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Air Force Academy Spirit

Gates: AF needs leaders with ‘uncommon courage’

Cadet 1st Class Andrew J. VanTimmeren, Cadet Wing commander, presents the U. S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates with “The Bird” after addressing the Cadet Wing in Arnold Hall theater April 2.  Photo by Johnny Wilson

Cadet 1st Class Andrew J. VanTimmeren, Cadet Wing commander, presents the U. S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates with “The Bird” after addressing the Cadet Wing in Arnold Hall theater April 2. Photo by Johnny Wilson

By Staff Sgt. Don Branum

Academy Public Affairs


Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told cadets that the Air Force will require leaders who are flexible, agile, resourceful and imaginative and who can think and act creatively and decisively in non-traditional conflicts during a visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy April 2.

The Air Force faces fundamental challenges in how it will fight and win in future conflicts, the secretary said, but one thing remains constant – the need for men and women of “uncommon courage.”

Secretary Gates opened his address to cadets with humor and a nod to their busy schedules.

“In a normal speech, I would thank you for coming,” he said, “but I know full well that this event is not exactly optional.”

Secretary Gates was an Air Force intelligence officer stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., when he began his career of service to the nation more than 40 years ago.

“Much has changed since those days, in the Air Force, in our country and in the world,” he said. “From global terrorism to ethnic conflicts; from rogue nations to rising powers, the challenges we face simply cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone. We have to recognize that the black-and-white distinction between irregular war and conventional war is an outdated model.”

Today’s conflicts range across a broad spectrum of operations and lethality, the secretary said, from humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti and Chile to ongoing antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The new operations tempo means that the military establishment must turn its focus away from “winning the big battles in big wars.”

However, while operations have changed, the basic requirements for leadership have not, he said.

“We still need men and women in uniform who are willing to demonstrate uncommon courage both on the battlefield and off,” he said. Airmen have taken on such tasks as convoy security, roadside bomb disposal and search and rescue, tasks for which they had not originally joined the service.

“But there’s another kind of courage beyond the battlefield that I want to focus on today, and that is the willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom and call things as you see them to subordinates and superiors alike,” he said. “Regardless of rank, officers are human and fallible, even the ones wearing eagles and stars. If, as an officer, you don’t tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you’ve done yourself and this institution a disservice.”

Some of the Air Force’s earliest leaders – Col. Billy Mitchell, Gen. of the Air Force Hap Arnold, Gen. Bernard Schriever and Col. John Boyd – had to struggle against the military establishment of their time, Secretary Gates said.

“It strikes me that the significance of Mitchell, Arnold, Schriever and Boyd and their travails was not that they were always right,” he said. “What strikes me is that they had the vision and the insignt to see that the world and the technology had changed.

They understood the implications of that change, and they pressed ahead in the face of incredibly fierce institutional resistance. One of the reasons they were successful at championing their ideas was that they were always willing to speak truth to power.”

A more recent example of candor and courage was Army Gen. Colin Powell’s meeting with President George H.W. Bush just before Operation Desert Storm began in January 1991.General Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, and Secretary Gates was the CIA director.

“Colin looked the president in the eye and said words to this effect: ‘We’re about to go to war. We may suffer thousands of casualties. If we do, are you prepared to drive on to victory?’ Colin wanted the president to face reality. The president gave the right answer,” Secretary Gates said. “Having sat in on similar discussions with Presidents (George W.) Bush and (Barack) Obama about the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, I can tell you that the same spirit of candor suffused those conversations, and again, both presidents gave the right answer.”

Candor, the secretary said, is more than “just an abstract notion.”

“The American public has relied especially on the candor and the credibility of American military officers in order to judge how well the campaigns are going and whether the efforts should continue,” he said.

However, the secretary said, that candor does not translate to permission to perform an end run around civilian leadership.

“Consider the situation in mid-1940,” he said. “The Germans had just overrun France; the Battle of Britain was about to begin. … (Gen. of the Army George) Marshall believed that rearming America should come first. (Franklin D.) Roosevelt overruled Marshall and others and made what most historians believe was the correct decision – to do what was necessary to keep England alive.

“The significant thing,” he continued, “is what did not happen next. … There were no overtures to friendly Congressional committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghost-written editorials in newspapers, no coalition building with advocacy groups. Marshall and his colleagues saluted, made the policy work and saved England.”

In the years since World War II, the growth of a military-industrial complex has tempted senior military officers to use their ties among Congress and industry to try and force through programs that they favored. Secretary Gates warned cadets strongly against falling to this temptation, adding that the time to develop the courage to speak with candor is now.

Every person faces a fork in the road where he must choose between being somebody and doing something, Secretary Gates said, citing a message Colonel Boyd often shared with his colleagues. Those who choose to “be somebody” will have to make compromises and turn their backs on their friends, but they’ll be part of the club, complete with promotions and good assignments. Those who choose to “do something,” on the other hand, will not get the promotions or good assignments, but they will never have to compromise themselves.

“The time will come for each of you when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision, or when you must challenge the opinion of your superiors,” the secretary said. “To be ready for that moment, you must have the discipline to cultivate the integrity and moral courage here at the Academy and then from your first days as a commissioned officer. 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 always 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 Air Force, for the good of the armed forces, for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism,” he said. “I urge you instead to be principled, creative and reform-minded – to be leaders of integrity who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody.”

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