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Remarks By General Frederick J. Kroesen, Jr.

Upon receiving the Sylvanus Thayer Award
West Point - September 20, 2007

General and Mrs. Hagenbeck, General Stroup and members of the Association of Graduates, members of the West Point Staff and Faculty, distinguished guests, old friends and colleagues from years past, members of my immediate family and ladies and gentlemen of the Corps of Cadets…

I am honored to be here. First, to be the reviewing officer at the magnificent retreat parade this afternoon, my first such honor in many years. I thank and compliment all who participated.

The second honor, of course, is the receipt of the Sylvanus Thayer Award for which I am indebted to the Association of Graduates, most especially to Major General Bill Webb and the class of ’47 and Lieutenant General Clarence “Mac” McKnight and the class of ’57 both of whom nominated me and who I am sure had to campaign for my selection. I am sincerely grateful for your efforts.

And finally, I am honored that General Gordon Sullivan and the Association of the U.S. Army, AUSA, have published a second edition of my book for the purpose of furnishing a copy to every West Point cadet.  A military author could not ask for a better or more satisfying reward; but please know it is one volume you have no academic obligation to read and on which you will suffer no test or examination. (I may, however, ask the Superintendent to spring a pop-quiz on the faculty.)

My purpose this evening is to talk about a favorite subject, the United States Army and the legacy you inherit when you pin on your 2nd lieutenant’s bars. One small indicator of that legacy was my acknowledgment of the ladies and gentlemen of the Cadet Corps. Your 2nd lieutenant’s bars automatically confer the titles officer and gentleman or officer and lady because of the reputation established by those who have preceded you in the officer corps of our Army – a minor item, but indicative of a standard you will be expected to uphold.

What I think of the soldiers who make up our Army is in the book. At one time, after I read yet another inaccurate and undeserved criticism that questioned the reliability and fortitude of American soldiers, I wrote “Bum Rap,” an article that is my testimonial to their qualities, character and commitment in combat.

I have known the soldiers of many armies in three hot wars and one cold one. I have fought and trained both with and against some who have fearsome reputations as warriors, famous and infamous, and I learned to respect most of them for their dedication to their nations’ causes.  When they are well-led, they are forces to be respected and reckoned with.  Do not sell them short. However, I also learned that American soldiers have proved throughout our history to be a fitting match for any.  I believe that in the struggles of mortal combat, Americans are more likely to survive, more likely to gain the upper hand.  And beyond that, I believe that when combat demands initiative, ingenuity, immediate reaction and low-level decision-making, Americans will win in a walk.

That, to me, is an important conviction.  First, for our leaders who must be confident that American soldiers, who do the heavy-lifting in any war, will demonstrate the same qualities in the future that they have in the past. But it is also important that any potential enemy leader understand that questioning the quality and strength of character of American soldiers is not a factor that will offer him a battlefield advantage.

You will also find articles in the book expressing my belief in our noncommissioned officer corps, often touted as the backbone of the Army. I don’t question that characterization but I say that in fact, that backbone includes the spinal cord and therefore they control most of the nerve system of the Army.  That is the system that causes automatic reactions to situations or crises just as your nerves tell you automatically to remove your hand from a hot stove or to duck when a pitcher throws at your head. It is the NCO corps that trains soldiers to know their jobs and their responsibilities, but they also develop the teamwork and the immediate responses of their units to the demands of the moment. They create the confidence among soldiers that “We know what to do and we know how to do it.”

Thirty years ago, after 200 years of expecting NCOs to learn on the job, the Army established a noncommissioned officer’s education system, NCOES. For the first time we formalized the education and training of the NCO corps and the result has been that they are today without peer in the world.

At the end of the Cold War, the senior Russian military officer came for a visit. Our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs took him to a number of our military installations where he saw our troops in field exercises, the latest models of our weapons and other equipment, the functioning of our electronics systems and all else that we wanted to show him. At the end of his visit he was asked about his impressions and he spoke only of our NCOs. Their initiative, their ability to give briefings, to answer questions, to demonstrate professional knowledge were far more impressive to him than the M1 tank or the Apache helicopter. He opined that his Army had nothing comparable and that he suspected at first that we had put officers in NCO uniforms for his visit.

I hope you will learn early that sergeants are a 2nd lieutenant’s best friends, perhaps the best friends of 1st lieutenants and captains as well. They will expect you to lead. That is your job, but heeding their advice and counsel, encouraging them to broaden your education, and respecting their right to make sergeants’ decisions will be essential contributions to the development of your leadership abilities. Make no mistake, they want you to succeed. If your platoon has to go to war they certainly will not want to go with an unprepared, second-class platoon leader.

And, of course, you will be joining the officer corps, that group of soldiers who serve as the brain of the Army – not the only decision-makers – I’ve already mentioned the decisions required of individual soldiers and the nerve system – but the body responsible for the overall direction of operations and all other activities in which the Army is engaged. The soundness of that direction and the quality of the execution of a commander’s will are the fundamental determining factors in winning and losing battles, winning and losing wars.

I believe you will find the officer corps a body of men and women equal if not superior to the leaders of any professional group in our society – qualified and dedicated to mission accomplishment, possessed of a can-do spirit regardless of the task, and deeply concerned with the responsibilities that accompany their authorities. They are today’s representatives of the legacy you are inheriting.

Well, so far I’ve talked about the legacy you are going to inherit only in terms of soldiers – people – and we all know the Army is more than that. It is a panoply of weapons, vehicles of all configuration, thousands of other items of equipment, worldwide communications, the largest engineering firm in the world, a training and education system that far surpasses that of any other profession, our own medical service and a management system that directs and controls an organization that dwarfs the corporations and business enterprises of our country. There is almost no limit to the diversity offered in the pursuit of a professional discipline. We create “experts” in almost all walks of life. The only thing we don’t produce is millionaires. 

But the Army and the Marines are people, men and women who employ weapons and equipment and support systems to seize objectives that control land and dominate populations and win wars. The other services employ ships and planes and missiles to dominate the air and sea and provide support for the land campaigns. They are hardware oriented. Planes and ships and missiles accomplish their missions; people accomplish ours. Requirements for joint operations tend to demand singularity of purpose, but there are major differences in the philosophical underpinnings of the doctrine and practices of the different services – in my opinion, a good thing, a necessary and important difference that I wish were better understood. You need to be the best Army officer you can be in order to contribute to joint planning and joint operations. I hope we are still a long way from the purple suit that some people think we should adopt for our armed services.

There are a number of articles in the book on leadership. Each is an opinion piece, my opinion, on some aspect of the subject, but if I were to summarize them I would start with the word confidence. Leadership entails developing every soldier’s confidence in his own knowledge of his job and his responsibilities, so that he knows that he knows what is expected of him – and every soldier includes the leader himself. You must take the primary responsibility to educate and train yourself for the duties you are expected to perform.

But confidence is three-legged and the second leg is a soldier’s confidence in the unit he might go to war with, the other soldiers in his squad, his platoon, his company.  He must believe that if we go to war tomorrow morning, these are the people he wants to go with, this is the unit he is proud to be part of.  It is a belief that develops from his day-to-day training and other activities that demonstrate the proficiency of his unit.

The third leg of the stool is confidence in the people who give him orders, the sergeants, lieutenants and captains who direct the activities, in other words, the chain of command. A soldier has to believe that what he is told to do makes sense, is worthy of his efforts, and is achievable. If that three-legged stool is firm and steady and in balance, leadership has happened and an organization will thrive.

War is a collective enterprise. We need heroes. Audie Murphy, Alvin York and Medal of Honor winners are an inspiration. They demonstrate what individuals can accomplish, but battles and wars are won by units and organizations that function effectively over time. That three-legged stool of confidence is the foundation on which collective excellence is built.

Great leaders, like heroes, are born with a capability to rise to the demands of a particularly critical situation. They also were born at the right time and were in the right place to have to deal with a crisis. Have you ever thought that if World War II had occurred five years earlier or five years later you might never have heard the names Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur or Patton? You know the name Schwarzkopf; he led us to a smashing victory in the Persian Gulf War. How many other preceding or following CENTCOM commanders can you name? – most probably equally trained, ready and capable of doing the same job but just not there when crisis occurred.

Our leadership training is not designed to produce another Robert E. Lee or George Patton. It is designed to train ordinary men and women to function satisfactorily in positions in which their will will govern successful operations. One article in the book quotes a Columbia University professor who wrote, “…a profession is an institution for turning people who are not born [leaders] into good imitations of the real thing.” Look around you in the room. Do you realize that, considering the company you are keeping, half of you cadets present are below average? But the Army knows they can be effective leaders and the Army has confidence that our training and education system will assure that in future crises if a follow-on George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur or Dwight Eisenhower is not available, a good imitation will be. Today’s Army, over-worked, over-committed is performing magnificently because of a large number of good imitations.

You are embarking on what can become a lifetime commitment to soldiering, an honorable and worthy profession that has fulfilled an absolutely essential role in the history of our nation.  I envy your opportunity. I would be happy to volunteer to join you in your pursuit of what I look back upon as a most satisfying career.

I have only one more piece of advice. Be sure to find the right partner to share that life. I did; I married her over sixty years ago and she endured hardships, separations and the responsibility for raising a family when I couldn’t do my share. She is equally responsible for the career satisfaction I just expressed and for the honors I have been accorded today. I’d like you to know her. Mrs. Kroesen will you please stand and allow me to introduce you?

Now I close this talk with my thanks for your attention and for the opportunity to express these thoughts. I consign to you a responsibility to preserve the legacy while you continue to guarantee the freedom of generations to come. My generation has been called “the greatest,” a claim I’ve never made, but am willing to hear others espouse. But today, considering the threats we are facing, your generation may have to supplant mine and earn that title for yourselves. I wish you all Godspeed as you serve our nation in future years.

Frederick Kroesen - Winner of the 2007 Sylvanus Thayer Award