“No More Noble Calling” – ADM McRaven on the US Army
By Havoc 13
On January 18th, the United States Military Academy at West Point held an event known as “500th Night,” which for the junior class of West Point cadets marks 500 days until graduation and commissioning into the US Army. This year’s 500th Night guest speaker was Admiral William McRaven, the current commander of Special Operations Command and the man who in 2011 commanded the Joint Special Operations Command during the operation that finally killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.
ADM McRaven’s 500th Night speech was transcribed and released by the West Point public affairs office, and an excerpt of the text (edited slightly for brevity and readability) is below. It is a lengthy read, but well worth the time. In his comments, ADM McRaven focused on his interactions with soldiers of all ranks, from an anonymous wounded infantryman to several senior Army generals. He also gave his deeply personal reflections on what it means to serve in the US Army.
Specifically, in the last paragraph of his 500th Night speech ADM McRaven says “there is no more noble calling in the world than to be a soldier in the United States Army.” That is high praise coming from any four-star officer, especially a man who made a career in the Navy. At the same time, though, it shows the deep respect that warriors have always had for each other, regardless of politics, parochial inter-service rivalries, or any other concerns.
One of the things that stands out most about ADM McRaven’s comments is simply the transferability of his words. Substitute any branch of the Armed Services—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or the Coast Guard—into the statement that ADM McRaven made, and it would remain equally true. Service in the profession of arms *IS* a noble profession. Arguably, it is the most noble of professions. The American people know this; our military is at the top of the “most trusted” institutions in the United States for a reason. It should be that way. May it always be so.
As powerful and inspiring as ADM McRaven’s 500th Night speech was to read, we can only imagine what it was like to hear it in person. We offer a salute and our heartfelt gratitude not just to ADM McRaven, not just to the soldiers of the US Army, but to ALL of the men and women who, fully knowing the hazards of their chosen profession, nonetheless suit up every day to protect our nation and our way of life. Thank you all, and God bless.
A Sailor’s Perspective on the United States Army
Admiral William H. McRaven, Address to the West Point Class of 2015, 500th Night
18 January 2014
As a graduate of a state school in Texas, who majored in journalism because I couldn’t do math, or science, or engineering or accounting, I am somewhat intimidated by the thought of giving any advice, to any cadet, on anything. Nevertheless, after almost 37 years in the service, much of that time with the Army, there may be something I can offer.
What did I learn about the Army in watching these men and other great leaders like Keith Alexander, Chuck Jacoby, Mike Scaparrotti, John Campbell, Bob Caslen and Rich Clarke? Well, I learned first and foremost that your allegiance as an officer is always, always to the Nation and to those civilian leaders who were elected by the people, who represent the people.
The oath you took is clear; to support and defend the Constitution—not the institution, not the Army, not the Corps, not the division, not the brigade, not the battalion, not the company, not the platoon, and not the squad—but the nation.
I learned that leadership is hard. Karl von Clausewitz once said that “everything in war is easy, but the easy things are difficult.” Leadership sounds easy in the books, but it is quite difficult in real life. I learned that leadership is difficult because it is a human interaction and nothing, nothing is more daunting, more frustrating more complex than trying to lead men and women in tough times. Those officers that do it well earn your respect, because doing it poorly is common place. You will be challenged to do it well.
I learned that taking care of soldiers is not about coddling them. It is about challenging them. Establishing a standard of excellence and holding them accountable for reaching it. I learned that good officers lead from the front.
I learned that if you are in combat, move to where the action is the hottest. Spend time with the soldiers being miserable, exhausted and scared. If you’re a Blackhawk pilot or a tank commander, spend some time on the flight line or in the motor pool with the maintainers and the wrench turners. Whatever position or branch you are in, find the toughest, most dangerous, job in your unit and go do it.
I learned that you won’t get a lot of thanks in return. I learned that you shouldn’t expect it. Your soldiers are doing the tough job every day, but I guarantee you, you will learn a lot about your troops and they will learn a lot about you.
I learned that the great leaders know how to fail. In the course of your Army career you will likely fail and fail often. Nothing so steels you for battle like failure. No officer I watched got it right, every time. But the great ones know that when they fail, they must pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and move on.
I learned that great Army officers are risk takers, but the greatest risk is not on the battlefield, but in standing up for what’s right. If you can’t stomach failure, then you will never be a great leader.
In watching Army officers, young and old, I learned that the great officers are equally good at following as they are at leading. Following is one of the most underrated aspects of leadership and each of you will be asked to follow someone else. The strength of a good unit rests more on how well the officers follow the commander, than how well they lead their own soldiers. I have seen many a good battalion and company underachieve because someone in the officer ranks thought the commander was incompetent and quietly worked to undermine his authority.
I learned that the great Army officers know how to follow. And what about the soldiers that you will lead? In my career I have been fortunate to have served beside soldiers from the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Division, the paratroopers of the All American Division, the 1st Armored Division, the 1st Cavalry Division, the10th Mountain Division, the 1st, 3rd and 4th Infantry Division, every Group of the Special Forces Regiment and my beloved Army Rangers.
I learned that the greatest privilege the Army can bestow upon you is to give you the opportunity to lead such magnificent men and women. These soldiers are not without their challenges. Your soldiers will, at times, question your authority. They will undermine your actions. They will mislead you, frustrate you, disappoint you, and occasionally fail you. But, when the chips are down, I mean really down, your soldiers will be there and they will inspire you with their courage, their sense of duty, their leadership, their love and their respect.
I learned that your soldiers are at their best when their brothers and sisters in arms are threatened. They are at their best when life deals them the hardest of blows and their indomitable spirit shines through.
In 2007, I visited the intensive care unit in Landstuhl, Germany, where the Army was sending all of its most critically injured soldiers from Iraq. As I walked into the sterile room, clad from head to toe in clean white garb, a man lay naked on the bed in front of me. Missing one leg above the knee and part of the foot on the other leg, he was swollen beyond recognition from the blast of an IED.
The doctor in attendance didn’t know the man’s unit or service. I asked the man in the bed if he was a Marine or a soldier. Unable to talk, he pointed to his thigh. There on what was left of his thigh, was a tattoo; the 1st Infantry Division. “You’re a soldier,” I remarked. He nodded. “An infantryman.” I said. He smiled through what was left of his face and then he picked up a clipboard upon which he had been writing notes. He looked me in the eye and wrote on the paper. “I –will—be— infantry—again!” Exclamation point. And somehow I knew that he would.
Just like the young Ranger in the combat hospital at Bagram who had both his legs amputated and was also unable to speak. The nurse at his bedside said that he knew sign language. His mother was deaf and the soldier had learned to sign at a young age. He was so very young and a part of me must have shown a small sign of pity for this Ranger whose life had just been devastated. With a picture of hand gestures in front of me, the Ranger, barely able to move and in excruciating pain, signed, “I will be okay.” And he was OK.
Just like the young female sergeant who I just visited at Walter Reed this week. She was seriously injured in a parachute accident. With her father by her side, she laughed off the injury like it was a scratch. She’s been in the hospital for two months and has years of rehabilitation ahead of her. She has no self- pity, no remorse, no regrets, just determination to get back to her unit.
These soldiers and tens of thousands like them will be the warriors you lead. You had better be up to the task, because I have learned that they expect you to be good. And, most importantly, I also learned that y our soldiers expect you to hold them to high standards. These soldiers joined the service to be part of something special and if they are not held to a high standard, if their individual efforts are no more important, no more appreciated than the efforts of a slacker then it will directly affect the morale of the unit.
And I learned that nothing is more important than the morale of a unit. MacArthur once said of morale, “…that it cannot be produced by pampering or coddling an Army, and it is not necessarily destroyed by hardship, danger, or even calamity…It will wither quickly, however, if soldiers come to believe themselves the victims of indifference or injustice on the part…of their leaders.”
Finally, in watching the Army for most of my career, I learned that no institution in the world has the history, the legacy, the traditions, or the pride that comes from being a soldier. I am envious beyond words. I learned that whether you serve 4 years or 40 years you will never, ever regret your decision to have joined the United States Army. You will serve beside the finest men and women in America. You will be challenged every day.
You will fail. You will succeed. You will grow. You will have adventures to fill ten life times and stories that your friends from home will never be able to understand. Your children and their children and their children’s children, will be incredibly proud of your service and when you pass from this earth, the Nation that you served so very well will honor you for your duty. And your only regret will be that you could not have served longer.
And if for one moment you believe that because Iraq is over and Afghanistan is winding down that the future holds few challenges for you, then you are terribly, terribly mistaken. Because as long as there are threats to this great Nation, the Army upon which this Nation was founded, will be the cornerstone of its security, it’s freedom and its future. And you, as Army Officers, will shape that future, secure our freedoms and protect us from harm.
So what has this sailor learned? That there is no more noble calling in the world than to be a soldier in the United States Army. Good luck to you all as you complete your final 500 days. May God bless America and may we always have the privilege to serve her. Thank you very much.