"Lessons From a Long War," the 2009 Commencement Address by Ryan Crocker '71
Friday, May 29, 2009
Commencement Address, May 24, 2009
Ambassador Ryan Crocker '71
President George Bridges: It is a privilege to present, from the Whitman College class of 1971, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, addressing 'Lessons From a Long War.'
President George Bridges: Ryan…
Ambassador Ryan Crocker:
Thank you very much President Bridges, grandparents, parents, faculty, friends of Whitman, and most especially, the class of 2009. Good morning.
Thirty-eight years ago, I sat where you sit. Today I thought I might offer just a few thoughts on how you could spend the years that will intervene before you get to stand where I stand.
I know it's shaping into a warm day, and I'm a great believer in the adage that brief is better. I talked to class president Elliot Okantey a bit yesterday and we agreed that I would restrict my remarks to about 45 minutes so that he would have a full hour and a half to develop some important themes for you. Not, of course, that I really expect you to remember anything I say this morning. We never do at these events and that would include, within one or two years, even the name of the person who delivered those forgettable remarks. But this is a ritual, and rituals in life are not dispensed with lightly.
Lessons From a Long War. At one level, this is America's campaigns in the world since 9/11 and before. But it is also, I hope, a campaign each of you will pursue individually as you go forward, as you seek causes larger and greater than yourselves. I chose a hard service when I left Whitman. I've never regretted it.
For America and Americans, as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, there is an ever-greater need to understand the world as it is, not as we may want it to be. It is not a unipolar world, as our adversaries assert and we ourselves may once have hoped. It's a nonpolar world. A world in which we may be the dominant element, but we are by no means the determinative one. The Cold War, for all of its terrors, provided a stable framework for the post-World War II international order. That framework collapsed with the Soviet Union 20 years ago, and with it, a new disorder was born. It is no coincidence that Iraq, no longer checked by Moscow, invaded Kuwait in 1990. It is therefore a world that must be understood in its own messy, complicated terms, where local and regional realities are always ready to ambush the most sophisticated international strategies. It's a world in which there are few easy choices. In Iraq, we tend to forget the unprecedented challenge that Saddam Hussein posed to the integrity of the United Nations system itself. And if we were wrong, to move without many of our traditional allies, perhaps they were wrong to give us little option except to do so. And maybe, just maybe, we both learned something.
And it is a long war. It started for me, not on 9/11 and in its aftermath, but in Beirut, more than a quarter of a century ago, when the Embassy and Marine barracks were bombed. And if it is a long war, it follows that there are real enemies, whether personally or nationally, not all the world wishes us well, and some fights have to be fought. The challenge, the challenge you will face, is knowing which ones, when, and how. It is therefore essential to know our adversaries, as well as our allies. They know us. And with that knowledge, including studies of politics, of history, of culture, and especially of language, to be ready to ask the hard questions. What happens the day, the month, the year after, in a region and in a world where our adversaries may not even start to fight until after we think we have won. But when we are committed, we need to stay committed. Both our allies and our adversaries have drawn dangerous conclusions over the years concerning our commitment and our consistency.
In 2002, America voted for a war in Iraq. In 2006, America voted against that war. But you can't rewind the film. The going has been very difficult, and when I arrived in Baghdad in early 2007 it was somewhere beyond difficult. But sometimes in life, you just have to put your head down and push on. And here's a lesson from a long war: Perseverance does not always require hope, but it can create hope. And both perseverance and hope require a sense of strategic patience. It wasn't only Marcus Whitman's plans that required time and distance. It's America's plans.
So that's a couple of my lessons from a long war in hard places. And whether you know it or not, class of 2009, you've already gone a long way towards absorbing these lessons, thanks to your education here at Whitman.
President Bridges made a comment to me last night about you as a graduating class: 'You know as you graduate, that you don't have all the answers, but you've learned here how to question.' You have a much broader global focus than we did when I was here. At least half of you have lived and studied abroad. And the faculty's new global studies initiative promises to take this college to a new level in international affairs.
Now I know that most of you will not specialize in the international arena, but all of you will be informed and affected by it. Wherever and however you engage, I commend to you the most important lesson I have taken out of this long war. It's simple: Be in it. Move to the sound of the guns. Show up for the fight.
I hope some of you will take that literally. Today Americans are fighting and dying for this country. Americans are at war. Tomorrow, we observe Memorial Day. And I hope that all of you, class of 2009, this entire audience, will take a moment to observe that day as more than just the unofficial beginning of summer.
1 hope that all of you in the class of 2009 will seek service that counts. Believe me, you do not want to be here years from now, counting the sidelines you've stood on,
or even just the money you may have made. I hope you will find your own ways and your own wars. There are a lot of them out there.
I was in Montgomery, Alabama, last week, and I had the opportunity to visit the Southern Poverty Law Center, where I was reminded that the struggle for civil rights and against hatred in America is by no means over. Nor is it exclusively a Southern problem.
The Center and its courageous staff came up here, to this area, to take on the Aryan Nation just up the road. And they effectively sued them out of existence. It is a reminder that in life, you get what is just, often, only if you are ready to fight for it. And this ladies and gentlemen is a fight; it's an American fight, very much worth being in.
Whatever engagements you choose, you will be taking this education with you. It will serve you well, if you use it well. And one thing that I hope all of you on my right will do before you get out of here today, is offer a final word of thanks to those on my left. Because if it hasn't already, it will occur to you with increasing clarity that the gift of what you have received here is more than your native brilliance, however great you may think that is, it is also the work of this great faculty.
As Dr. Bridges noted, I was an English major during my time at Whitman. And I had the privilege of studying with Thomas Howells, whose name and reputation is immortalized in one of our most prestigious faculty awards. His T.S. Eliot course left me with a lasting appreciation of that great, if flawed, American poet.
This is from Gerontion, something I underlined in my senior year:
Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
That senior of 1971 is now Eliot's old man. But I did fight, and so shall you.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen,
Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
Seniors, enjoy the day. This is commencement. Reality begins on Tuesday. Be on time. And move to the sound of the guns.