Change and tradition seem mutually exclusive, but balancing those will lead to success for the U.S. military, Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford told graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., today.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was the commencement speaker before around 950 graduates of the class of 2018. He offered some advice to them based on his 41 years of military service.
The chairman thanked the cadets for volunteering to serve. Many of them were in day care when terrorists attacked the United States in 2001, sparking America’s longest conflict. “You chose to join an Army at war,” he said. “To that point, today there are more than 178,000 soldiers actively supporting missions around the world. Many are in harm’s way and they are joined by thousands more sailors, airmen and Marines. As we celebrate today, I ask you to keep them and their families in your thoughts and prayers.”
The cadets are being commissioned second lieutenants and will be called on to lead soldiers in that fight.
Embrace the Constant Changes
The chairman said he doesn’t remember what the commencement speaker at his own graduation said, but he does remember wondering if he was going to measure up to the challenges when he entered the Marine Corps in 1977.
“The profession of arms is dynamic and to be successful you have to anticipate and embrace the constant changes in the character of war,” he said. “Here at West Point, you studied military history. You recalled the price paid in the 20th century by armies that were slow to adapt.”
He noted that leaders on both sides of World War I were slow to grasp the significance of emerging technologies and the changing character of war. The price for that delay was 10 million in uniform were killed.
The allies on World War II failed to grasp the revolutionary nature of the German blitzkrieg mixture of armor with close-air support, he said.
“Frankly, if we look back at the change over the past century, most of the changes occurred after significant failure,” he said.
But not always — he pointed to the development of air-mobile capabilities that preceded America’s involvement in Vietnam. West Point alumnus like Lt. Gen. Jim Gavin, Gen. Hamilton Howze and Lt. Gen. Hal Moore were key in developing a new capability that resulted in the deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to Vietnam in 1965.
Adapt to Meet Those Threats
“These soldiers drove innovation that combined emerging technology with operational concepts,” Dunford said. “They fundamentally changed Army maneuver and their ideas remain relevant today.”
The chairman said there is no substitute “for taking a clear-eyed look at the threats we will face and asking how our force will adapt to meet those threats.”
For the class of 2018, change is going to be particularly important. The pace of changed has accelerated. “In many ways, the environment you are going to lead in is very different than the ones that confronted lieutenants in 1918, 1968 or even 2008,” the chairman said. “Regardless of where you find yourself serving in our Army, challenge yourself to be the kind of leader that continues to think about, to write about and to lead change. Bring your intellectual curiosity and the openness to new ideas that you established here at West Point, bring that with you in your days as an Army leader.”
But there are things that will remain the same and Dunford told the graduates he remembers wondering how he would meet the expectations of his future platoon, and how he would respond if called on to lead it into harm’s way?
“The fundamentals of leadership are the most important aspect of our profession,” Dunford said. “And they are a part of the profession that hasn’t changed since President [Thomas] Jefferson founded this institution in 1802.”
After West Point, the most important aspect is building teams, not individual accomplishments, the chairman said. “Character, competence, courage and commitment is part of the sticker price of being an Army leader,” he said. “After West Point, you get no credit for that: It’s a given. When you check into your units, your soldiers will simply want to know that you will lead from the front and you will put their interests ahead of your own.
“If you take care of your soldier, they will take care of you,” he continued. “If you lead, they will follow and together you will take the hill.”