Thursday, August 31, 2017

Words from General Schwarzkopf

@ArmyWP_Football put this out on Wednesday, and I love it so much that I can’t stop watching it.

I remember this speech vividly from my time as a cadet.  I remember being both excited and annoyed about it.  Excited because… who didn’t love General Schwarzkopf back in the early 1990s?  He was the Hero of Desert Storm!  But I was annoyed because the speech itself happened in the middle of Swim Season, and I had a lot of shit to do that day.  
Old Grads will surely recognize this particular mix of emotions.
Then as now, the Navy was in trouble for some heinous bullshit.  The scandal du jour was arguably less damaging to the core reputation of the Navy as an institution than the ship driving fiascos we’ve seen these past six months are or the Fat Leonard bribery cases have been, but it put the Navy in the NY Times for all the wrong reasons.  And Schwarzkopf summed this up by saying (to paraphrase), “If you don’t have character and the courage of your convictions, then you’re not going to be there when the country needs you.”
Honestly, I thought it was corny.  He’d titled the speech “Leadership in the 21st Century,” but the words he actually spoke would have been relevant in any era.  There was nothing “modern” about his speech at all.  Maybe that was the point.  But being at West Point--as a History major, no less--I was already inundated with these kinds of messages on more-than-daily basis.  As was often the case in those days, I took the message for granted.
The timelessness of this clip proves both that General Schwarzkopf was a better leader than I’ll ever be and also that he had a better read on what the 21st Century was going to require from its leaders than I could possibly have foreseen.
I don’t know whether it’s a problem or a virtue, but West Point teaches a lot in hindsight.  You’re there, surrounded by the collegial warmth of your classmates and inundated with the shared values of the institution.  Duty, Honor, Country.  Those things are so present that the words themselves cease to mean overmuch, especially against the grinding workload that is the backdrop of cadet life.  It is very easy to become cynical.  In fact, cynicism became my go-to emotion in a lot of cases.
But then you graduate, and suddenly seeing one of your classmates out in the world becomes practically the best thing that ever happens.  Out in the world, “Duty, Honor, Country” is like some quaint notion that people can’t understand and often willfully ignore.  The idea of doing something just because it’s the right thing to do occurs to practically no one.  When you actually do the right thing, people often stop and stare.  Sometimes they’re dumbfounded.  Meanwhile, all those old lessons from West Point are burned into your psyche in thousand-point all-caps type.
Suddenly the words from the Cadet Prayer, the keystone to General Schwarzkopf’s speech though I don’t think he invoked it by name, make more sense than they ever did when you were a cadet.
Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy. Guard us against flippancy and irreverence in the sacred things of life…
West Point isn’t the Real World.  Thank God for that.  But the challenge, then, is to uphold the values you once took for granted, openly and without cynicism in a world that excuses or even lauds venal behavior and too often makes a virtue out of greed.
This can be very hard to process.
Schwarzkopf knew all of this, of course, and whether he meant his speech to invoke timeless values, or he realized that these particular values would be more critical than ever in the century to come, he was exactly right in what he said.  What we need now--right now--in our leaders is Competence and Character.  These things seem like a reasonable baseline for basic leadership.
Alas, these things are also in short supply.  
It’s easy to be upset and even cynical about their lack.  Our charge, however, is to be the force of change in our own lives and in our own communities.  This is true in the Army and out, and it always has been.
Go Army!  Beat Fordham!!!

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