Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden at the Commencement Ceremony of the United States Military Academy
United States Military Academy
West Point, New York
10:22 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) It’s a great honor to be here.
Distinguished guests; soldiers and officers, friends and family of those graduating today, academy faculty and staff and, most of all, cadets on the cusp of being commissioned in the United States Army, it is an honor -- it is an honor -- to be here on this magnificent campus whose graduates for more than two centuries have played a leading role in nearly every chapter of our nation’s history.
Before there was a military academy here on the Hudson, before even the United States was the United States of America, at the height of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington considered West Point so strategically vital he called it the “key to the continent.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I would respectfully stipulate that West Point is even more important to our nation today. The 1,032 cadets gathered here are the key -- the key -- to whatever challenges the world has in store.
The Class of 2012, four years ago you were among the most promising high school graduates on the planet; your future limited only by the reach of your imaginations, but at an age when no one would have blamed you for having no idea what you wanted to do with your lives, and in an era when the sacrifice required of our military had never been greater, you chose –- you chose -- to turn your considerable talents, your strength of purpose, but even more importantly, the strength of your intellects to serving your country and enrolling at the Academy, that, for all its merits, is no one’s idea of an easy ride.
That choice is your class motto: “For more than ourselves.” For more than ourselves. Just imagine what this world would be if it adopted that same notion. You have.
And because of you, because you do dedicate yourself, while thousands of colleges and universities across America are proudly celebrating graduations today and throughout the year and any time this year, only at West Point, and the other outstanding service academies, does the entire United States of America swell with pride at the accomplishment you’re celebrating today. (Applause.) All of America.
No one is prouder, of course, than your families, and deservedly so. Military service is by its very nature, as anyone who has ever worn the uniform knows, by its very nature a family endeavor.
Among you are 426 cadets with a military parent, including 80 of you with a mother or father who has graduated from this very academy.
Then there is Cadet Adam Scott, of Lorton, Virginia, who graduates today. (Applause.) He was preceded at West Point by two grandfathers; his father, Bruce; his sisters Katherine and Kerney and his brother Andrew. (Applause.) Adam, I guess Annapolis was never much of a choice for you. (Laughter.)
Same goes for Cadets Brian and Larry LoRusso. (Applause.) Two lacrosse stars from Rocky Point, New York. Celebrating with us today is his brother Kevin, who graduated from West Point in ’09, another brother Nick, who graduated five years ago and is watching as I speak all the way from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. (Applause.)
Cadets, let’s give a shout-out for Nick and all the other warriors in Afghanistan! They’re incredible. (Applause.)
You’re about to join the finest warriors in history, and they’re out there now. May God go with them.
Today, as each of you awaits the officer’s oath that will take you across one great threshold in American life, on behalf of President Obama, your Commander-in-Chief, your entire government, and I believe the entire nation, it is my honor to simply say congratulations. Congratulations. (Applause.)
Savor the moment. You’ve earned this. Savor this day. You’ll remember it the rest of your lives.
Every cadet passing through these halls; every hapless plebe rubbing General Sedgwick’s spurs for good luck; every firstie forged through this crucible called West Point; everyone who ever touched the George C. Marshall plaque in the stadium and thought, when the time comes, I’ll be ready for that mission, whatever it might be; every single generation that has preceded you at West Point has faced daunting challenges upon receiving its commissions, especially in times of war. But your generation, the 9/11 Generation, is more than worthy of the proud legacy that you will inherit today.
Most of you were in elementary school on September 11, 2001, when your nation was attacked; old enough to remember, perhaps, but young enough that that tragic day need not have shaped your lives. But for so many of you, it did just that.
As you and your immediate predecessors came of age, 2,800,000 of you were moved to join our military, knowing full well that you were likely to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. As General Odierno and I have talked often on my multiple trips to Afghanistan[sic] with him, hundreds of thousands of you have laced up those combat boots and walked across those barren deserts and snow-capped mountains where 24 members of this graduating class have already served. (Applause.)
Cadet Ben Ordiway served in Iraq during some of the darkest days of that war. (Applause.) When his first sergeant recommended that he apply for West Point, he spent two weeks studying for the SAT at FOB Caldwell; hopped on a roundtrip flight to Baghdad to take the exam. I’d call that an unusual testing environment. (Laughter.) Very few applicants have to solve math problems and write essays while taking incoming mortar fire. (Laughter.)
Indeed, the challenges these wars present to young warriors are perhaps the most daunting in our nation’s history because in addition to fighting for your country, your predecessors and you will be asked to do so much more.
You are asked to take on tasks once reserved only for those with years of seniority and take on responsibilities far beyond the base or the battlefield.
Young men and women steeped in military doctrine have had to master the intricacies of tribal politics, deal with issues ranging from electricity to unemployment, currency exchange to taxation. You are a remarkable, remarkable, remarkable group.
It has been one of the singular honors of my life to be assigned by President Obama to oversee our policy in Iraq, to see firsthand the accomplishments of our warriors during my multiple trips in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq as both a U.S. senator, and as Vice President.
President Obama and I came to office determined to end the war in Iraq responsibly, and today our troops are home. (Applause.)
Last December, after nine long years, I had the great privilege –- the great privilege of standing before our commanders and troops in Baghdad on the eve of their departure. And as I told them that day: “In the finest American tradition, having carried out your mission, you’re leaving. Taking nothing with you but your experiences, your achievements, and the pride associated with a hard job well done.”
That’s what America does. (Applause.)
In Afghanistan, President Obama laid out a clear strategy. Our commanders refocused and redoubled their efforts on disrupting, dismantling and ultimately destroying -- defeating al Qaeda, reversing the Taliban’s momentum and training the Afghan Security Forces to prevent extremists from gaining ground. Since then, we’ve taken out -- you have taken out more than half of al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
And in a mission that will go down in the annals of intelligence and special operations, some of America’s most gifted security professionals tracked down Osama bin Laden -- after the trail had gone cold. And in one of the most incredibly daring raids, they delivered justice to the architect of a harmful ideology -- a hateful ideology with no place in the modern world and the man responsible for the deaths of almost 3,000 innocents on our soil. They got him. (Applause.
And in the process, those warriors sent a message to the world that if you harm America, we will follow you to the end of the Earth. (Applause.)
And now, as you saw at NATO -- the NATO Conference in Chicago earlier this week, the President has formed a consensus among the 50 nations at our side on how best to responsibly end this war and bring our young men and women home.
The entire surge announced by President Obama in his speech right here on this campus in Eisenhower Hall will return this summer. And our drawdown will continue thereafter, even as we continue to build up Afghanistani forces so they can assume full responsibility for their country.
The cost of these wars, the longest in our nation’s history, have been extraordinary -- 4,422 service members, 4,422 Fallen Angels, have paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan [sic]; 1,868 in Afghanistan; and more than 30,000 have been injured, some of whom will require medical care for the rest of their lives.
And here at this citadel of American virtue, 87 Fallen Angels in the West Point family, including Second Lieutenant David Rylander, whom some of you knew, and who was killed earlier this month in an IED attack in Afghanistan.
Our hearts go out to his family. The President and I, indeed all Americans, stand in awe of -- in awe of his and all that went before him’s commitment and to their sacrifice.
Our country owes these heroes and their families a debt of gratitude we will never be able to fully repay, but one that we will never forget because institutions like this continue to stand -- one that we honor today. And here at this academy and every other academy and every place where military personnel gather, we’ll never forget. We remember every day.
Winding down these long wars is enabling us to replace and rebalance our foreign policy, to take on the full range of challenges that will shape the 21st century, challenges different than those of the 20th century.
When President Obama and I came to office, we were convinced that our nation had reached a strategic turning point, requiring us to rebalance our foreign policy. While we will maintain a substantial, vigilant presence in the Middle East -- and partners with the Afghanis -- that will outlast our combat mission, we are now able to begin to focus our attention and resources on other regions and other challenges that will be incredibly critical to our nation’s future in the 21st century.
We are revitalizing America’s alliances, and particularly NATO, the greatest military alliance the world has ever known because -- because, as the President has rightly said, Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world.
We learned during the Libya campaign, which saved thousands of innocents and helped topple a murderous dictator, that there is almost nothing -- nothing we cannot accomplish when NATO and our partners act decisively, and when we actually share the burden of the responsibility.
And at this week’s Summit in NATO -- excuse me, in Chicago, NATO strengthened its defense capabilities for the years ahead, including adding equipment it had not had, only we had, by acquiring a fleet of unmanned aircraft for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Rebalancing our foreign policy also means refocusing on the most dynamic region of the world’s economy, the global economy, Asia. The United States has long been and will remain a Pacific power and a critical provider of peace, prosperity and security of this vital region.
The most critical relationship to get right is that between the United States and China. Every day, the affairs of our nations and the livelihoods of our citizens grow more connected.
How we manage this relationship between the world’s two largest economy, although we’re still almost three times as large as theirs, how we do this will help shape the 21st century.
This obviously doesn’t mean we’ll always see eye-to-eye, including on issues like human rights. Nor does it mean we will not compete with each other economically. As I said when I was in China, we Americans welcome this competition, which drives us to do better, and to be better because there’s no doubt that America can compete, and America will win whenever, and wherever, the playing field is level. (Applause.)
Ultimately, that is what America is focused on in the Asia Pacific, empowering cooperative relationships, clear rules of the road so that that region can continue its peaceful development, and that our people can prosper.
We’ve also forged stronger relationships with emerging powers like India, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa; and all of these efforts are helping advance American interests at home and around the world.
Add to that, that we dealt with potentially the gravest threat to mankind. We’ve reduced our reliance on nuclear weapons and the size of our arsenal, and in the New START Treaty we got the Russians to reduce theirs as well.
We brought the world together to secure nuclear materials and prevent those materials from getting into the hands of terrorists, and we isolated countries like Iran and North Korea whose nuclear programs threaten not only us, but world peace and stability.
At the same time we demonstrated that we don’t have to choose between protecting our country and living the values we preach. We shut down secret prisons overseas and we banned torture. It was the right thing to do. It enhanced our power of our persuasion around the world, and the security of our soldiers around the world.
President Obama also knew we needed to ensure our military was postured to meet these new objectives and new challenges. And just as General George C. Marshall wanted a West Point graduate for that pivotal mission, when World War II hung in the balance, President Obama determined that we needed a new defense strategy to meet the needs of this country, and he turned, as Marshall called for -- turned to graduates of this great institution and other service academies.
He turned to men like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, West Point Class of ’76; and General Ray Odierno, Chief of Staff of the Army, Class of ’74. The defense strategy they crafted provided a more agile, flexible force prepared for future challenges, better able to confront aggressors and project power, with strong partnerships to share the burden and smart investments in cutting-edge capabilities.
And we proposed a budget to fund that strategy, a budget that not only funds the strategy but first and foremost keeps faith with our wounded warriors, our veterans and their families because in America we all know our government has only one truly sacred obligation: Prepare those we send to war and care for their families and them when they come home. (Applause.)
No one knows better than this audience that America’s unique role in the world requires that we maintain the world’s finest fighting force. That’s a non-negotiable issue. And that’s exactly what this strategy does.
West Point has prepared you to lead us to face these new challenges, some of which we have yet to even contemplate, let alone encounter. Because as I said at the start, you are not only strong and committed, you are also some of our nation’s sharpest minds, with the training to take today’s missions -- counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, training foreign armies -- and the minds to adapt to tomorrow’s horizons, from cyberspace to outer space.
There is such a proud history here. Such a proud tradition. And I have no doubt that many of you in this class are not only going to make extraordinary contributions to the military but also to civilian life because West Point is in the business of producing -- not only great officers –- it produces great leaders and great Americans.
As President Theodore Roosevelt said, upon West Point’s Centennial, 110 years ago next month, he said: “Your duty here at West Point has been to fit men to do well in war. But it is a noteworthy fact that you also have fitted them to do singularly well in peace. The highest positions in the land have been held, not exceptionally, but again and again by West Pointers.” West Pointers who have risen to the first rank in all occupations of civilian life.
Were he here today he’d only alter that quote slightly – young men and women are prepared to do that. (Applause.)
The Class of 2012, this is your destiny, to lead your country; for you are the leaders of your generation, that 9/11 Generation, which I predict will go down in history as the finest generation this nation has produced. (Applause.)
I’ve had many honors as Vice President of the United States, but none greater than being able to salute you today. May God Bless you and protect you and may God protect and bless all those who wear the uniform of the United States of America.