AUSA Awards Defense Secretary Robert Gates the Marshall Medal – Acceptance Speech AUSA 2013 


Thank you, General Sullivan for that kind introduction and for this great honor.

George Marshall, whose portrait hung above my desk at the Pentagon, had many qualities I aspired to through my career, and a number of personal quirks I related to as well. Marshall’s biographer said the General was “impatient of verbiage, of protocol, and of the polite palaver that often lubricates the wheels of administration” -- truly remarkable when you consider Marshall was not only one of America’s greatest generals, but one of its greatest diplomats as well.

Of course, even the world of diplomacy, with its emphasis on protocol and etiquette, provides more than its share of embarrassments. Such as the time a European foreign minister – a notorious lush – showed up at a reception in South America. He was quite drunk. Music was playing and he asked someone passing by in a flowing gown to dance. The individual sharply replied: first sir, you are drunk. Second, this is not a waltz, it is the Peruvian national anthem, and third, I am not a woman but the cardinal archbishop of Lima.

Well, here I am back in Washington, D.C. I did get my shots and was granted a VISA – probably the last time I’ll be able to return given that my memoir of my time as secretary will be out in January. What a place – where everybody mutinies but never deserts. The only place where a prominent person can be seen walking down lovers lane holding his own hand. As Will Rogers said long ago, “I don’t make jokes, I just watch the government and report the facts.”

It’s an honor to receive this award and be associated with the Association of the United States Army. With all that our nation has asked of the Army in recent years it is important for our soldiers to know that they have such a strong advocate in this organization.

Preparing for this evening spurred some reflecting on my time as defense secretary, and the very special place of the U.S. Army in the decisions I made, the people on whom I relied, and the memories I will carry to the end of my days. It all began exactly seven years ago this Friday, with a message from my secretary at Texas A&M University. She said that the National Security Advisor wanted to speak to me. i had no idea why. I’d already turned down one job in the Bush administration in January 2005 to be the first director of national intelligence, and I figured that I was persona non grata, never to be asked again to take another post.

But when President Bush asked me to become defense secretary I thought about all the troops under fire far from home, most of them wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army. I thought about the soldiers bearing the brunt of two simultaneous wars with repeated and lengthy tours – soldiers who continue to re-enlist and redeploy with a great sense of purpose in their mission and great pride in their country. And so I told President Bush that because they were doing their duty I had no choice but to do mine. i would say the same thing when President Obama asked to me stay on.

I also thought about the example set by George Marshall. Consider that when Marshall retired as Army Chief of Staff in November 1945 he had been on active duty for more than 43 years, the last six as chief of staff during a World War – a career in which it took him 15 years to make Captain and 34 years to make general. Then a week after Marshall’s official retirement, the phone rang at his home in Leesburg.

It was President Truman, and he wanted Marshall to be his special envoy to China. As Marshall’s biographer put it, “arms were stacked, but the soldier’s task was not ended.” He accepted on the spot and, in so doing, set the standard for the rest of us that followed in public life.

Being at A.U.S.A. is also a reminder of how much the U.S. Army was at the center of my earliest major decisions as defense secretary – decisions that were so wrenching because of their effect on the lives of soldiers and their families, including:

  • Surging five extra Army brigades to Iraq in January 2007, when so many had written off the war as lost;
  • Extending the length of Army combat deployments to 15 months to support the surge; and
  • Increasing the size of the active Army as well as the Marine Corps. To mitigate the added stress on the force caused by those first two developments.

Today, the tide of war is passing – or so we are told – and the country’s attention – for much of the citizenry, the media, and for many elected officials – has largely shifted elsewhere. It is too easy to forget that there are still have tens of thousands of soldiers serving in Afghanistan; too easy to forget the tremendous sacrifices that led to the security progress of recent years.

As we transition from a decade dominated by Afghanistan and Iraq, it is necessary to think anew about the role, size, and capabilities of the U.S. military – a topic I know is of special concern to the Army.

Recall that after Vietnam, our defense “experts” avowed the U.S. military would never again try to fight a full-scale insurgency. We are hearing the same claim now. Those who now assert we will only fight certain kinds of war in the future forget history and the reality that our enemies always have a vote, as do future presidents. The further reality is that our record since Vietnam in predicting where the U.S. will be militarily engaged next, just six months out, is perfect. Over the last forty years we have never once gotten it right. Think about it: Grenada, Haiti, Panama, Libya (twice), Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, the Balkans, Somalia, and more.

It is always fashionable among military thinkers and armchair strategists regularly to proclaim a new age of warfare. One such prognosticator wrote that modern wars will [quote] “be decided by navies and air forces...while ground forces...assume a subordinate role.” That was written on September 21, 1941. Similar views are being expressed today. When it comes to predicting future conflicts, what kind of fights they will be and what capabilities will be required, we need more humility, more open minds, less certitude, and better familiarity with history.

Further, remarkable advances in precision munitions, sensors, information and satellite technology, and more can make us overly enamored with the ability of technology to transform the traditional laws and limits of war. a button is pushed in Nevada and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Kandahar. As a result, war has become for too many – among the American public as well as defense “experts” and members of Congress and executive branch officials – a kind of arcade videogame or action movie. Bloodless, painless and odorless. In reality, war is inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain.

Military leaders – and especially senior civilian officials – should be skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest otherwise. They should also look askance at idealized, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war: where the enemy is killed, but our troops and innocent civilians are spared. where wars are confidentelay predicted to be short, and Where adversaries can be cowed, shocked or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block.

As General William T. Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.” Or as General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell’s warned, “No matter how a war starts, it ends in mud. It has to be slugged out – there are no trick solutions or cheap shortcuts.”

The most important army general most people have never heard of is Major General Fox Connor, mentor to two young officers named George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. Neither ever forgot Connor’s warning that when a democracy contemplates war, three maxims should apply: 1) never fight unless you have to; 2) never fight alone; and 3) never fight for long. Generals – and presidents – forget this wisdom at their peril. Marshall never did.

Let me close with a word about what I now regard as the biggest threat to U.S. national security – the political dysfunction within the two square miles of Washington, D.C. encompassing the White House and Capitol Hill.

American politics has always been a shrill and ugly business going back to the Founding Fathers. but as a result of several polarizing trends we now have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing this country.

I don’t need to explain to this audience the damaging consequences of sequestration. There may be a more stupid way to cut the budget, but I can’t think of one. My worry is that the White House, the Congress, and the general public will not grasp the consequences of massive and mindless defense cuts because of sequestration –in the form of cancelled training, deferred maintenance, delayed modernization, and the massive loss of experienced young officers and NCOS –until it’s far too late.

My hope – and it is a faint hope – is that the remaining adults in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country’s finances back in order, end the sequestration of defense dollars, and protect military capabilities that are as necessary today as they have been through the last century.

Because, for all of our hopes and prayers, we have not seen the end of war. If history – and religion – teach us anything, it is that there will always be evil in the world, people bent on aggression, oppression, satisfying their lust for wealth and power and territory, or determined to impose an ideology based on the subjugation of others and the denial of liberty to men and women.

I have steadfastly supported “soft” power -- diplomacy and development, but we must never forget the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st Century, as in the 20th, is hard power – the size, strength, and global reach of the United States Military.

Looking ahead, it is unrealistic to expect partisanship to disappear, or even dissipate. But when push comes to shove, when the future of our country is at stake, ideological zeal and short-term political calculation on the part of the both Republicans and Democrats must yield to patriotism and the long-term national interest.

Since I entered government nearly a half century ago, I’ve shifted my views and changed my mind on a good many things as circumstances, new information or logic dictated. But I have yet to see evidence that would dissuade me from this fundamental belief: that America does have a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet.

In Marshall’s words, they are “a sense of responsibility for world order and security, the development of a sense of the overwhelming importance of the country’s acts, and failures to act.” Protecting this country is a sacred duty. A duty I have every confidence America’s Army, it’s leaders and its soldiers, will continue to fulfill with skill, integrity, and nobility. George Marshall would be very proud.

Thank you again for this honor.