games. And so I know how special this year must have been, especially for those families who lived on post. 

To be able to have breakfast together, walk to the bus stop together, and to meet back at that bus stop after school — to be there for that run, jump, and hug — there is no other feeling like that in the world. 

I understand some of you were never able to do that until you came to Carlisle. And so to graduate today, and go on to your next assignment, must feel bittersweet.

But we do need you, all of you, refreshed and ready to meet the daunting security environment facing us at this pivotal moment.

We face a pacing challenge in the People's Republic of China — which is today the most consequential strategic competitor to the United States on the global stage. And it will be so for the foreseeable future.

We face, in Russia, an acute threat to the international system, as illustrated by its ongoing cruel war of choice against Ukraine.  

We face persistent regional threats, like those emanating from North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations. 

And while American servicemembers are deployed today in those and other regions around the world, we also face threats that transcend national and regional borders — from pandemics to climate change.

Here at Carlisle, you've studied most if not all of these challenges, from the new China Integrated Course to the Polar Bears Club. And you've addressed them directly through your research papers and projects, many of which focus on real-world problems that the Army and DoD are grappling with today.

The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I were fortunate to receive a brief recently from the representatives of the Army War College that looked at how to prepare, fight, and win in a protracted conflict. As we've seen in Ukraine, protraction is a condition we must prepare for. So we're applying relevant lessons to other theaters, like the Indo-Pacific. It's just one example of how your scholarship here is informing real-world decisions on operations, activities, and investments.

One trend I know you've observed from your studies is the rapidly-changing character of warfare. Now, Clausewitz warned that it is ever-changing, but today, that change is fueled by the accelerating pace of technology. 

Even so, the value of landpower endures, and that will not change. Just ask the 85,000 soldiers who've deployed to Europe to reinforce our allies and deter Russian aggression against NATO since Putin's 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Yet amid such a dynamic strategic environment, what landpower is and what it can look like is changing. As it must.

Just ask the Army Multi-Domain Task Forces and the Marine Littoral Regiments structured to operate spread across islands dotting half a hemisphere. 

Or ask the increasing number of long-range fires units that are a part of how we're reimagining our force posture, to project power across domains, from land to sea at distances beyond the horizon. 

Or ask the servicemembers and civilians who are seizing opportunities to innovate every day — like using data and AI to improve our decision advantage, leveraging commercial technologies to deliver capabilities to the warfighter at greater speed and scale, and crafting novel operational concepts for how to use those capabilities in ways that confound our competitors and achieve our missions in the battlespace. 

Every Army War College graduate knows what Elihu Root said over a century ago at this institution's founding: that the intent was "not to promote war, but to preserve peace." 

That is still a bedrock truth today. We do not seek out wars. Instead, we seek to deter aggression against America, our allies and partners, and our interests. 

Because part of deterrence is being able to win if we're called to fight, that requires that we have a ready, capable, combat-credible joint force — a force that many of you will help lead, and that others will support or operate alongside. 

But deterrence requires us to sharpen more than just the military tool of national power. Today's complex security challenges require whole-of-government solutions. In every region of the world, preserving and promoting peace demands that America also has a robust diplomatic corps, well-resourced development agencies, and a world-class intelligence community. 

Together, you comprise an enduring advantage that sets us apart and above our competitors and adversaries. We have many assets, of course, but the biggest one is our people, and our allies and partners: you and those you will lead going forward. 

Make no mistake, you will be leading them into challenging times ahead — times that will try your skills, and your souls.

Over the course of your career, you've already been tested. And I say that notwithstanding the rigors of the past year. Thankfully, oral comps are behind you, but soon enough, you will be tested again — and again, and again. 

Some challenges will test your ability to respond under pressure, or your ability to discern competing bits of critical information. 

Other challenges will test your commitment to lead — not just formations, but also the institutions in which you serve. 

Those of you in uniform have been taught how to lead troops since before you commissioned. Others have led teams at various times in your careers to date. That is still needed, with more empathy, creativity, and foresight than ever. 

But at the same time, we also need you to lead your branches, your services, your departments and agencies, to ensure they keep pace with a changing world. 

And please know that being at the top of an organization isn't the only way to drive change. I understand I'm in a privileged position, but you don't have to be the Deputy Secretary of Defense to push for change. You can lead from anywhere, in any organization.

So from this point forward, take that as your charge. Be a change agent. As you shore up the institutional legacies you've inherited, shape and prepare them for what comes next.

Because at times you'll face novel challenges — events and needs that we can't predict or even anticipate today — and you will be at the frontier of solving them. 

That's why what you've learned here matters. Taking time to pause and focus on theory, concepts, and first principles prepares you to meet these unknowns when they come. And they will come.

Indeed, there may well be times when the basic principles and values that you've long held and upheld get put to the test. 

Our country is not immune from the authoritarian winds that sweep the globe. We have seen America tested routinely. While she has withstood, we cannot take that for granted.

But you've had enough tests for now, so let me offer you three pieces of advice — a short study guide, if you will, to help you navigate the tests yet to come.

First, remember your education, and use it. What you've learned here matters, and is meant to be applied. As leaders, we're counting on you to pay it forward. Share the knowledge you've gained, and teach others by example.

Second, rely on the teammates you've gained here at Carlisle, and be reliable to them in turn. 

This year you've met and learned from classmates and families from across the Joint Force, the U.S. government, and from all over the world. They've become your intellectual battle buddies, which means no future challenge need be yours alone to solve. 

When you face a wicked problem, don't be bashful about calling on a fellow graduate whose perspective might help unlock a solution. And don't forget to be there when one of them turns to you. 

Third, root yourself firmly in the values underpinning our democracy. Stay grounded in your commitment to healthy civil-military relations. Forge ties with those who have little direct knowledge of the military or public service. And live your oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. 

Every day that you do, you strengthen the foundations of our professional, nonpartisan all-volunteer force and career civil service. And by so doing, you demonstrate the strength of our free republic to the world.

But you also show strength here at home. This year several of you modeled how to build connectivity with your fellow Americans through the Eisenhower Series College Program: traveling to reach over 2,800 people across 38 universities, high schools, and civic groups.

We need more engagements like that, because every citizen has a role to play in ensuring healthy civil-military relations. Like democracy itself, we all bear a responsibility in upholding and tending to it.

Now, even if you follow all three pieces of this advice to the letter, I can't promise you'll pass every test you'll encounter. No one has all the answers. 

While you've learned here at Carlisle that the best answer might "depend" on many factors, there will be circumstances when you're the variable — and the success of the forces you lead, and the nation you serve, will depend on you. 

At the end of the day, all your education here can offer is a guide to steer you in the right direction. If anything, history tells us that human beings are perfectly imperfect at predicting what the future might hold. 

For instance, remember that lieutenant colonel whose story I began with?

Well, after he graduated from the War College, he kept rising through the ranks. 

He led soldiers in peacetime and wartime, where he was awarded the Silver Star.

He ultimately served 41 years in uniform, and retired with honor and distinction. 

And that could've been the rest of his story. But unbeknownst to him when he sat where you're sitting right now, history had other plans. 

Because today, he continues to serve our nation, as our Secretary of Defense. 

Now, where your paths will take you from here, no one knows for sure. After all, anything is possible. The rest of your stories are still unwritten. 

But as you conclude one chapter of your service and begin another, I do know this: All of you will make vital contributions: for the good of our country, our allies and partners, and the world. 

For that, both I and the nation are eternally grateful. So thank you very much. And congratulations.