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)