Newport, Rhode Island – House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) spoke during graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, June 19. The graduating class included members of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, civilian federal government employees, and international students from 65 countries.
Skelton charged the graduates with three tasks: to become strategic thinkers; to continue their strategic studies, particularly by reading more military history; and to become mentors to the next generation of strategic thinkers. Skelton’s prepared remarks follow.
Remarks of Congressman Ike Skelton (D-MO)
Newport, Rhode Island – Friday, June 19, 2009
Good morning. Admiral Wisecup, thank you for your kind introduction.
It’s always a thrill to visit the Naval War College, but especially on graduation day. Congratulations to this year’s graduates and to all of the family members, friends, faculty, and staff here to share this important day.
As I begin, let me assure you I understand many are anxious to complete the graduation ceremony in order to move on to the other celebrations planned for today – graduation parties, receptions, luncheons, and what have you. So in the interest of time, I’ll spare you my two hour commencement address.
However, I do want to take a few minutes to talk about why attending the Naval War College is so important – not only to your professional development, but as an investment in America’s future.
Graduates, your studies have been demanding. But when future challenges arise, you will be intellectually prepared. The lessons you have learned through your coursework and by getting to know other colleagues in the field of national security will be invaluable in confronting the military challenges you will undoubtedly face. By engaging in your studies here, you have done a wonderful thing. And I’m very proud of you.
Professional military education has been a focus of my work on the House Armed Services Committee for more than 20 years. Because professional military education is near and dear to my heart, I want to do all I can to support and help our war colleges fulfill their primary purpose – producing great thinkers and master strategists.
Now, I’d like to go into a little background to explain how Congress’ interest in the war colleges and professional military education came about. Back in 1982, General David Jones publicly declared that the Joint Chiefs of Staff system was broken. Jones argued that the Chiefs gave pabulum advice and watered down recommendations and didn’t fulfill the functions of the job. So Congressman Richard White, an Armed Services subcommittee chairman, held a series of hearings focused on the lack of jointness among the services.
When Congressman White retired, a House Armed Services Committee staffer by the name of Arch Barrett convinced me to get involved. One of the first things we did was write a bill to abolish the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After introducing that legislation, it didn’t take long for me to learn that not one member of the Joint Chiefs had a sense of humor.
But we continued our work, and under the new subcommittee chairman Bill Nichols, we passed legislation in the House three times. Eventually legislation followed in the Senate, with Senator Barry Goldwater in the lead. The result was a bill now known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which changed the entire culture of the military by creating jointness – not just in name, but in fact.
Professional military education was one of the ways Goldwater-Nichols sought to create jointness. Again, it was staffer Arch Barrett who urged me to dig into this issue. I was appointed to lead the House Armed Services Committee’s Panel on Professional Military Education, and we investigated all of the war colleges through numerous hearings, testimony, and interviews. Our most important recommendation was to re-establish rigor in all of the war colleges. This renewed emphasis on professional military education, including the instruction of history, became essential to career advancement in the military.
In my view, making it possible for you to spend this time at the Naval War College is one of the most important investments our nation can make. By investing in your professional education, our goal is to develop leaders with the vision and wisdom to guide us into the future. But in order to serve both war college students and the interests of our national security, we must continually scrutinize and improve America’s professional military education system.
Now that I’m Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, I asked the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, led by Chairman Vic Snyder of Arkansas and Ranking Member Rob Wittman of Virginia, to take a fresh look at professional military education and ask how these schools rate today, twenty years after the Skelton Panel’s report. The subcommittee has already held its first two hearings on this subject.
Frankly, some of the concerns I had twenty years ago still loom large. First, are our professional military education schools creating the strategic thinkers we need? And second, are the services identifying strategic thinkers and are these thinkers being offered the right career opportunities?
We simply can’t afford to squander the talents of our strategic thinkers and must make sure they are not discouraged in their military careers, whether serving in joint positions or in the services. Because our nation needs more strategic thinkers, we must support our war colleges and actively encourage service members who seek mastery in the art of warfare.
To bring this point home, there is an old chestnut that bears repeating. In the words of Sir William Francis Butler, "The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards."
The military as an institution is sometimes criticized for fostering an anti-intellectual bias. Despite this reputation, I’d like to compliment the Navy for encouraging rather than squelching its big thinkers. It is a service that values big thinkers. However, it is said that the Navy does not like to send people to school. While nobody likes to be away from the fleet or away from operations, taking time for professional military education must be a priority.
In fact, the time spent at professional military schools needs to be longer – not shorter. So l intend to continue my drumbeat urging the Navy and the other services to send more people to war college – both as students and instructors. More officers should have the opportunity to benefit from this grand educational experience.
Graduates, as you accept the diplomas you have earned, I have three challenges for you.
First, I challenge you to use what you have learned at the Naval War College and dedicate yourselves to becoming the best strategic thinkers you can be. We are counting on you to be leaders with the skills to do the fighting and the education to do the thinking that the 21st century requires.
Both military and civilian leaders will depend on your best judgment and advice to guide policy and actions. In sending you to the Naval War College, we are making an investment in you. You should now have the intellectual grounding to be a good advocate for military strategy.
Second, I want you to understand and appreciate that your professional military education does not end today – it is just beginning. You have an obligation to continue your strategic studies, and I particularly challenge you to read as much military history as you can.
I once heard a story about a debate between an historian and a senior officer. The general said, "What makes you think that your study of past battles, campaigns, and wars has any relevance in this day of high firepower, lightening warfare, electronic battlefields, jet planes, and satellites?" The historian replied, "What makes you think you’re smart enough to win the next war on the basis of your experience alone?"
When military leaders learn more about history, they become better citizens and military professionals. In the realm of professional military education, it should be our mission to ensure that members of the military know their history better than anyone else.
From the time I was a young boy growing up during World War II, I have always been interested in military history. But what started out as my hobby has been invaluable to my work on the House Armed Services Committee. It has also impressed upon me how important it is for our nation’s leaders, and our military leaders in particular, to become historians in their own right.
Through the years, reading books recommended by others who share my interest in history and military affairs has helped me enormously. I encourage you to track down the many excellent war college and commander’s reading lists to get started. I also have my own national security book list, which you can find on my office website. For me, the difficult part is narrowing down my list, because I’m always finding new books, or books that are new to me, that I think others would enjoy as well.
Finally, I challenge you as distinguished graduates of this prestigious institution to become mentors responsible for passing the strategic spark on to the next generation.
Several years ago, I met with the Commandant of the German War College in Hamburg, Germany. In his office, I noticed his diploma from the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. The Commandant eagerly described his time at the Command and General Staff College as the best year of his life. It is my hope that you can, and you will, say the same to your friends and colleagues about your experience at the Naval War College.
Your example as a role model who has excelled at the Naval War College will speak volumes to your contemporaries and to junior service members. Perhaps some of you may even teach as an instructor one day. If that opportunity presents itself, I hope you take it. Some of the very best strategists our nation ever produced have served as instructors at our war colleges. As a chance to be a mentor, you could do no better.
President Harry S Truman liked to tell a story about the grave marker in Tombstone, Arizona, that read, "Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damndest."
I charge you to heed the wisdom of that epitaph – that is, to always do your best. And wherever your future endeavors take you, use the skills that were sharpened here and continue your professional military education and study of military history. You will not regret it.
For today, however, celebrate this wonderful occasion with your family and friends and all who have supported your achievements. On your Naval War College graduation, I wish you all the best. Congratulations, good luck, and God bless.