USA — Candor, Courage Vital for Military Leaders, Gates Says

WASHINGTON, April 7, 2010 — Vision, per­se­ver­ance, can­dor and moral courage are essen­tial qual­i­ties for 21st-cen­tu­ry mil­i­tary lead­ers, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates told the mid­ship­men of the U.S. Naval Acad­e­my here this evening.
Gates spoke at the academy’s Alum­ni Hall as part of the For­re­stal Lec­ture Series, named for James V. For­re­stal, the nation’s first sec­re­tary of defense. 

The sec­re­tary cit­ed exam­ples from U.S. mil­i­tary his­to­ry to illus­trate his point. As a Marine Corps first lieu­tenant sta­tioned in Chi­na in 1937, Vic­tor Kru­lak – a 1934 Naval Acad­e­my grad­u­ate – saw Japan­ese forces using a ramped land­ing craft in an amphibi­ous assault on Shang­hai, Gates said, and he sent pho­tos and a report to Washington. 

“The report gath­ered dust in a cab­i­net with a note that read, ‘The work of some nut in Chi­na,’ ” the sec­re­tary said. “Kru­lak even­tu­al­ly returned to Wash­ing­ton and dogged­ly pur­sued his idea until a Marine gen­er­al put him in touch with an eccen­tric New Orleans boat mak­er named Hig­gins. The result was the land­ing craft used to car­ry allied forces to lib­er­ate Europe and much of Asia.” 

Kru­lak went on to earn the Navy Cross in World War II, became a lead­ing coun­terin­sur­gency expert, and lat­er com­mand­ed Marine Pacif­ic forces dur­ing the Viet­nam War, the sec­re­tary not­ed. He rose to the rank of lieu­tenant gen­er­al and was in line for pro­mo­tion, but “some choice words to [Pres­i­dent] Lyn­don John­son about his Viet­nam strat­e­gy arguably cost Kru­lak his fourth star and the post of Marine com­man­dant,” Gates said. 

The secretary’s next exam­ple was Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, who grad­u­at­ed from the Naval Acad­e­my in 1905. Ear­ly in his career, Nimitz was tasked to build a sub­ma­rine base at Pearl Har­bor, Hawaii, but he was not pro­vid­ed with mate­ri­als, Gates said. His solu­tion was to con­duct night raids on oth­er units’ sur­plus mate­ri­als. “I would­n’t advise that today,” Gates told the midshipmen. 

Lat­er in his career, Nimitz per­se­vered against the belief that air­craft car­ri­ers negat­ed the need for oth­er kinds of ships. “[He] had the vision to rec­og­nize and pro­mote the poten­tial of the cir­cu­lar for­ma­tion — car­ri­ers pro­tect­ed by bat­tle­ships — for inte­grat­ing the two capa­bil­i­ties,” Gates said. “This insight was large­ly ignored for 20 years, but was lat­er employed to great effect in World War II, and remained the basic tem­plate for car­ri­er for­ma­tions for decades afterward.” 

Navy Adm. Hyman Rick­over, Class of 1922, defied the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that nuclear reac­tors were too bulky and dan­ger­ous to put on sub­marines, Gates said. 

“It was through Rickover’s genius and tenac­i­ty that these objec­tions were over­come, pro­duc­ing a sub­ma­rine fleet that includ­ed the most stealthy and feared leg of America’s nuclear tri­ad,” the sec­re­tary said. “Rick­over was a stick­ler for safe­ty in all phas­es of sub­ma­rine pro­duc­tion and oper­a­tions, and because of that, he was even accused erro­neous­ly of caus­ing the U.S. to fall behind the Sovi­ets. But he had the vision to see that even one nuclear dis­as­ter might well kill the pro­gram alto­geth­er. His lega­cy is that to this day, there has nev­er been a nuclear fail­ure in an Amer­i­can submarine.” 

For his final exam­ple, Gates chose Roy Boehm, who enlist­ed as a Navy div­er at age 17 and served in almost every major bat­tle of the Pacif­ic the­ater dur­ing World War II and lat­er designed and led a com­man­do unit that became the Navy SEALs. 

“In his efforts to get his men the equip­ment they need­ed, Boehm was near­ly court-mar­tialed at one point for mod­i­fy­ing offi­cial gear and buy­ing the weapons from com­mer­cial sources,” Gates said. “White House inter­ven­tion helped keep him out of jail. In 1962, Boehm was called to Wash­ing­ton to brief Pres­i­dent [John F.] Kennedy on the progress of the Navy’s new com­man­do unit. When Kennedy walked in, the first thing Boehm said was, ‘Well, Mr. Pres­i­dent, I did­n’t vote for you, but I’d die for you.’ And after a long pause, Kennedy said, ‘Well, we need more guys like that.’ ” 

The qual­i­ties embod­ied in the exam­ples he cit­ed have been impor­tant and deci­sive through­out the his­to­ry of war­fare, the sec­re­tary said. 

“But I would con­tend that they are more nec­es­sary than ever in the first decades of this cen­tu­ry,” he added, “giv­en the pace of tech­no­log­i­cal changes, and the agile and adap­tive nature of our most like­ly and lethal adver­saries — from modem mil­i­taries using asy­met­ric tac­tics to ter­ror­ist groups with advanced weapons. 

“As a result,” he con­tin­ued, “America’s mil­i­tary will need the max­i­mum flex­i­bil­i­ty to deal with the widest pos­si­ble range of sce­nar­ios and adver­saries. And our mil­i­tary lead­ers — like the great men I just talked about — will have to be as flex­i­ble and agile, as resilient and deter­mined, and, I would say, have sim­i­lar moral courage.” 

Gates empha­sized to the future Navy and Marine Corps offi­cers that while he was­n’t endors­ing all of their meth­ods, the past lead­ers he cit­ed had the kind of courage that today’s mil­i­tary lead­ers need. 

“What strikes me about fig­ures like Kru­lak and Nimitz, Rick­over and Boehm, is not that they were always right, nor that they should be emu­lat­ed in every way, to put it mild­ly,” he said. “What is com­pelling about these lead­ers is that they had the vision and insight to see that the world and tech­nol­o­gy was chang­ing, they under­stood the impli­ca­tions of those shifts, and they then pressed ahead in the face of often fierce insti­tu­tion­al resis­tance. Indeed, one of the key rea­sons they were suc­cess­ful was because they were will­ing to speak truth to pow­er — will­ing to tell supe­ri­ors what they need­ed to hear, not what they want­ed to hear.” 

Gates told the mid­ship­men that Gen­er­al of the Army George C. Mar­shall, as a cap­tain serv­ing under Gen. “Black Jack” Per­sh­ing in 1917 dur­ing World War I, told Per­sh­ing that the lack of a man­u­al from the general’s head­quar­ters had caused prob­lems in an expe­di­tionary force com­bat exer­cise in France. Per­sh­ing replied, “Well, you know, we have our problems.” 

“And Mar­shall replied, ‘Yes, I know you do, Gen­er­al, but ours are imme­di­ate and every­day, and have to be solved before night,’ ” Gates said. After the meet­ing, he added, oth­er offi­cers approached Mar­shall, offer­ing con­do­lences for the fact he was sure to be fired and sent off to the front lines. “Instead,” Gates said, “Mar­shall became a val­ued advis­er to Per­sh­ing, and Per­sh­ing a val­ued men­tor to Marshall.” 

Twen­ty years lat­er, the sec­re­tary said, Mar­shall was sit­ting in the White House with Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and his top advi­sors and Cab­i­net secretaries. 

“War in Europe was loom­ing, but still a dis­tant pos­si­bil­i­ty for Amer­i­ca,” Gates said. “In that meet­ing, Roo­sevelt pro­posed that the U.S. Army — which at that time ranked in size some­where between that of Switzer­land and Por­tu­gal — should be of low­est pri­or­i­ty for fund­ing and indus­try.” The president’s advi­sors nod­ded in agree­ment that build­ing the Army could wait. 

But when Roo­sevelt asked Mar­shall for his opin­ion, Gates said, he did­n’t get the answer every­one in the room expected. 

Mar­shall respond­ed, “I am sor­ry, Mr. Pres­i­dent, but I don’t agree with that at all,” Gates said. 

“The room went silent,” he con­tin­ued. “The trea­sury sec­re­tary told Mar­shall after­wards, ‘Well, it’s been nice know­ing you.’ But it was not too much lat­er that Mar­shall became Army chief of staff.” 

Gates also not­ed exam­ples from his own expe­ri­ence of mil­i­tary lead­ers pro­vid­ing their best advice to pres­i­dents, includ­ing Army Gen. Col­in Pow­ell and Naval Acad­e­my grad­u­ates Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen – all chair­men of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – even when they knew that advice was­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly what the pres­i­dents want­ed to hear. But the need for can­dor isn’t lim­it­ed to the high­est lev­els of gov­ern­ment, the sec­re­tary said. 

“In addi­tion to speak­ing hard truths to your supe­ri­ors,” he said, “as a leader you must cre­ate a cli­mate that encour­ages can­dor among your sub­or­di­nates, espe­cial­ly in dif­fi­cult situations.” 

Peo­ple in senior mil­i­tary posi­tions, he added, would be well advised to lis­ten to enlist­ed troops, non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers, and junior officers. 

“They are the ones on the front line,” he said, “and will often know the real sto­ry, whether the issue is equip­ment need­ed for the mis­sion or stress on fam­i­lies back home – a sto­ry that is often dif­fer­ent from what’s on the Pow­er Point slide back at flag head­quar­ters or the Pen­ta­gon. Being open to advice, and even crit­i­cism, will take some con­fi­dence and self-assurance.” 

The sec­re­tary not­ed that he makes it a pri­or­i­ty to speak with small groups rang­ing from junior enlist­ed troops to field-grade offi­cers when he vis­its the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“Their can­did obser­va­tions have been invalu­able and helped shape my think­ing and deci­sions,” he said. “I recall hav­ing lunch a few weeks ago in a com­bat post in Afghanistan with a dozen young enlist­ed guys, most­ly E‑2s and E‑3s. They told me that the crotch of the field uni­form pants is ill-equipped to deal with climb­ing over walls and fences — that they tore out eas­i­ly. As one of the spe­cial­ists help­ful­ly explained, it’s a wel­come fea­ture in the sum­mer — but it gets pret­ty chilly in the win­ter, he added. Now, that’s a piece of infor­ma­tion and a per­spec­tive I would nev­er get in my con­fer­ence room in the Pentagon.” 

Gates not­ed that in the cas­es he cit­ed for the mid­ship­men, straight talk, integri­ty and courage usu­al­ly were rewarded. 

“In a per­fect world,” he said, “that should always hap­pen. Sad­ly, it does not, and I will not pre­tend there is not risk. At some point, each of you will sure­ly work for a jack­ass. We all have. But that does not make tak­ing that stand any less nec­es­sary for the sake of our country. 

“I say this because on the larg­er, strate­gic scale, the need for can­dor is not just an abstract notion,” he con­tin­ued. “It has very real effects on the per­cep­tion of the mil­i­tary and of the wars them­selves – as well as an oper­a­tional impact. World War II was America’s last straight­for­ward con­ven­tion­al war that end­ed in a reg­u­lar sur­ren­der of the enemy. 

The mil­i­tary cam­paigns since then — from Korea to Viet­nam, Soma­lia, and Iraq and Afghanistan today — have been frus­trat­ing, con­tro­ver­sial efforts for the Amer­i­can pub­lic and the armed forces, Gates said. “Each con­flict has pro­duced debates over whether senior mil­i­tary offi­cers were being too def­er­en­tial or not def­er­en­tial enough to civil­ians,” he not­ed, “and whether civil­ians, in turn, were too recep­tive or not recep­tive enough to mil­i­tary advice.” 

Gates told the mid­ship­men that a strong mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment with close ties to Con­gress and indus­try emerged dur­ing the Cold War. “Over the years, senior offi­cers have from time to time been tempt­ed to use these ties to do end runs around the civil­ian lead­er­ship, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing dis­putes over pur­chase of large major weapons sys­tems,” he said. 

“The first sec­re­tary of defense, for whom this lec­ture is named, after World War II had to con­tend with a Navy that did­n’t even want to work for him, pre­fer­ring to stay an inde­pen­dent cab­i­net depart­ment despite the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Act of 1947,” Gates said. “In the ‘Revolt of the Admi­rals’ that fol­lowed, the Navy and the Air Force went at each oth­er, first in pri­vate, then in pub­lic, over which ser­vice was bet­ter suit­ed to deliv­er the new atom bomb. These parochial ten­den­cies must be avoid­ed. They are also in this day and age out­dat­ed, evi­denced by the fact that there are more sailors ashore than on ships in Cen­tral Com­mand, all in sup­port of our ground forces and the over­all war effort.” 

The sec­re­tary told the future lead­ers that their integri­ty will be test­ed, and that they must weath­er those tests. 

“The time will come for each of you when you must stand alone in mak­ing an unpop­u­lar, dif­fi­cult deci­sion — when you must chal­lenge the opin­ion of supe­ri­ors or tell them that you can’t get the job done with the time and resources avail­able; or when you will know that what supe­ri­ors are telling the press or the Con­gress or the Amer­i­can peo­ple is inac­cu­rate,” he said. “There will be moments when your entire career is at risk. To be ready for that moment, you must have the dis­ci­pline to cul­ti­vate integri­ty and moral courage here at the acad­e­my, and then from your ear­li­est days as a com­mis­sioned officer. 

“Those qual­i­ties do not sud­den­ly emerge ful­ly devel­oped overnight or as a rev­e­la­tion after you have assumed impor­tant respon­si­bil­i­ties,” he con­tin­ued. “These qual­i­ties have their roots in the small deci­sions you will make here and ear­ly in your career, and must be strength­ened all along the way to allow you to resist the temp­ta­tion of self before ser­vice. And you must always ensure that your moral courage serves the greater good — that it serves what is best for the nation and our high­est val­ues, not a par­tic­u­lar pro­gram nor pride nor parochial­ism. For the good of the Navy and the Marine Corps, for the good of the armed ser­vices, and for the good of our coun­try, I urge you to reject con­ven­tion and careerism. I urge you instead to be prin­ci­pled, cre­ative, and reform-mind­ed lead­ers of integrity.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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