Speeches by Jim

USNA Brigade – Forrestal Lecture

September 30, 1987
Hon. James H. Webb, Jr., Secretary of the Navy
United States Naval Academy, Annapolis MD

USNA1Thank you very much Admiral Marryott. Men and women of the Brigade, it is indeed a privilege for me to be able to spend an hour with you tonight and to talk to you about a number of things. A few administrative matters:

First, I know how much the Brigade traditionally has enjoyed dress parades and I heard there were a number of contingents praying to the Rain God today for the opportunity to be able to march for me. You were successful and those of you who were not sailing or otherwise disposed did an excellent job today. I was really proud to watch you performing that function.

Secondly, I understand that the morning of my Swearing-In Ceremony, certain female undergarments could be seen hanging from the branches of trees that bordered Tecumseh Court. Given the history of my views on certain military subjects, I can only come to one conclusion: that some female members of the Brigade, becoming delirious with joy in learning that the person confirmed to be Secretary of the Navy is a man well-known for his progressive views on the role of women in the military, held a spontaneous pep rally in Tecumseh Court the night before my Swearing-In Ceremony, and in their delight at my appointment freed themselves of those ornaments of past repression and tossed them into the air, where they accidentally became entangled in the branches of nearby trees.

I appreciate this enthusiasm, but a few difficulties remain as a consequence of this display of unmitigated joy. The first is for me to assure all of you that I am not biased in any way on the issue of women here at the Academy or in the naval service, and in fact feel strongly that men and women should be treated equally in such matters. And secondly, through a circuitous series of events I am in wrongful possession of an article of clothing that belongs to a member of the Brigade. Since the laundry number has been rather carefully stenciled out, it’s difficult to know who in fact is the owner of this item, but I’m going to give this to my aide and if a suitable method can be found, the owner can take this back to the Hall tonight after my speech.

As you know I’m a product of this institution. I feel deeply about it and about all of you. I’m here tonight to congratulate you on your choice of a way of life, and also to challenge you to examine a fundamental question: Why are you here, and what do you wish to accomplish during your time as a midshipman? Never having been shy about holding an opinion, of course, I have a rather strong one on this point, and I would like to share it with you tonight.

These are great years in your lives, though you may not think so, because they are also years of pain brought on from separation, the realization that you will never be quite the same again when it comes to your relationships with your families and your home community, pain brought on also from a demanding and yet tedious routine, most of which you cannot control. But they are great years, especially if you choose to use them wisely.

Using them wisely means, above all, learning to be a leader. Everything else, as the physicists say, is relative. There are plenty of other places in this country where you can learn physics and engineering, where you can play football, where you can join a debate team, sail on a yawl, argue politics, pursue members of the opposite sex. But there are precious few institutions where your country has decided to bet a few hundred thousand dollars of the taxpayers money on each and every person who has the good fortune to be admitted, with the assumption that in a four year space of time that investment is going to produce a guaranteed leader, one who is smart, and tough, and dedicated to the principles that have made this the greatest society on earth.

As you know for every person who has been accepted to this Academy, roughly fifteen have applied. And of those fifteen, probably five could have made it through this program. And it’s no exaggeration to say that, for everyone here, someone else who did not get in could have contributed just as much had he or she been given the chance. Don’t ever lose sight of that reality.

What that means is that you have a special obligation, different than the obligation of almost any other group of college students. That obligation is to test yourself and others around you and to grow, not simply as a scholar, not simply as an athlete, but in a variety of ways.

What kind of ways? The present mission of the Naval Academy is “to develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically to be professional officers in the naval service.” Let me first say that I’ve been puzzled for more than a decade, because somewhere in the bitter confusion of the Vietnam era, when the military was being torn apart by vicious criticism, this institution apparently either lost its guts or its esteem, and backed away from the traditional, more ambitious mission, one to which I still subscribe.

Until the early 1970’s, the mission of the Naval Academy was as follows: “to develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically, and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty, in order to provide graduates who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.” I used to walk by that pedestal out there and read that when I was a midshipman and think about people like Nimitz.

And these are the standards against which you should be testing yourself, and that is the direction you should be attempting to grow. I’ve discussed this with the Chief of Naval Operations and beginning this week, as soon as I sign the appropriate documents, this will again be the mission of the Naval Academy. Most of you have been doing this already, but all of you should know that this, above all, is what is expected of you: that you will have developed morally, mentally and physically, and will hold yourself and others to the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty. You owe it to your country, you owe it to the people who will never get to be midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy, and most importantly, you owe it to the men and women you are going to lead. You must, above everything else, leave this institution with the dedication and talent it takes to become a leader.

So a number of questions naturally follow. What is it that a leader does, and what traits should he or she possess? Is the Naval Academy presently geared to producing that sort of behavior? What is the environment in which you will very shortly be leading sailors and Marines? What sort of challenges will you be facing?

First of all, a leader is someone who sets the example through the strength of his conviction and his personality. He makes decisions. He has a sense of mission, and can articulate it. He has the courage to do what is right, and to make sure that those who are under his authority do what is right. He creates the right tone, one of equity and goodwill, which allows creativity to flourish from below. He understands loyalty, and understands that loyalty sometimes calls for disagreement, even disagreement with your boss. He is a comrade, a judge, a tutor. He is a student of human motivation. He’s a problem solver.

And he is a person not merely of thought, but of action. General George Patton, when he was a Major, wrote about this distinction in 1931, in an article entitled “Success in War” where he pointed out that “high academic performance demands infinite intimate knowledge of details, and the qualities requisite to such attainments often inhabit bodies lacking in personality.

Also, the striving for such knowledge often engenders the fallacious notion that capacity depends upon the power to acquire such details rather than upon the ability to apply them. And yet volumes are devoted to armaments, and pages to inspiration. And always, every day, a leader and particularly a military leader must balance a sometimes volatile paradox: He must get the job done, and he must take care of his people. In this paradox reside the greatest rewards of leadership, and the most painful price, particularly if one must lead in combat.

Throughout your life, you will judge yourself against two harsh and often painful standards: Did you get the job done? How many people did it cost?

There are those who claim that leadership skills are situational, that no specific traits can be identified as common to most leaders. I disagree. I’d say that first; a true leader must set the example. You cannot ask of your subordinates that which you do not demand of yourself. And one who does not set the example will never be respected. He might be obeyed, but he will not be followed. Think about it. There is a difference.

He must possess knowledge, in a variety of forms. He must understand first the intellectual framework in which his unit works: the technical aspects of the mission, the capabilities of the weapon systems and other machinery, the responsibilities of his subordinates. He must also understand human motivation in order to create the environment in which his people will want to succeed. He must understand the system; whether it is a rifle company or a Pentagon staff, in order to know how to get things done. As you can readily understand, knowledge is not simply book learning; it is people studying and strategic thinking as well.

A leader must be a person of impeccable character. Honesty begets honesty. To the contrary, a person who will manipulate a superior invites his subordinates to manipulate him. A person who will manipulate or lie to a subordinate invites disloyalty and reciprocal lies. Courage, both moral and physical, is a character trait, and it is infectious. Humility before one’s subordinates invites both loyalty and respect.

A leader must be true to himself and be confident in his own personality. For lack of a better term we call this style. If your natural personality is quiet, develop firmness, rather than trying to convert yourself into an extrovert. If you are an insufferable loudmouth, learn to be positive, to be a motivator, rather than trying to become a stoic. Your troops can pick up false behavior in a heartbeat.

And finally, a true leader must possess a sense of vision, an ability to communicate to his people what they are doing and why and how it fits into the larger scheme of things. Part of this sense of vision requires an understanding of the traditions and heritage of the military and of our country. Part of it requires an understanding of events going on, as they say, above one’s pay grade. Put together, a leader gives context to the activities of his people, and this itself gives a unit a sense of mission and momentum.

The Naval Academy has traditionally produced leaders with these qualities. One of the reasons has been the selection process for admission, which as they say gives us good grist, people with the right sort of potential from the outset. But the greatest reason has always been that the institution itself has tested such people, brought them along through a rigorous set of challenges, and, to use a word from the mission statement, “imbued” them with the highest ideals. And it is vitally important that this institution reflect the highest ideals, that it be the standard bearer for all other training programs in the naval service.

As Dirty Harry might say, “Uh huh, I know what you’re thinking. Is this guy getting ready to tighten up, or what?” And my answer is, “Well, yeah, I guess so.”

Let’s start from the bottom line. Academics are important, and you should by all means work hard on your grades. Athletics are important, and if you are a world-class athlete, all the better for you and for us. If you are a blossoming business genius like Ross Perot once was or an aspiring writer like I once was or a Monday-night Monet like my classmate Bernie Barnaby was, the more power to you. But don’t ever forget that the guiding impetus of this institution is military performance. If you don’t want to be a military officer, and if you cannot put your preparation for leadership at the top of your order of priorities, you don’t deserve the time, money and energy that we are putting into your future. And I, for one, would rather graduate 800 highly motivated, highly dedicated ensigns and lieutenants than 1,000 whose collective energy has been lowered by marginal performers whose interests might be elsewhere.

This means that we will continue to take a hard look at a number of areas, as Admiral Marryott has done with some excellent success over the past year. We want to challenge you, we want to ensure that the leadership of this institution is challenging and helping you grow. First, as I already mentioned, we’re going to restore the traditional mission of the Naval Academy. I think you will understand that this creates the expectation to aspire, not to mere adequacy, but to unlimited excellence. And again, it is important that academic achievement not stand apart from its military application.

Second, in those cases that have come to my desk since I’ve been in office, I’ve already re-instituted the absoluteness of the honor concept. There will be no second chances for honor offenders. Military systems, which often operate under extreme duress, are greased with the oil of absolute trust and fidelity. You don’t learn that when you get to the fleet; you take it to the fleet. This may seem to be a harsh standard, but it’s not that difficult to understand what your obligations are. Don’t lie, cheat or steal or tolerate among you those who do.

Third, I have some questions, as many of you already know, about the current plebe indoctrination system. Plebe year is not simply a part of the harassment package. It is intended to place people under stress continually, literally 24 hours a day, in order to filter out those who cannot handle it before we take an additional three years and work on leadership traits. I have no desire to return to the extremes of plebe year that existed in the early 1960’s. Literally hundreds of my classmates were run out of the Naval Academy by the upper-class, and in at least two companies, the 4th and the 11th, more than half of the plebes were run out by the end of plebe year; but a tough standard of military performance is essential. I was encouraged in talking with Admiral Marryott to see there are efforts in place to extend plebe summer. I’ve been through three versions of plebe summer: as a plebe, as an upper-class member of the detail, and as a drill officer, and I know how important it is to the development of the attitudes of midshipmen. I think this is particularly true with the more demanding academic requirements of today, which of necessity cut into the plebe indoctrination cycle during academic year.

I was surprised to see how short your cruises have become. Four weeks with the operating forces is in my view not enough. I understand the difficulties in finding midshipmen billets with the reduced size of the fleet, but there are a number of alternatives, and you should not be denied your greatest opportunity to rub elbows and learn from those who are presently serving around the world. Spending my youngster cruise living and working with a division of snipes on an old converted Essex class carrier was one of the most important learning experiences of my young life, and to this day I never fail to visit the boiler rooms when I go aboard ship. You need these sorts of experiences, as much as you need to study entropy and enthalpy. Maybe more than you need to study entropy and enthalpy, which quite frankly I have yet to use in my adult life.

Those of you who wish to serve in the Marine Corps can start thinking about Bulldog. The average class standings at Basic School have dropped dramatically over the past twenty years for Academy graduates. The class of 1986 did particularly poorly. They averaged in the bottom 40 percent. This is inexcusable after four years of study and training. In addition, I signed the promotion board to Captain a couple months ago, and was shocked to see that 11 Naval Academy graduates failed selection to Captain in the Marine Corps. No one who graduates from this institution should be either so unprepared or so lacking in military skills that he fails promotion at that rank — no one.

There are a number of possible reasons for such shortcomings. We could be taking too many Academy graduates into the Marine Corps. We could be drawing some who are not properly motivated, or who don’t know what they’re getting into. But Bulldog will remedy this, and I am very confident that the Naval Academy Marines will do superbly at Bulldog, and will benefit greatly from the training.

You should get the drift by now. All this adds up to a single referent: You’re here to become military officers whose quality should be guaranteed to the fleet. And the greater the heat, the tougher the steel.

What awaits you? I would call it the ultimate final exam: The judgment of the men and women of the fleet. Our sea services are in great shape today. As you know, our Navy and Marine Corps are on duty throughout the world, are the first to be called upon in any crisis, and are required to operate with the smallest margin of error. The weapon systems are excellent, and the young men and women on duty are superb. They are tough and they are dedicated and they are good, and they’re going to expect you to be tough and dedicated and good.

In the last six months I have visited with them all over the world, speaking personally with thousands of them as they operated and they trained in 13 different countries. I’ve been on just about every kind of ship the Navy has; I’ve been with all forms of operating units in the Marine Corps. I want to show you some faces from around the world. (Could I have the lights off.)

That’s AMERICA, Persian Gulf; Norfolk, Oceana, Mayport, USS SAMPSON, Persian Gulf; morning watch on the USS STANDLEY, CIC USS STANDLEY. I will say when I got down in the engineering spaces on the USS STANDLEY the railings on the ladder were so hot you couldn’t touch them; that was the engineering spaces; on deck in the Persian Gulf; flight deck GUADALCANAL; USS RANGER air control status; crash crew, USS RANGER; air refuelers in the hatch, USS KANSAS CITY; plane directors and handlers FA18, RANGER, Persian Gulf; this is the LEFTWICH in the foreground and the KANSAS CITY underway after the USS MISSOURI shot. That right now is one of the hardest jobs in the Navy; it’s incredible, the MCM 53 minesweeper helicopter, they’re doing an incredible job out there; USS MISSOURI; addressing the crew on deck on MISSOURI. There they are (if I can have the lights).

There will be no greater reward in your young lives than to be these peoples’ comrades, tutor and judge. If you do your job right, you will learn more than you will teach, and you will come away with memories more precious than could be possible in any other profession. And I mean that.

This is the Navy. This is the Marine Corps. And you will be leading it, sooner than you can ever imagine.