4/24/99 728AM: This morning I dreamed, of all things, that I was a lecturer at West Point, speaking to incoming plebes about the commitment they were making and the ideals they would be living. So what I have set down here is literally …the butt end of a dream…my West Point lecture to incomings on Duty, Honor, Country…. I’m not really a West Pointer. But my father is, and he has truly lived, and embodied, that institution’s ideals:
“We live in a cynical age, an age in which people are motivated by avarice and self-gain…. And yet here, at West Point, we are openly dedicated to a higher ideal, to, God forbid, patriotism. To love of country. Not that our country is BETTER than any other. But that it is a great and wonderful country to which we are proud to belong. We are proud of the ideas it stands for----democracy, equality, equal opportunity for all, but most of all----freedom. And here’s a paradox. We willingly sacrifice our own freedom in order to defend the idea of freedom. That is, we subject ourselves to military discipline every day for the next three decades….if we should have the good fortune to live that long…in the name of freedom. It sounds self-defeating, doesn’t it? But we FREELY, of our own FREE WILL, make this sacrifice. No one is FORCING us to go to West Point or to choose a military career. And if you don’t feel as if you are freely making this decision, this commitment, you should leave and chose another….equally honorable path----civilian life. Because here’s another sacrifice you may well be asked to make for love of your great country. You may be asked to make the ULTIMATE sacrifice. Just study the plaques of fallen alumni, alumni struck down in previous wars, if you doubt me. West Pointers will always die in much greater proportions, during war, than will the graduates, for example, of other American colleges. We are the cutting edge. We LEAD others into battle. We are expected to demonstrate courage even when it is flagging in others. Not reckless disregard for life…..but courage. Not fearlessness. We will still fear for our lives and the lives of those we lead, we won’t forget the meaning of words like compassion, mercy, and love, we will still remain human. But we will bear a terrible responsibility, an awesome duty. This can be a heavy, heavy, burden. But we will carry it for an ungodly time, under seeming godforsaken circumstances, because we freely choose to do so.
Now there are some who say that serving…and leading…in the United States Military is a farce because this great country of ours is built on some very great, dark, crimes, like genocide, and slavery. And it’s true…..there were millions of noble tribesmen already here when the first settlers landed, and those people were butchered, betrayed, crushed, and herded onto reservations, where their survivors languish today. I won’t make some glib dismissal of that great historic crime. It happened and we must live with it and face it. But our existences, and history, didn’t end with that crime, either. Even today we are trying, in Kosovo, to prevent a recurrence of genocide. And there are probably Serbs who ask: If your country is founded upon a terrible genocide, how dare you presume to judge us and stop us from taking what is ours!
But this isn’t the first time we have fought to prevent genocide and defeat evil. That is exactly what we did when we defeated Hitler. What is the explanation for this? It’s simple. We have done, as a nation, wrong, but we are freely chosing right. And knowing that makes us better soldiers. Because we can fight with our whole hearts.
Not too long ago we fought in a war which was almost universally condemned---Viet Nam. Not only did our part in the war seem wrongheaded, but the war itself dragged on forever, and became a metaphor for an unwinnable situation. You may be called upon some day to fight in an unwinnable war, an unpopular war, a wrongheaded war. You may not always be so clearly in the right as is the case with Kosovo. What will you do? You’ll serve your country in the best, the most honorable, way you know how, because that is what you will have been trained to do here at West Point, and that is what you always have believed you must do.
Almost a century and a half ago, West Point classmates found themselves on opposite sides of a great conflict. They were leading Americans in the killing of other Americans….by the hundreds of thousands. From the point of view of the North, and the Federal Government, and Abraham Lincoln, this was a war to preserve the Union. From the point of view of West Pointers in the Confederate Army, this was a war to preserve states’ rights….and a way of life. And as the war progressed, President Lincoln formally declared that this was also a war to end slavery, because America, if it was to survive at all, would be from that point onward, forever and unequivocally, the Land of the Free.
So the West Pointers fighting for the Confederacy were in a very terrible predicament. They were defending the indefensible. They were defending a terrible wrong….human slavery. They were using all the formidable military skills they had acquired at West Point, and during later service in the United States Army, and they were using those awesome, terrible, skills to do WRONG. Of course, they didn’t see it that way. They perceived themselves as defending their homelands, their home states, their families and way of life. And there are probably Serb soldiers who offer similar rationales to themselves, and who manage to look away from the mass rape, the pillaging, and the massacres, the so-called “ethnic cleansing,” which their country is committing.
And that brings me to the central word in the West Point credo: Honor. Honor sounds almost quaint today. The modern age seems to scoff at honor. Acquiring material goods seems to be more important than honor. A sterling media image seems to be prized more than real personal honor. And many of us are blind to honor, are unable to recognize it when we see it manifested in the being and behavior of those we meet. The times may even blind us from seeing it, or its opposite, in ourselves.
Honor is a very expensive ideal to cleave to. It can cost us our lives. It can also prove confusing. It’s not always clear what the honorable thing to do is. What some claim to be honorable may look to us like posturing, politicking, or super-patriotism, or hypocrisy. On the surface, it would seem obvious what is honorable. But honor can be both obvious….and mysterious. We are offered many different definitions of honor. I’m sure that those Confederate officers, with their epaulets and swords and courage on the field of battle, imagined they were honorable. There are undoubtedly Serb soldiers who imagine themselves to be honorable even as they drive hundreds of thousands of Kosovars from their ancestral homelands. So honor is a more difficult destination than it may at first appear to be.
Let me suggest this: Don’t make glib assumptions about what honor means to you. There will be times when it seems as if your honor is stained by what you find you must do. You may find yourself, at times, apparently dishonored. And years later, that which seemed dishonorable…..seems to appear honorable. And that which you were so sure was honorable…..can seem the reverse. So honor is a mystery and a sometimes distant star to which we aspire. But we can never be sure we have secured it. Nonetheless, here at West Point, it is a living, not an antiquated, word. It is an ideal we try to live and embody. It is not easy to try to be honorable. It is always a struggle, even a battle, to try to do the honorable thing. To be a good West Pointer, good soldier and officer and citizen, is to honor, or at least try to honor in your best understanding of the word, your country, your God if you have one, your family, your mission, and yourself.
And I, speaking to you as you embark on the great adventure of your lives, honor you and salute you. The path you are choosing is the thorny one. No one ever claimed it would be easy. But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful or rewarding.”
Coda: I submit this in memory of my father, Harry Bert Lane, West Point ’40, 1916-2000.