Preserving the Legacy of the U.S. Army

Article excerpt

Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, U.S. Army retired, is the recipient of this year's U.S. Military Academy's Thayer Award. The award is named for Col. Sylvanus Thayer, the academy's fifth superintendent, who served from 1817 to 1833. He was referred to as the Father of the Military Academy because he established many of West Point's academic and disciplinary traditions that are still practiced today. The Academy's Association of Graduates presents the award each year to someone whose accomplishments and service to the country reflect the West Point motto, "Duty, Honor, Country." Gen. Kroesen's acceptance speech, delivered at West Point on September 20, follows.

I am honored to be the recipient of the Sylvanus Thayer Award, for which I am indebted to the Association of Graduates, most especially to Maj. Gen. Bill Webb-and the class of 1947-and Lt. Gen. Clarence (Mac) McKnight-and the class of 1954-both of whom nominated me and campaigned for my selection. I am sincerely grateful for their efforts.

And I am honored that Gen. Gordon Sullivan and the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) have published a second edition of my book for the purpose of furnishing a copy to every West Point cadet. A military author could not ask for a better or more satisfying reward, but please know it is one volume you have no academic obligation to read and on which you will suffer no test or examination. (I may, however, ask the superintendent to spring a pop quiz on the faculty.)

My purpose this evening is to talk about a favorite subject, the U.S. Army and the legacy you inherit when you pin on your second lieutenant's bars. One small indicator of that legacy was my acknowledgment of the ladies and gentlemen of the Cadet Corps. Your second lieutenant's bars automatically confer the titles officer and gentleman or officer and lady because of the reputation established by those who have preceded you in the officer corps of our Army-a minor item, but indicative of a standard you will be expected to uphold.

What I think of the soldiers who make up our Army is in the book. At one time, after I read yet another inaccurate and undeserved criticism that questioned the reliability and fortitude of American soldiers, I wrote "Bum Rap," an article that is my testimonial to their qualities, character and commitment in combat.

I have known the soldiers of many armies in three hot wars and one cold one. I have fought and trained both with and against some who have fearsome reputations as warriors, famous and infamous, and I learned to respect most of them for their dedication to their nations' causes. When they are well led, they are forces to be respected and reckoned with. Do not sell them short. However, I also learned that American soldiers have proved throughout our history to be a fitting match for any. I believe that in the struggles of mortal combat, Americans are more likely to survive, more likely to gain the upper hand. And beyond that, I believe that when combat demands initiative, ingenuity, immediate reaction and low-level decision making, Americans will win in a walk.

That, to me, is an important conviction. First, for our leaders who must be confident that American soldiers, who do the heavy lifting in any war, will demonstrate the same qualities in the future that they have in the past. But it is also important that any potential enemy leader understand that questioning the quality and strength of character of American soldiers is not a factor that will offer him a battlefield advantage.

You will also find articles in the book expressing my belief in our noncommissioned officer corps, often touted as the backbone of the Army. I don't question that characterization, but I say that, in fact, that backbone includes the spinal cord, and therefore they control most of the nerve system of the Army. That is the system that causes automatic reactions to situations or crises just as your nerves tell you automatically to remove your hand from a hot stove or to duck when a pitcher throws at your head. …