Speeches & Lectures

Remarks by Secretary of Defense James Mattis at IWP Commencement

Introduction of U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis

by John Lenczowski
at The Institute of World Politics Commencement
May 18, 2018

It is my great pleasure to introduce to you our keynote speaker, current Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Secretary Mattis has served for more than four decades in uniform. He has commanded Marines at all levels. He led an infantry battalion in Iraq in 1991, an expeditionary brigade in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack, a Marine Division in the initial attack, and subsequent stability operations in Iraq in 2003. He led all U.S. Marine Forces in the Middle East as Commander, I Marine Expeditionary Force and U.S. Marine Forces Central Command.

Secretary Mattis has had numerous senior non-combat assignments, including Director, Marine Corps Manpower Plans & Policy; as Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command; and as Executive Secretary to the Secretary of Defense.

As a joint force commander, Secretary Mattis commanded U.S. Joint Forces Command, NATO’s Supreme Allied Command for Transformation, and U.S. Central Command. At U.S. Central Command, he directed military operations of more than 200,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, Marines and allied forces across the Middle East.

As a combat leader, he was a soldier’s soldier. He would remain with his troops and would eschew more comfortable quarters, no matter what the conditions they faced.

Following his retirement from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2013, Secretary Mattis served as the Davies Family Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, specializing in the study of leadership, national security, strategy, innovation and the effective use of military force.

We are especially pleased to welcome Secretary Mattis because he embodies so many of the highest ideals of the Institute.

He is a practitioner of one of the most vital arts of statecraft – the military art – and has been a scholar of this art at the same time. But he does not treat military power in isolation; he integrates it into overall national strategy.

In his various leadership roles, he recognized the importance of cultural intelligence, cross-cultural communication, and public diplomacy for the effectiveness of our war efforts. He insisted that his troops study and understand the cultures in which they were operating, and that they exercise prudence and discretion in high-pressure situations, particularly when there was a risk of civilian casualties.

He is a student of history and civil-military relations and is one of the nation’s foremost strategic thinkers. Throughout his professional career, he has been a voracious reader and, over the years, assembled a personal library of 7,000 volumes which he has been busy trying now to give away.

Graduates, when you continue your work in the world as an intelligence officer, defense planner, diplomat, or whatever your role, I hope that you will follow Secretary Mattis’ example and continue to be a scholar of these matters. This will enhance your professionalism, your effectiveness, and your service to the nation.

Secretary Mattis, we are truly honored by your presence here today. On behalf of the faculty and trustees of IWP, we would like to confer upon you a Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa for your extraordinary service to our nation and the example that you set for our future leaders.

Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis

at The Institute of World Politics Commencement
May 18, 2018
delivered after receiving a Doctorate of Laws, Honoris Causa, from IWP

Please grab your seats, ladies and gentlemen. I’ve got to tell you, Dr. John, this is pretty tall clover for a man who only went to college for a little over three years… a Ph.D. …amazing!

Thank you, all of you, for having me here today. I would just tell you that I thought your remarks were wonderful, and instead of using my two hour version, I can reduce it to the seven minute version, because I thought that he summed up so much of the message that needs to be sent to these graduates and the families that have supported them, raised them, given them the values… And certainly thanks to the faculty that can take those words of guidance from the President and put them into reality, a reality matching intellectual, rigorous, ethical, and moral standards that we’ve got to live by if we’re going to keep this great big experiment that you and I call America alive for the next generation.

To me, this is a very bright and sunny day, maybe not outside and in Washington D.C. But I’m used to Washington, D.C. being much gloomier than the high-spirited young Patriots that come in to work in the Department of Defense, and I would just tell you that for us right now, this is a bright day, not just for our graduates and families, but for our nation.

I think that we need these graduates, we need what this institution stands for right here, and what it produces.

Let me explain this a little bit.

I think that these graduates in this Institute are joined really by three words, and those three words are put others first. I guarantee you young grads—and you’re all young compared to me—I guarantee you that if you continue to put others first, you will not be laying on a couch somewhere when you’re 45 or 50 years old, wondering what you did with your life—you’ll never have that question.

You’ll know what you did, because you put others first, and for 28 years, this Institute has certainly done that by preparing graduates for careers in defense of our civilization.

I love these words of political and economic liberty, of law, self-government, inalienable rights …inalienable—you have to remember what that adjective really means there—and vital national security interest. You graduates carry out this solemn obligation with a keen focus here at an Institute that really drives home the point about character development and moral reasoning, what Marcus Aurelius, one of my favorite authors, called forging leaders, who are upright—not ones who need to be kept upright.

I think about an hour’s drive from here, off to the Northwest, lies the Antietam Battlefield Cemetery, and there’s a big tall pedestal in the middle of the graveyard there with a Union soldier on top of that pillar, with him overlooking his comrades, and the pillar is inscribed with these words: not for themselves, but for their country. I think that when you elevate something above yourself and keep the tradition of America alive in this regard—when you put others first, whether it be in your home, in your school district, in your state, and your parish, and in your nation—when you say not for yourselves but for the country, and we can then look even to our military today that does the exact same thing that you graduates are doing by putting yourself through this Institute.

These words, I think, capture not only your spirits, but also capture the spirit of our young, high quality volunteers—these are young men and women who look past the often-hot political rhetoric of our day, and voluntarily sign a blank check to the American people, a blank check payable with their lives. I think for this experiment and democracy to long endure, it’s going to require the raw human spirit of those who seek out danger far from the well-lit avenues, the ones where there’s all glory and that sort of thing—and make certain they live not just for themselves, but for their country, because we are building a country here. We are building one, and it’s noble work—yet it’s hard work—and it’s work that can never be finished if we want a country of the people, by the people, for the people, because any government can eventually become myopic and start looking inwardly, and forget.

This is why we need the rigor and the vigor of you young graduates to infuse new blood into this government, where our government today requires people who are cut from the same cloth as a young midshipman named John McCain, who was a student at the Naval Academy a little ways East of here. He discovered, and I quote him, “a shared purpose does not claim our identity; on the contrary, it enlarges your sense of yourself.” If we watch his career, six decades later after he left that schoolhouse, he has shown leadership year in and year out. You don’t tire of this. It energizes you when you put others first. John McCain did not sit passively by as a senator when he saw our nation and its military floundering in midst of strategic atrophy, with a Congress relegated to spectator status by the Budget Control Act’s mechanical and automatic cuts. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He fixed it, and today, in the tradition of those who understand freedom isn’t free, he fixed it in a bilateral manner.

We need you, young grads, who best bring that vigor and intellectual rigor that you’ve gained here at this Institute. We need you to bring that into our policy debates as we chart our way ahead and today, in a time when trouble looms, we need every one of you.

We need grads who can guide my interactions, and I will tell you I’ve only got three lines of effort when I came into this job that I never expected I’d get tapped for.

The first is that I want to make the military more lethal, because it must be to defend this great big experiment. The second, I want to build stronger alliances and partnerships around the world, because, bluntly—when you have allies, you thrive, and when you don’t have allies, you die. It’s that simple. Internally, I want to reform the business practices so I can look all of our citizens in the eye and tell them that we spent their money wisely.

Why do I focus on that second one about allies? One reason is one of your graduates, Kipp McGuire—whose education includes not only here but combat and defense of liberty—is now guiding my interactions overseas, taking my precious hours of the day and allocating it to different countries overseas where we can make common cause with other people who yearn for liberty as much as we do.

We have to remember—and I’ve got a number of people on my staff who have graduated from here—we must remember that we must keep our allies close by us. We tried, we tried hard for isolation after World War I, drawing the wrong lessons from that wartime experience and it led to a very costly war—and eventually, a very costly victory in WWII. The effects of that have resonated all the way down to the 1990s. But the greatest generation came home, and say we grew up in a depression—many of us grew up hungry, we lost how many million, tens of millions of people in that war, it’s a pretty crummy world—but we were part of it whether we liked it or not.

We need you graduates to fan out and do what the greatest generation did. Make your impact on our policies, put your print on our world—for today, just like in our revolution when Lafayette, Kosciuszko, and Von Steuben all offered their swords and their brains in the fight for liberty—we need your bodies, minds, and spirits in our quest, because it’s carrying out our duty to the next generation to pass our freedoms intact to them.

You and I, in most cases, were born free here by accident. We live here free by choice. We have an obligation to turn those freedoms over to the next generation intact—but creating a better world means you take no false refuge in cynicism or victimhood, or any timid negatives. We need your courage, we need your initiative, and we need it in that regard.

I have role models that have inspired me—one of mine, by the way, has been one of my role models since before some of you graduates came to this school. Many of you know Dr. Mackubin Owens, Colonel Owens as we call him in the Marines. He taught me a lot, although I don’t recommend—I know here’s not here today—just stay far away from him on a battlefield, he attracts far too much attention. He wears, I believe, three purple hearts at last count, and I don’t want them to miss him when they’re aiming at him and hit me—but it is wonderful to get shot at and missed, so, those of you who are in the military or going into the military, you’ll have the time of your life in defense of freedom.

But for all of you who are going, you young graduates are going out to carve your own path, make certain you choose good mentors. Listen to them, then make your own decisions based on what you’ve learned here and what you continue to learn. Stay strong, keep the faith; we need your strong hearts and minds and the great passions of our time.

Again, ladies and gentlemen, some things are work and some are an absolute delight. It’s a delight to be here with you today. I salute you for what you’ve through—the rigor you put yourself through—and I look forward to seeing your ideas emblazoned across our country’s history.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

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