Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered a forceful message on Saturday to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy graduating class of 2018: Don’t be a victim.
“Do not celebrate victimhood,” Mattis said in his commencement address in Kings Point, New York on June 16. “Life as a leader is hard … enjoy it, embrace it, and practice your skill and put it to use when the hard times come, coaching the others to take disappointment in stride. And do not fall into cynicism which is just another word in the armed services for cowardice.”
Read the full transcript of Mattis’ remarks below:
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks very much.
Well, if you clap like that when I’m done, I’ll feel good about the day. But, Admiral Mark, thanks. Boy, that’s the best introduction I’ve ever had right there. But to the distinguished guests who are here today and take part in today, they will understand because simply some of us have been around a little longer. Why I stand before you with mixed emotions. I’m out of Washington D.C., and I’m so happy I could cry. (Laughter.)
But I would just tell you, ladies and gentleman, the tradition of what happens here at Kings Point. This is the jewel. This is the national treasure for us.
And for the young people who’ve been through it, who had their nose to the grindstone, you will not, you can not know how important this institution is, or your industry until you look back at it. It’s something you know best in a rearview mirror. And while very happy to out today, assure you what you picked up here for life’s journey is going to serve you forever.
I also want to say besides the congratulations to all of you wearing the uniforms down here on the playing field, to the families that introduced to a way of life that would put other first, that would make you think that this country is something like a bank, where you have to put something in if you’re going to take something out. And for all of your families, you just have our deepest respect in this country.
The only way this country, this experiment in democracy will continue to exist is if we raise young men and woman like this who are willing to commit themselves to serve others, to serve their country.
I think, too, that if you think back, as was mentioned by your admiral, to your first days when you came the hatchway here, you didn’t know much about the Naval service, about the maritime service, and they started you though indoctrination here and you knew nothing of terrestrial and celestial navigation. When you look back to those days when they had to teach you that the best way to deal with the situation where you’re between an onshore gale and a rocky coast there in the first place, a little nautical lore there probably.
But I think that on coming here you can only know you are going to be tested. And now you’re at the top of your game. You’re intellectually ready, as ready as you need to be. Whether you have confidence in that or not, you will learn that you are intellectually ready, because you will continue to learn. You are now physically prepared. You look sharp. My fine young cadets, you look wonderful actually to me. I can’t believe I was ever that young though. And spiritually you are ready for the tests that are coming. And you are going to be the skilled and confident mariners and other service leaders that your country needs.
And we need every one of you right now. Every one of you counts. I would tell you too…
they do. Every one of you counts, it is the — the intellect that you will bring. It is the youthful vigor you’ll bring. It’s the rigor, the way you will do your jobs. Coming out of here you already have an institutional standard that will stand you in good stead anywhere.
And as the chaplain spoke about the journey of life earlier in those wonderful remarks he made, I would just tell you, I’m going to speak today mostly from a Maritimer, a nautical or a Naval tradition because that is the tradition of this school but there’s rocks and shoals ahead for you whether you’re going in to the U.S. Navy or the Merchant Marines, the Army, the Air Force, the Marines.
rocks and shoals in life and especially for leaders, especially for those of you who decided you’re going to lead. And by that choice, you are now going to be in a position whether others are counting on you and in those rocks and shoals as you go through them and navigate through them, you are also — they are not just to avoid making bad choices yourself.
Not just to avoid learning from the mistakes. They’re also there to ensure your subordinates, those who are counting on you, those who have also signed a blank check payable to the American people with their lives. They’re counting on you to wisely and well. It doesn’t in any way subordinate you and your individuality to serve America.
It actually enlarges you as a senator named John McCain said about his service in the Maritime tradition. We need you today as Administrator Buzby said, we need you today probably more than at any time as you join an industry under great competition. But I would also tell you that we need the highly disciplined deck officers and engineers in that service that will make certain we’re at the top of our game.
We also need those of you going into the other Armed Forces and I would say for all of you, what we really need is, as the poet puts it, we need those who are willing to go far from the comfort and avenues of life and you’re going to do that as leaders. You’re going to go into uncomfortable situations, physically uncomfortable, even dangerous.
You’re going to go into very uncomfortable situations ethically, and you’ve got to listen to the words that you are given here and the guidance you are given here because when destiny claps you on the shoulder, you must be ready.
And I think whether you’re going to be at or at sea, you’re going to bind the muscles of American commerce and that’s a simple reality because as small as our Merchant Marine may be today, it is absolutely essential. It’s in every war plan that I review, I guarantee because you’re going to be the fourth arm of defense.
You’re going to sustain our allies and fuel our ships and ferry our warriors. It’s as simple as that and we’re going to need you as we see the storm clouds gather elsewhere as our diplomats are in a position where we have to buy time for them to solve problems. You can’t buy time as an armed force.
You cannot do it unless you are ready to fight and that counts on every one of you lads and lasses here. I think, too, that history has much to teach us and we consider that your legacy began when a handful of colonials in Maine decided to pick a fight with the Royal Navy schooner. That took some guts, didn’t it?
And I would tell you they won despite only having some canoes and some muskets. They won because they believed in each other and they weren’t going to let someone else talk them out of it. We recall our World War II lifeline that you held open to our allies and the death blow that your service dealt our enemies despite the heavy price that you, your service, paid.
A price that’s enshrined in the Mariner’s Monument and the 142 midshipmen, who by their fearless devotion, ensured that yours is the only service academy authorized to carry that battle color with its color guard. That was won for you by some fine young men.
When we consider how on 9/11 and in the finest tradition of Kings Point of your school, the cadets rushed unbidden towards the fire and smoke, mobilizing to assist in the recovery and the safety, the rescue of citizens from 91 countries in New York City that day and then delivering essential personnel supplies.
We can see the tradition carries on in those of you who come of this generation that you will deliver your absolute fighting best because our country will have competent leaders of character will be most ready when the nation may be least ready. The Merchant Marine is near and dear to my heart for the reasons that the Administrator mentioned there.
My father was a mariner from 1935 to 1949, so it was in my blood to go wander the world and I would just tell you those were turbulent times in the air, on land, and sea and under the sea as your — your team found out the hard way. During the Great Depression, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Nautical School and he did his sea year aboard the USS Annapolis which was a Navy steam-sailed gunboat from the Spanish-American War.
So he was dealing with something decades old. Sound familiar there, young folks? , almost as old as this speaker is compared to you. And aboard there he learned everything from furling sails to taking — build soundings and more, but soundings they were.
It was sound training for what lay ahead and those seamanship fundamentals served him well when the great auditor, that in the Armed Services we call war, was going to test all of the mariners that we had and then some. He put the C on convoys from the Murmansk Run to the United Kingdom, where the wolfpacks hunted under the stormy North Atlantic Sea.
He took part in the great effort when your predecessors kept a starving Britain and a defeat-ravaged Russia alive long enough to ensure Hitler’s defeat. His voyages took him to the seven seas and you will go there as well. He went to Iran, to Sri Lanka and Australia. And on one voyage, he did meet a young woman who was being dropped off in South Africa to work with U.S. Consulate, turned out to be my mother.
I thank of you for being alive today since you had something to do with that. So I do come today to say thanks to your forefathers as well and to speak briefly about what our country actually specifically needs of you graduates.
To best describe it, I would borrow words from a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy who said, “In the event of a war, American flagships are obviously needed not only for Naval auxiliary but also for the maintenance of reasonable and necessary commercial intercourse. We should remember the lessons learned in the last war.”
That Secretary of the Navy, ladies gentlemen, who is better known as President Franklin Roosevelt a few years later. And he spoke those words in 1935 in the last war he refers to, of course, was World War I. Those lessons that he was speaking to are timeless and I would tell you the essential nature of an efficient and a resilient Merchant Marine that is fearless and that is what we still need today.
Your service has ever embraced these lessons so much so that during WWII, the Kings Point newspaper, Polaris, published some rather grim advice for those of you who are sitting where you are sitting today.
It said, “Sleep with your cabin door open because torpedo strike can jam your doors shut. Never sleep on the hatch covers, you risk getting blown overboard. Wear clothing at all times in dangerous waters. Have a lifebelt and a flashlight handy. Know where your boots are.”
Now, my fine young folks, more than 30 percent of this class will go into active duty in the Armed Forces, but all graduates must be ready to do as your forbearers did to always know where your boots are, to always be ready when trouble looms because both war and the sea are unforgiving environments and so the lessons learned here will apply wherever you go in the future.
And now for just a moment let’s shrink the years between those of you sitting here graduating and myself with my color of hair, just shrink the difference between us here. A couple of words of advice all of us old folks feel like we have to pass on to young people. You may not learn better than via your own experience but we feel obligated to try and share some of this with you.
First of all, always run the ethical midfield just like you learned here. You run the ethical midfield. If you make the mistake, you’re not going to be out of bounds. If you run right on the boundary lines and just try to stay just inside, even a common mistake can have you out of bounds and there’s nothing your seniors can do at that point to care more about your career and your life and your reputation for your family and for your school and for your service than you care.
You’ve got to be the men and women of integrity, of honor, intelligence, dedication, and competence. See I was reading your material here, OK young folks? You were made to be for that and you don’t want to be anything less because at the end of the day you’ve got to live up to that standard. You do not want to live down from it.
I want you to take good responsibility, full responsibility for your reaction to adversity. In a country that sometimes is not known for this anymore, remember who brought you up. Remember who you follow in the footsteps of. Do not celebrate victimhood. Life as a leader is hard enjoy it, embrace it, and practice your skill and put it to use when the hard times come, coaching the others to take disappointment in stride. And do not fall into cynicism which is just another word in the armed services for cowardice.
In World War II few mariners lived this better than the Matthew Men of the Virginia Tidewater who born to the sea. They viewed Hitler’s U-boats as a personal affront to their generational profession living on the coast. They didn’t whine; they didn’t suck their thumbs. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They listened at night for the rumbling of diesel engines in the dark. They scoured the horizon at dawn for submarine silhouettes and those were just the kids on shore. Their fathers plowed through mountainous seas and gales that could list for weeks on fat ships with low water lines and lifeboats.
The ones unseaworthy, they paid for the repairs out of their own pockets and by personally funding them they were personally funding their own readiness and they would see who if they could determine if they were lost at sea if they survived or not. And despite it all, this is what they had to say about prowling U-boats. The torpedoes just got in the way; now that’s called keeping your grace, keeping your courage under pressure and not taking hold of some victimhood. They just saw torpedoes as a bothersome nuisance.
Lastly, I want you to hold something sacred and fix your days on it, fix your gaze on it like you do on the North Star when you’re navigating and chart a course through what are going to be ethically perilous waters. We need leaders who show a strong sense of ethics today. You need to be a source of strength for your subordinates and you need to be a lifelong learner so you’re as strong when destiny does tap you on the shoulder to lead your crew or team through the rocks and shoals of life as you are here today at this point in your life.
Leonard LaRue had that strength. He also attended Pennsylvania Nautical School in the 1930’s and like my father he did his sea year aboard the USS Annapolis. But he is remembered not for his physical courage in World War II which he had an abundance of but for his moral courage in Korea as Captain of the SS Meredith Victory where he proved to not only be a mariner in the finest tradition of your service, but also a great American listening to his better angels. In the frigid December of 1950, the United Nations command would go back to Huang Nam in what is today North Korea. Enemy soldiers bored down upon a city in flames, the harbor was mined and thousands of refugees swarmed the beaches desperate to escape the climate as they down.
Captain LaRue ordered his SS Meredith Victory into shore amidst a storm of war and he and his crew rescued 14,000 refugees and bore them away safely on a ship. Before they could put in safe anchorage, five babies were born of his crew and over 14,000 refugees, not a single life was lost. Now there was a leader not concerned with putting it all on the line. He was competent; he was aware of and stoically he dealt with it.
Remember him and don’t allow his example to be lost on the compost heap of events. Keep our integrity, take responsibility, and hold close something sacred to include the tradition of this service. It will only last as long as you embrace it.
Let me close with a few words from President Eisenhower on you Mariners for he sums it up well. We count upon their efficiency and their utter devotion to duty; they have never failed us yet. And in all the struggle yet to come, we know that they will never be deterred by any danger, hardship or privation.
So to all our graduates today, thank you for the work you’re about to undertake. Thank you for your efficiency and utter devotion to duty. I know you’ll keep them sailing. God preserve you when you go in harm’s way and Godspeed to you all.
Thank you very much and gentlemen.