Facing The Men And Women


Elizabeth D. Samet, an English professor at West Point, reflects on the scene last night:

Service academies theoretically provide safe audiences for the Commander-in-Chief. But to look into the eyes of the people you are sending to war, when what you hope to do is forge a world in which young people, as Truman put it in the language of a veteran artilleryman of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, “won’t have to go and be cannon fodder,” is, I think, an act of honesty. President Obama’s challenge was twofold of course: to articulate a policy and to attend to an audience that would be directly, materially affected by that policy in ways they can see only too well and in ways they cannot even imagine.

The seniors I teach have just chosen the branches of the Army in which they will serveaviation, infantry, military police, etc. All semester I have watched them devote to this choice, as well as to a consideration of the profession of arms and to the ambiguous situations into which it might deliver them, a substantial amount of thought. How could a Commander-in-Chief’s emphasis on deliberation and restraint, on the “nimble and precise ... use of military power,” and on a set of national values encompassing the value of disagreement, not strike a chord with an audience so circumstanced?

When my classes next meet, the cadets will no doubt share their thoughts on the speech, and I will share with them another speech, written, like last night’s, after a decade of national crisis and transformation, a speech that, like President Obama’s, linked domestic prosperity and foreign engagement, civilian and military enterprises. In his 1939 West Point commencement address, FDR refrained from excessive congratulation and challenged his audience to regard their commissioning as a beginning rather than a culmination: “You will find, as I have, that ... service never endsin the sense that it engages the best of your ability and the best of your imagination in the endless adventure of keeping the United States safe, strong and at peace.” The demand for such imagination on the part of military leaders has only increased since 1939.

(Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty)