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Remarks to the U.S. Military Academy Corps of Cadets

Hello everyone.  What a fantastic looking audience you are and how proud I am of you – more about that in a minute.  Let me thank General Caslen, old friend, done a lot together.  He’s a done a very great deal for our country, and our security, and our army. Thanks, thanks for that introduction. And thanks, General Holland also for welcoming me here today.  Appreciate it, General.  And to all of you, to all of you, first of all, thank you.  Thank you for joining our family, our mission.  The profession that you represent – you’re doing with your lives the noblest thing that you can do, which is to protect our people and make a better world for our children.  That’s why you’re here, that’s why I’m here.  That’s why everyone in our magnificent Department of Defense is there.  Because we wake up every morning with that mission in mind.  And it feels good.  It feels good to be part of something bigger than yourself.  And it’s hard work, but it’s the most important and noble thing you can be doing with your lives.  I want you to know that you should be proud of yourselves, and I as the Secretary of Defense am incredibly proud of you.  I can’t tell you what it’s like to be able to go out and talk to public audiences in the United States and day, “just look at how magnificent are the people who make up our armed forces,” and to see in their eyes the tremendous pride that they have in you.  And they don’t pay attention to what you do every day, and in the way that’s the flipside of being in the business of protection, which is the better you do it, the less people have to think about it.  That’s the whole point.  But in their hearts they know you’re there.  They know they can count on you.  Pretty soon you’ll be joining that noble mission with all of your time and you’ll also be assuming the awesome responsibility that goes with it – the responsibility of leadership and the responsibility of holding in your hands the security of so many in America and around the world. 

Yesterday’s attacks in Brussels were a grim reminder of how serious are the dangers we face, the dangers that civilization and our country face, the challenges of this complex world.  Our thoughts and prayers are, I know yours are, with all those who are affected by this tragedy, who include, particularly worth noting, a U.S. military family that was affected by these attacks. And I, in that connection, want to assure you, and soon you’ll be doing this with me, that we do everything we can to help protect these families, and we will to help this family in this instance, and to protect our service members, wherever they are, and their families – protect them as they protect us.

In the face of these acts of terrorism, the United States stands strongly in solidarity with our ally Belgium.  Brussels is an international city that hosts NATO, the European Union, and other great institutions that represent people working together for a better future, and the opposite for what the people who conducted this attack represent and stand for.  So together with them, we must and we will continue to do everything we can to protect our homeland and defeat terrorists wherever they threaten us.  No attack, no attack, can shake our resolve to accelerate the defeat of ISIL. 

I know that yesterday’s news only galvanizes our determination, yours too, to serve our nation and join those who came before you in this mission of defending our people and the values we share.  So before I get your questions, I want to take some time to talk about the strategic landscape, as we see it from the Pentagon – me and your Army leadership – and after that take a moment to discuss several of the lessons that I hope you’ll carry with you from this extraordinary institution here at West Point to the great challenges that are going to confront you in your career.

The Army, like our entire joint force, is in the process of turning a corner from an era when we were, and I was very much a part of this, very singularly focused upon our counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We had to be.  We did an excellent job.  The military execution was superb.  And we’re now entering a different strategic era, and I’m asking the Army, and our military to change and evolve, and it is. 

And as we look out, the leadership of the department, your senior leaders, we see no fewer than five evolving challenges, big challenges, evolving challenges.  And these are, namely, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism.  We don’t have the luxury of choice among them.  We need to deal with them all.

Two of them represent, in a way, a return to great power competition.  One is in Europe, where we’re taking a strong and balanced approach to deterring Russian aggression – the kind we saw in Ukraine.  We haven’t had to focus on that very much for the last quarter-century since the Soviet Union ended and the Berlin Wall came down, but now we do.  The second challenge is in the Asia-Pacific, the single most consequential region to America’s future because it’s half of where humanity lives, and where half of the economic activity of the planet is, and that’s only growing.  And there China is rising, which is fine, but behaving aggressively, which is not.

Meanwhile, two other longstanding challenges pose specific threats in specific regions.  North Korea is one, and that’s why – I know some of you will be going to South Korea – that’s why as they say over there, and you’ll soon say if you go there, the slogan is to be ready to “fight tonight.”  It’s not what we want, but to deter we have to be ready.  And the other is Iran, because while the nuclear accord reached last year is a good deal in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, we must still deter Iranian aggression, counter it’s malign influence in the region, and continue standing by and standing up for our friends and allies in the region.

And then the fifth challenge, very different from the other four and critically important, is our ongoing fight against terrorism, and especially ISIL.  We’re accelerating our campaign against ISIL, most immediately in Iraq and Syria – that’s where the parent tumor is of this cancer, and we need to defeat it there.  That is necessary, not sufficient – we need to defeat it in other places as well where it’s metastasizing like North Africa, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  And make no mistake, we will defeat ISIL.  I’m completely confident in it.  We want to get it done as soon as we can, but we will destroy ISIL. 

We don’t have the luxury, as I said, of choosing among these five challenges.  We have to deal with them all – and you’re part of our plan to do so.  The Army is transitioning, as I said, to full spectrum readiness.  The force you will lead is stronger than ever.  It’s capable of more kinds of operation than ever.  To deter and win in a conflict, potential enemies have to know that we will dominate them.

Your service will, and I hope it does, span many decades.  A future Chief of Staff of the Army, or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may very well be in this room.  Ten, 20 years from now, new challenges will almost certainly arise.  To help you win now, and to deal with that complex and uncertain future – the world may change – but I think that you’ll find that there are four things that will remain constant, that I predict will remain constant for you, that I want you to keep in your mind.  

The first is this.  Our primary mission will always be the defense of our country and our people.  When I sit with the President in the situation room, we’re always focused on America’s national interests because that’s what matters most.  While the capabilities and capacity of our fantastic institution are enormous and immense, what we commit ourselves to is something we think about very carefully.

We also recognize at the same time that protecting American interests often means leading by example.  Ever since the graduates of this institution led the United States to victory in World War II, America has stood as the world’s foremost leader, partner and underwriter of stability in every region of the world.  It is a mantle we embraced again following the end of the Cold War, and one that continues today to the great benefit of our nation, and also the global community.

The positive and enduring partnerships the United States has cultivated with other nations around the world are built upon our values, and reflect the way we conduct ourselves.  Nations know what we stand for.  They know how we do things and why.  They know we treat them as equals, but we take their interests into account.  That creates opportunities to defend American interests wherever and whenever necessary.  When I travel around the world what I hear always from foreign leaders is how much they like working with you.  You’re capable, competent, like no other military, but you represent values that they like.  They want to work with you.  You conduct yourselves in a way that is attractive to them.  This is important because in order to do the business of protecting the United States, we want others to help in that mission of creating a better world.  We don’t want to have to do everything ourselves.  So it’s important that you have those values, and that they like working with you.  And if you think about it, our enemies don’t have any friends.  We have all the friends and allies, and that’s because of who you are and what you represent, as well as how good you are.   

So whether your responsibilities take you to train, local, capable forces fighting ISIL in Iraq, say, which is what the 101st is doing in Baghdad, or strengthening our posture in the Asia Pacific with a Stryker Combat Brigade in the Philippines, you will see many opportunities where the U.S. military can make a difference around the world.  I want your good ideas.  Our nation needs your good ideas.  When you bring them forward – this is important – always be able to explain how they benefit America’s interests, and by extension the American people.

Another constant, one that has echoed through the generations, is that what makes our military great is our people.  It was a former cadet, President Dwight Eisenhower, who said, “Guns and tanks and planes are nothing unless there is a solid spirit, a solid heart.”

That lesson was reinforced for me several weeks ago at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, when I met with two soldiers – SGT First Class Hastings and SGT Campbell.  Both were seriously wounded in Afghanistan while accompanying Afghan forces – one in a close grenade exchange with the Taliban, the other after taking five shots – three to the SAPI and two to the body.  I spoke to them in that hangar. They were each driven – and you hear this again and again, and you all have probably heard it as well – by a single goal, which was getting back to their unit.  Back in the fight.

So don’t ever forget the caliber of the soldiers you will lead as a brand-new second lieutenant.  Don’t ever forget the quality of experience of the NCOs under your command.  Don’t ever forget the families of every soldier, and the sacrifices they make.  And regardless of what branch you have selected or will select in the future, don’t ever forget that there are soldiers like SGTs Hastings and Campbell who count on you to do your utmost.  

My first, highest commitment as Secretary of Defense really is to our people.  We have other things that make our military great, but it’s our people that make it the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  And it’s because of that commitment that I am committed to building what I’m calling the Force of the Future.  

In the future we have to continue to recruit and retain the very best talent from future generations.  We’re an all-volunteer force.  We like it that way.  We want to pick the members of the military, not have them given to us.  But we have to compete for them and I recognize that.  That is, by the way, the reason why we’re opening all combat positions to women.  It provides them an opportunity, but the real point from my perspective is that it provides us the opportunity, the opportunity to have access to another half of our population who can meet the standards for those branches – it’s important.  We have to compete for good people everywhere for an all-volunteer force, and that’s a critical part of our military edge, and everyone should understand this need and my commitment to it.

As you grow through the ranks I want to make sure the younger generation coming in is as good as you, as good as the ones you see to your left and right today.  That needs to be true tomorrow, ten years from now, 20 years from now.  I feel that responsibility.  You will soon have that responsibility.  So when you select and assign people, remember that experience, courage on their part, courage on their part to speak up, the diversity of the experiences they’ve had and that they represent – all of that will make the whole team stronger.  That’s a lesson as old as the Army itself, and one that actually echoes across this campus, as I was learning this morning – from the memorial to Margaret Corbin, who kept her cannon firing to preserve the continental army, to the bust of Henry O. Flipper, born a slave and graduated an officer, to crest of the class of 1980, where men and women served together in 1980 for the first time with “Pride and Excellence” here.

I just came from lunch with a dozen cadets who have branched infantry, including the first women to do so.  And just remember that it’s not only them who are making history, it’s you, as an institution, that is doing so.  First in training, and then in battle, you’ll demonstrate that the women who recently graduated from Ranger School, who have accompanied our Special Operations Forces, and led convoys in combat and have flown attack helicopters for the past 15 years are not just a news story, they’re a vital part of our ability to defend our country.   

Next, I want you to remember that our nation’s defense rests in being able to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems.  In any situation, you will encounter unexpected challenges that have to be solved at a moment’s notice. 

I can’t tell you what they are now.  I’ve told you what we’re facing today.  I can’t tell you with confidence what we’ll be facing in the future.  You have to have – I want you to have the courage to accept risk to solve those problems and the wisdom to determine when a risk becomes a blind gamble.  You’re responsible for the lives of the soldiers, and for accomplishing your mission.  That’s the burden of command.

Let me give you a recent example from a West Point graduate, and that’s LTG Sean MacFarland, who is serving as our coalition commander in Iraq.  When he got there last year, he found a fractured Iraqi Army on the defensive, one that was trained for a narrow set of threats that didn’t include the kinds of conventional military tactics that the enemy, ISIL, was using, or even their conventional tactics that were being used effectively, to stymie the Iraqi forces in the field. 

Providing the same training over and over again – that same training wouldn’t accomplish the mission.  General MacFarland saw this as an opportunity – to provide advanced training and engineering capabilities to effectively change the way the Iraqi Army operated.  All of you, like Sean, are capable of this.  I’m proud to say we saw the results of this in December when the Iraqi Army retook Ramadi – bridging the Euphrates, conducting combined arms breaching, and ultimately clearing the city with the assistance that we provided.

When you plan, rehearse, and execute your missions, you must always be willing to reevaluate the situation and take a new course of action when the situation demands it.  In order to do that, you have got to be open to new ideas.

At the Pentagon, I have made it a priority at all levels to think, as I say, outside our five-sided box, to be open to new ways of thinking, operating, and innovating.  It’s the only way to be the best in a competitive world.  You are warriors first, but as I saw today in the physics lab, the counter-terrorism center, your cyber center, you’re also scientists, political scientists, and so much more.  Every day you crack the code in some way, and we need you to continue to do so. 

This should be a lesson for our enemies: never underestimate the ingenuity of the American soldier.  We need to maintain that advantage forever.  That’s why as part of the Force of the Future initiative, we’re building greater opportunities as you advance through the ranks for you to work in advanced industries outside of DoD just for a time, partner with tech companies, and get out and learn about how the rest of the world works while continuing to achieve the breakthroughs and uphold the profession of arms that makes the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

And finally, I want to discuss the importance of being a leader of character.  Character is the difference between George Washington, remembered on this campus with that iconic equestrian statue, and Benedict Arnold, recalled with an unnamed plaque in the old chapel.  Both were gifted warriors, with great technical skills.  

But only one had the strength of character to, in the words of the cadet prayer, “choose the harder right, instead of the easier wrong.”  You don’t know when, where or how – you may not even know it at the time – but your character will be tested against these words.  And your reaction will be a reflection of your true self.  In my time working with some of the finest alumni of this institution, I’ve observed that combat doesn’t as much build character, as it does reveal it.

It’s a big world out there, and we are a great nation, with great responsibilities.  And we stand on the foundation of the character that both you and this institution provide around the world.

Those of you who will be commissioned this spring will are about to join the noblest profession there is – a profession that will have you waking up every day to help defend this country and make a better world.  As you embark on this, know that our nation is 100 percent behind you.  I’m a thousand percent behind you, though we know that’s not really possible, but you know what I mean.  We know what you’re putting into this.  We know what you’ll sacrifice.  And we know what you’re able to achieve.  There’s nothing we appreciate more.  There’s nothing that makes me prouder to be where I am and to look out and to be with you.  

Thanks for having me, and I look forward to answering some of your questions.