And speaking of lessons learned, I should note that during my time as Secretary I have been impressed by the way the Army’s professional journals allow some of our brightest and most innovative officers to critique — sometimes bluntly — the way the service does business, to include judgments about senior leadership, both military and civilian. I believe this is a sign of institutional strength and vitality. I encourage you to take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent when the situation calls for it. And, agree with the articles or not, senior officers should embrace such dissent as a health dialogue and protect and advance those considerably more junior who are taking on that mantle. I wrote my first — and far from last — critique of CIA in a professional journal four years into my career. Without the support of the several senior agency officers, my career would quickly have been over.
Here at West Point, as at every university and company in America, there is a focus on teamwork, consensus building, and collaboration. Yet, make no mistake, the time will come when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision. Or when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell them you can’t get the job done with the time and resources available — a difficult charge in an organization built upon a “can do” ethos. Or a time when you know what superiors are telling the press, or the Congress, or the American people is inaccurate. There will be moments when your entire career is at risk. What will you do? What will you do?
These are difficult questions that you should be thinking about both here at West Point and over the course of your career. There are no easy answers.
But if you follow the dictates of your conscience and the courage of your convictions, while being respectfully candid with your superiors while encouraging candor in others, you will be in good stead for the challenges you will face as officers and leaders in the years ahead. Defend your integrity as you would your life. If you do this, I am confident that when you face those tough dilemmas, you will, in fact, know the right thing to do.
I would like to close with some words to all of you, but especially to the Class of 2008. Soon you will take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. I have taken that oath seven times in the last 42 years — the first when I enlisted in 1966 and the last when I became Secretary of Defense. I want to encourage you always to remember the importance of two pillars of our freedom under the Constitution — the Congress and the press. Both surely try our patience from time to time, but they are the surest guarantees of the liberty of the American people.
The Congress is a co-equal branch of government that under the Constitution raises armies and provides for navies. While you read about the intense debate over Iraq, you need to know that members of both parties now serving in Congress have long been strong supporters of the Department of Defense, and of our men and women in uniform. As officers, you will have a responsibility to communicate to those below you that the American military must be non-political and recognize the obligation we owe the Congress to be honest and true in our reporting to them. Especially when it involves admitting mistakes or problems.
The same is true with the press, in my view a critically important guarantor of our freedom. When the press identifies a problem in the military, our response should be to find out if the allegations are true — and if so, say so, and then act to remedy the problem. If untrue, then be able to document that fact. The press is not the enemy, and to treat it as such is self-defeating.
As the Founding Fathers wisely understood, the Congress and a free press, as with a non-political military, assure a free country. A point underscored by a French observer writing about George Washington in 1782. He wrote: “This is the seventh year that he has commanded the army, and that he has obeyed the Congress. More need not be said.”” —Speech at West Point | Robert Gates | Stars and Stripes | 22 April 2008
Succeeding because you worked hard feels good. Succeeding when you didn’t work hard feels better.