Remarks by Secretary Mattis at the Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis; General Binford J.H. Peay, VMI Superintendent


GENERAL J.H. BINFORD PEAY III:  Please be seated.  Good morning members of the corps of cadets, members of the board of visitors, members of the academic board, faculty and staff, guests, and ladies and gentlemen:  Welcome to this morning's special presentation by our country's sitting Secretary of Defense, the honorable James N. Mattis. 

VMI is honored to welcome Secretary Mattis.  He is the third secretary of Defense to speak to the corps in this century, the others being the honorable Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2006 and the honorable Robert M. Gates in 2008. 

As you know, VMI educates and prepares officers through four years of a cadetship for service in one of the branches of the U.S. armed forces, and most recently the U.S. Coast Guard. 

This distinguishes VMI from the splendid, splendid federal service academies that prepare officers principally for commissioning in their specific service branch. 

The nature of service today fighting jointly must be one of trust, respect, service, joint competency and cooperation between the services. 

I believe you were introduced to these basic joint requirements early on in your pre-commissioning education, by principally living together in such close quarters and being a member of a class that has been tested in a very unique education. 

You are also distinguished from so many others as being citizen soldiers, ready in time of peace or in time of war to be of service to your country in time of deepest peril. 

Today's speaker earned the B.A. degree in history from Central Washington University in 1971, and the M.A. degree in international security affairs from the National War College -- National Defense University, excuse me -- in 1994. 

But his service began some years before his graduation, as he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1969 at the age of 18.  And later, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps through the ROTC Training Corps in 1972.  

As a young man, he grew up in a somewhat bookish household, I'm told, that did not own a television.  He has earned a well-deserved reputation for being a voracious reader and intellectual. 

He is a lifelong student of the art of war.  The respected military historian, Major General Robert H. Scales, United States Army-retired, described him as "one of the most urbane and polished men I have ever known."

At the same time, most importantly, he is widely known as a Marine's Marine.  He is highly respected for his loyalty, toughness, straightforwardness and for always speaking the truth. 

During his more than four decades in uniform, Secretary Mattis commanded Marines at all levels, from an infantry rifle platoon to a Marine expeditionary force and often in combat. 

He has served as senior military assistant to the deputy secretary of Defense, as director of Marine Corps Manpower, and Plans and Policy.  As commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and as executive secretary to the Secretary of Defense. 

And commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command.  And his final assignment in uniform was combatant commander of U.S. Central Command with responsibility for more than 200,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guard and allied forces across the wider Middle East.  

Following his retirement from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2013, Secretary Mattis served as the Davies Family Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, specializing in the study of leadership, national security, strategy, innovation and the effective use of military force. 

In 2016, he coedited the book, Warriors and Citizens: America's View of our Military.  He became the 26th United States Secretary of Defense on 20 January, 2017.  

And I can attest from personal experience that Secretary Mattis is appreciated for his work strategically at the highest end of the Defense spectrum, while at the same time understanding the tactics and need for modernization and readiness of ground, air and sea forces. 

He knows the challenges and concerns faced by our young American service men and women and their families. 

The title of Secretary of Defense may obscure a little the full importance in my view of this influential American.  He is a major player on the world stage, both militarily and so importantly, diplomatically. 

And we are honored to welcome him to the institute.  Please give a warm welcome to our nation's 26th Secretary of Defense, the honorable James N. Mattis. 

(APPLAUSE)

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Well, thank you.  Thank you very much, all of you.  And we'll see if you clap that loud when I get done, I might add.  We'll see if I pass the grade here. 

But General Peay, a former commander of mine, thanks for the very kind introduction.  I would just tell you, I still remember the 101st over there, well to the left of the Marines.  

And there was nothing that could stop that unit, as they closed in on MSR Newmarket. I think I know where that name came from, when we saw it on the tactical maps. 

But I would also tell you that your fighting instinct permeated all the way down to me years later as the regimental commander out in the Mojave, when you came out and reviewed the attack we made there. 

I would just say that with VMI blood running through your veins, it's great that you followed your father's footsteps as a cadet here and then have returned once again.  

It builds a lot of my confidence as I think about what's facing our country today, to know that someone -- what we call in the Naval service a "shipmate" -- is here guiding this school today. 

One of the reasons I wanted to come here is, I owe you a debt.  I owe this school a debt because many, many times, I have had graduates of this school serve around me, above me, under me and there is a debt that our country owes that goes back many, many decades, as you know, for a school that develops this sense of service before self, of putting others first. 

And that's really what you come out of there with, whether you're going to serve in the military or you're going to serve your communities, corporations, whatever.  But be a good corporate citizen.  

There's an ethos that comes from living the way you're living, by the code you're living by today.  And it's good, once in a while, for someone who has no affiliation with the school to come by and recognize it because I also know this is not an easy road that you've chosen. 

I've grown very remote from you young folks today, who matter, who carry so much of our hopes on your young shoulders.  And I want to close that gap today, to the degree I can. 

And I would throw out some nuggets here.  I'm going to talk for a few minutes, then we're going to get to the good part, which is, of course, the Q&A. 

I think mostly, I want to share my ideas on where your Department of Defense is going.  General Peay did not serve in the Army, he served in the U.S. Army. 

I didn't serve in the Marines Corps, I served in the U.S. Marine Corps.  We're accountable to you and we are owned by you.  So if what we're doing can't pass your review, then I need to hear it.  

And from what I’ve heard, this is not a shy audience so I look toward the give-and-take and we're always willing to put you into any boot camp immediately if you irritate me, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

That's the way it'll be. 

But each new generation, I think, turns to the past for some kind of strength and inspiration.  I call it "lighting the dark path ahead."  It's why I did a lot of reading.  

It was also because the Marine Corps insisted I do a lot of reading, I might add, and they were not there to help me through my midlife crisis when I came up -- the reason why I hadn't read the book that week.  

So they helped guide me through, but also look for the role models who would inspire me or show me how other people dealt with a similar situation I might confront one day, either successfully or unsuccessfully. 

I think it's especially true in the military ranks, we look for role models because the roughest auditor in the world is going to audit your character, your intellect, your physical fitness.  And that auditor, of course, is named "War," for those of you who go off to fight for this country. 

This institution was actually established to develop the professional qualities and the character to meet that auditor, so you could meet them -- that auditor -- and all of his challengers that he aligned with them on a battlefield, you could meet those challenges without confusion or hesitation when our country needed you. 

And since the Civil War, every generation of America has turned to your graduates to help keep alive what I call our "experiment in democracy," and that's all it is.  It's one great big experiment that's testing to see if a government of the people, by the people and for the people can long survive in a world that is not helpful on many occasions.  

You're going to be expected to carry on that legacy.  There's many, many ways to do so, and I would just say that I want to share some expectations with you in human terms, the kind of things that I often share with the officers, the young officers and the young troops who hold the line today in our military.  

Our nation is emerging from a period of strategic atrophy.  I would call it a strategy-free time.  I was shocked when I came in.  I said bring me the strategy -- this was on my first day, I came in at noon because it was a Saturday, we'd partied late Friday night, I came and said, Bring me the strategy.  You know, I am ready to sit down and read this. They shuffled their feet and said we don't have one.  

That was my first indication that we might have a little problem there.  And it's not a political statement.  This went back over 10 years we lacked a strategy.  

I bring this up because today we all recognize that terrorism is a clear and present danger, and our young guys who are overseas tonight -- it's already dark over there, and they're going out one more time, boarding the helicopters, going on the patrols, helping young Afghan boys find their manhood and take the enemy on.  

It's going on in Syria, it's going on in Iraq, and a couple of other places we don't talk a lot about.  And I think that while it remains a significant threat, today great power competition is the one way we could probably have our way of life changed from freedom to something else.  

So while we've written up a National Defense Strategy and we've answered the challenges as we've defined them -- the problems we've defined, and we've defined the problems pretty well -- with three lines of efforts.  

The first one is we're going to make the military more lethal.  Any time a military loses sight of its purpose in this world, it ends up getting beaten.  That's the bottom line.  And I want people to just love to talk to our State Department, and I want them to dislike the idea of confronting our military on the battlefield because they've chosen to pick a fight with us.  

So a very lethal military with very high levels of readiness is the first line of effort we're putting together to keep our experiment alive.  

The second line of effort is one where I spend probably most of my time, as General P. said, where I'm on the world stage a lot.  And that is we're going to strengthen our existing alliances -- you know them as NATO or Japan, the bilateral treaties, that sort of thing.  We're going to strengthen those and we're going to broaden them.  We're going to make more partners and more alliances around the world so that we don't carry the full burden for this.  

This is no longer post-World War II, with Europe bombed flat and Japan in tatters.  These are rich nations now in no small part due to what General Marshall did when he left this school having sustained an injury as a Rat, and then come out as a natural leader and bred for leadership.  

And he put together much of the effort, so I'm going back to the future in order to bring his ideas forward from the Marshall Plan, from NATO, and many other places where his thumbprint was so well embedded on everything our nation was doing in terms of foreign policy.  And it's very simple why he did this I think, because anyone who reads history knows that nations with allies thrive and nations without allies basically wither away.  

So we're going to create more allies, and then the third thing we're going to do is we're going to modernize the Department of Defense so every dollar I get I can look the American Congress in the eye and say, We didn't waste your money.  We didn't waste the Treasury, and it went to make our military more lethal.

 So that's a responsibility we carry, and I would just tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that we all know our country's having a tough time right now in a number of areas.  I stand here in your beautiful town, your beautiful school with mixed emotions.  I'm so happy to be out of Washington, D.C. right now I could cry.  

(LAUGHTER)  

OK?  We have problems in the country right now.  But I want you to know, probably not well reported, just last week the Senate voted 93 to 7 to give us a record-breaking budget a second year in a row.  Why do I bring that up?  I think the House of Representatives will probably vote overwhelmingly as well this week; knock on wood, I think they're going to do that, to give us the same budget.  

And I bring this up because there's going to be times you're going to watch the news -- I don't do it myself, if I want to be depressed, I go to war, you know what I mean?  As I don't need to...  

(LAUGHTER)  

...to watch the news.  But if you watch the news, you can start wondering what's going on in this country.  You just keep the faith, my fine young cadets.  We're going to pull through this.  We've been through worse than this.  

We're going to modernize that DOD so as we put the money into the defense budget we can keep the faith and the trust of the American people on which everything else in the Department of Defense depends.  

VMI's got a key part, I think, in driving progress along the lines of effort like this, because we need sharp young people going into the professions in America, and certainly into the military as well.  And so I want to start with the first two lines of effort and talk a little more detail here, and let me start with number two, where we're going to actually build our partnerships and build our alliances even more.  

When you look at George C. Marshall, that 1901 graduate of VMI, that bronze figure out there in front of your barracks serves as a daily reminder of the positive impacts of his courageous leadership.  But he was not a man who did things without studying the issues.  

I would just point out too that he proved his qualities that he developed here at VMI and put his education to practice during World War II's darkest hours, certainly, when every inch of (his body was committed day in and day out, seven days a week, to making certain we did not lose this experiment to the surging fascists.  

And remember, there was nothing certain that we were going to win that war.  It took the blood, sweat, and tears of a lot of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom did not ever return from that war.  

But what he did after the war is probably just as compelling, where he extended a hand to our allies who'd been flattened in the war.  You know how London was bombed and Paris was overtaken by the Germans.  

But he also went to our adversaries.  Think of how vicious that war was against the Nazis, think what it was like in the Pacific Campaign, where it was a take no prisoners often kind of fighting, and he turns around and he helps set up the plan that draws these nations back together into the community of nations, knowing that the future for the younger generation was dependent on us trying to create a better world.  

And that spirit of partnership lives on.  I'm sure it lives on here, where you've got foreign cadets here in your ranks and -- and foreign students here.  But he also saw that he had the opportunity to build up other kind of alliances.  He was a key person in NATO, in putting NATO together, and I had the Australian Ambassador from Washington, D.C. -- sometimes it takes a foreigner talking to us.  My fine cadets to really understand why we should cherish our citizenship, and the Australian ambassador told me over lunch one day in his backyard in Washington, he said that America committed the most self-sacrificial act in world history after World War II.  I consider myself somewhat of a knowledgeable historian.  I'm scratching my head, thinking, well the Marshall plan was pretty nice.  

And then he said no, no.  He said it was NATO, when America committed 100 million dead Americans in a thermal nuclear war for the protection of democracy in Western Europe.  It took a foreigner to tell me what we'd done.  See what I'm driving at here?  Think of the level of commitment and devotion to the idea that we take for granted here today of our democracy, that as raucous as it may be, we all know we have a vote that -- that a secretary of Defense has no more vote than a cadet, once you decide to vote, which I hope is young. 

I would just point out to you, ladies and gentlemen, that what General Marshall saw and treasured so much is going to continue to demand what you do, but also with foreign nations.  It's going to continue to demand this because we're still building a nation here; we're still building a nation.  It's hard work.  Its noble work, but I'll say again, it's hard work.  So don't ever think we're done.  We are not perfect but we are certainly going to always strive to be better.

And I think that if you look at how we look at the world and if you look at it and say we're stronger when we're together, we're going to need you and your vigor, we're going to need your kind of open-mindedness as we try to seize opportunities to cooperate across borders.  And it's very obvious here when you have cadets from various places, Bulgaria, Italy, China, Taiwan, Thailand, I understand the Republic of Korea, Indonesia, France, Germany.  

Please understand that when you're in a position General P. and I were in our final tours on active duty, having officers who are not willing to listen to other people, but are willing to be persuaded by other people -- there's a whale of a lot of difference there -- that means you're going to come up with the best possible ideas, you're going to come up with the best possible teamwork.

Not all the good ideas come from a nation with the most aircraft carriers, so we're going to be assuming that you can carry on that legacy.  And remember, America wants no empire of the world other than an empire of ideas.  The ideas that we stand for are rule of law, the dignity of all, the teamwork, the respect for one another and that sort of thing. 

I think for those of you going in the military, it's good to remember that for whatever challenges we may face today in our nation, where was the first time that a man and a woman, a black man, a white man, a Native American, all voted as equals in the history of United States?  And you should be very proud of it because it was on a U.S. Army long-range reconnaissance patrol that you and I call the Lewis and Clark Expedition at the mouth of the Columbia River. 

In other words, America was never perfect, and we'll never accept its perfect today.  But the military has often been the model -- and VMI is certainly in the military tradition in every sense of the word -- it is the model the rest of our country can turn to a difficult time and say I see how this can look if we all pull together for a common cause. 

I think too, that as we look at all of you stand ready to serve, I would just point out here that those of you who are ready to look past the hot political rhetoric, those of you who are willing to sign that blank check payable to the American people, payable with your lives, I would just point out that you also with that commitment, carry on a tradition that is worth its weight in gold to our allies who look to us for strength and certainly to our adversary to say, well maybe I don't want to try it today.  

Maybe we can keep the peace one more year, my fine young cadets, one more month, one more week, one more day, while the diplomats work their magic to try and solve the problems that we have out there in the world; and there are many as you know right now.  I think too, you need to know, those of you who are going on active duty, that we do expect you at the top of your game; top of your physical game, top of your intellectual game, and top of your spiritual game.  So spiritually, you have a shock absorber in you that will help carry the shocks of combat when your young troops underneath you face that for the first time. 

We need your curiosity.  We need you physically tougher than your troops, or at least as tough as the very toughest ones you have, because that's the way you gain the respect in the unfair world of those who close with our nation's enemies.  And I think when you report to duty, we are counting on you to display the audacity in carrying out your commander's intent that a school like this can create in you, because you were brought up with the very legacy of audacity every day when you are walking these hallowed grounds, and they are hallowed.  

When you look at the number of young men, young women who've come out of here and gone on to serve.  We are also looking at you to maintain that long fighting tradition because it's going to be your attention to duty, your example of self-discipline, your coaching ability and your force of personality that's going to animate and draw your young troops to look to you when the chips are down. 

You are going to be tested.  Those of you going into the military, you are going to be tested in ways that others of your generation will never know, and you will come to know someday and to understand what a privilege it is to be given such tests.  The general and I, would say that we were privileged to fight for this country the many times that we went and did so.  And you're going to learn things about your own moral self; you're going to learn things about your ethical self and your fellow men and women in uniform that you're going to treasure forever.

That is something that nothing can take it away from you, it's why so many go in for just four or five years and they come out, go to grad school, or they go off and lead universities, or teach, or they go off in the corporate world.

But for those of you will have seen the moonrise on the far side of the world, you're going to get some very privileged glimpses into the human heart, as one noted author put it.  And for you young officers too, I want you to remember, you only have to win one battle, but it's one you have to win every day.  And that one battle is for the hearts and minds and the trust and affections of the young men and women who are going to be serving alongside you that you outrank, but you're very, very close to.

You must make sure that as you -- because you're going to be given a lot of authority when you're very young, don't let your passion for excellence outweigh your compassion for them as human beings as young citizens who signed up to go all the way against the enemy.  If you win their trust, you win their respect and they'll never let you down, even in that daunting test of combat.  So you win that one battle for your troops and then they win all the rest for you.  

I think I've seen what other units in times have performed so well at.  I've had the opportunity, like General Peay, to observe young officers in many different climbs and places. 

And it was always striking to me how one platoon of 40 young sailors or Marines under a Marine lieutenant could perform, at times, as well as a company of 160, 180.  

And I used to just, you know, almost be in awe of it as I watched them move against the enemy, taking casualties, keeping moving. 

And eventually, I think I found what separated them.  They weren't different people, they were all recruited from America.  They were all given the same training.  They had the same kit hanging on them.  They knew how to call air support.  They trusted their officers.  

But what made one so fluid and so smooth against the enemy?  And I would just tell you that it happened in my own unit.  As a two-star, I had 29 sailors and Marines around me.  And in four months, 29 of them -- excuse me -- 17 of the 29 would be killed or wounded.  It was a very difficult area that we were in. 

And I was amazed, eventually, I got every officer aide I had shot, so eventually I had a gunnery sergeant for my aide because the officers didn't want to be my aide any more, you know? 

And I used to be amazed at how he'd get out with those troops and they'd be ready to go harder than petrified woodpecker lips, you know what I mean?  One of those kind of guys? 

But he was very, very smart.  He was a communicator and he would always put them through their rehearsals and everything.  I mean, I keep wondering, Why do they keep going out with us when we keep getting hit like this?

And eventually, I think the world I settled on was "affection."  There was an affection for one another that he bred in those young sailors and Marines.  It was an affection that went beyond just the respect.  

And it was not popularity.  It was not all the favoritism that comes with trying to be popular.  It was an affection for each other that made them all buy into the mission. 

And I share that with you because there are times when you're going to be out there and the only person they can look to is going to be you.  And they've got to know the toughest guy on the team is their coach, and he's tough for them.  He's not tough against them. 

And I bring this up because your understanding of the difference between a mistake and a lack of discipline will be critical.  You cannot expect people to never make mistakes, least of all in something that searches you every day on a battlefield full of fear and that sort of thing.  People make mistakes. 

But if you train people well, if you coach them well and you can bring them up, then you will spot the one who has not maintained the discipline standards.  

And then you have to do what you have to do to reimpose the discipline.  And that's usually a whole lot of real, strong coaching.  Once in a while, it's got to be more than that because you are the senior person there, when you get out there.  

And you come out of something like VMI, they did not have the chance for four years of growth at an institution and the great opportunity that you have here. 

I want to leave enough time for the Q&A here, so I want to just close with something that I learned out, overseas.  You get old like me, and you like learning stuff.  You know?  It's like, it's not a pain in the neck like it is in some of the classrooms, you know?  You really want to learn stuff. 

And I was out in the middle of nowhere a few years ago, again with my little team there, rolling down the road.  And it was probably, oh, somewhere around 40 to 50 kilometers from the nearest next outpost. 

And we pulled in during the night because we had trouble getting there.  Got inside this lieutenant's perimeter with about 40 guys out there, sailors and Marines. 

And when the sun came up, they came over to see me, check in.  And he said, "By the way, General, last night we caught a guy trying to lay an IED on the road you were driving in on."

I said, "Well, that's kind of nice."  You know.  A little personal, you know what I mean?  Wanted to blow me up. 

He said, "Yeah, he's an engineer and he speaks perfect English, do you want to talk with him?"  I said, "Sure, bring him over."

So they brought him over to see me.  And he was shaking like a leaf, it was not his best night, you know what I mean?  

(LAUGHTER)

He'd been out there with his wheelbarrow, he had his two artillery rounds, had his car battery, he's got his shovel, he's digging a hole and he looks up and there's five people with automatic weapons dressed in camouflage. 

And he realized immediately, his retirement plan was in jeopardy at that point. 

(LAUGHTER)

And so he's shaking badly.  He wants a cigarette.  I decided not to give him my anti-smoking lecture for a change.  He looked like he needed it.  

So I had to light it for him.  We cut his handcuffs off, little plastic cuffs the Marines put on him. 

And I said, "What are you doing this for?"  You know?  "What's wrong with you?"  You know.  "You're a Sunni.  We're the Marines, we're the only friends you've got out here." 

And he started, you know, going on.  "Well, you Jews, you Americans, you want to steal our oil," and all this stuff.  And I said, "OK."  I said, "You're obviously an educated man.  I'm not going to waste my time listening to this drivel."

And he sat there for a minute.  The Marine guard moved into to take him away.  And he sat there, he's just sitting there, on the ground with me.  

And he said, "Can I sit here a minute?"  I said, "Sure."  And after a minute, he seemed to be a little calmer.  We got him a cup of coffee.  He's spilling it, he's still nervous.  

And I said, you know, "What's up?  Where’s your family at," you know?  They lived about 10 kilometers away.  He had a wife, two daughters. 

And we're talking for a little bit.  And he said, "You know, just I can't stand having foreign soldiers here."  I respect that.  I wouldn't want foreign soldiers in this town, you know what I mean?  I mean, that -- that's where you can connect with somebody.

And I said, "Well, I understand but, you know, you shouldn't have done that."  He said, "I guess I'm going to jail."  I said, "Oh, yeah.  You're going to be wearing an orange jumpsuit in Abu Ghraib for a good many years for this little stunt."

And "you're lucky you're not dead for" -- you know.  And he said, "Yeah."  He says -- but, now I want you all, especially you young people, to listen to me here.

He said, "General, do you think if I'm a model prisoner" -- you know what's coming, don't you? -- "could I someday immigrate to America?"

Think about that.  Think about that, that the hatred he felt was so much that he would go out and try to put a bomb in the road to kill us, but the example of America was so strong that if he could be sitting where you are today or have his son and daughter in that audience, he'd have given his eyes or teeth.  It wasn't just because we'd caught him right then.  This was deeper. 

And I was reminded, America's got two fundamental powers.  There's the power of intimidation and the military -- the U.S. military exists to warn people, "You take on America, and free men and women are going to fight like the dickens."  Power of intimidation. 

But there's also the power of inspiration.  And the power of inspiration could reach halfway around the world to the Euphrates River Valley and affect someone, no matter how blinded they were at that moment by a hatred.

I want you all to remember that because when you're out there, you're also going to be a part of the power of inspiration.  And you surrender that high ground -- that ethical high ground, that moral high ground, the historic legacy that we carry with us -- at our nation's peril.  

So you hold that close.  You take care of each other.  And thanks very much for having me here today.  We're going to now go to Q&A, OK?

And in Q&A, it gets really weird really fast if I'm looking at you and you're looking at me and no one's saying anything, OK?  So let's find out who's got the initiative and aggressiveness -- the two qualities we look for -- for petty officers and NCOs in the Naval service. 

Who's got the initiative and aggressiveness to ask the first question?  

Right up here.  Go ahead. 

Q:  Good afternoon, sir.  (inaudible). 

First of all, I'd just like to say -- pardon my language, but there are a lot of badass women here.  Some physically fitter than I am and smarter than I am. 

But I remember I was doing some research on the Marine Corps' experiment to see if female in combat arms makes us more combat-effective.  And I would just like to hear your thoughts on that. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  It’s a very, very tough issue because it goes from some people's perspective of what kind of society do we want, you know?  

In the event of trouble, you're sleeping at night in your family home and you're the dad, mom, whatever.  And you hear glass break downstairs, who grabs a baseball bat and gets between the kids' door and whoever broke in, and who reaches for the phone to call 9-1-1?

In other words, it goes to the most almost primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable.  

This is an issue right now that we have Army, Navy, Marine all looking at as we speak, and that is the close quarters fight being what it is.  You know, is it a strength or a weakness to have women in that circumstance?

Right now, what my job is is to make certain that as the chief of staff of the Army or commandant of the Marine Corps or chief of Naval Operations, bring problems to me -- chief of staff of the Air Force -- and I help them solve them. 

Today, because so few women have signed up along these lines, we don't even have data at this time that I can answer your question, OK?  

You make a very valid question, I might add, because I was never under any illusions at what level of respect my marines would have for me if I couldn't run with the fastest of them and -- and look like it didn't bother me.  If I couldn't do as many pull-ups as the strongest of them.  

It would just -- it was the unfairness of the infantry.  How did the infantry get its name?  Infant soldier.  Young soldier.  Very young soldier.  They're cocky, they're rambunctious, they're necessarily macho and it's the most primitive -- I would say even evil environment.  You can't even explain it. 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Civil War veteran, as you know, who became one of our most noted articulate Supreme Court associate justices, talking to veterans themselves decades after the war, he looked at them.  

And here's the most articulate justice you could come up with.  And he says, "We have shared the incommunicable experience of war."  And he meant close combat. 

This is an area we're going to have to resolve as a nation.  And the military has got to have officers who look at this with a great deal of objectivity and at the same time remember our natural inclination to have this open to all.  

But we cannot do something that militarily doesn't make sense, and I've got this being looked at right now by the chief of staff of the Army, commandant of the Marine Corps and all. 

This is a policy that I inherited, and so far the cadre is so small we have no data on it.  We're hoping to get data soon.  There are a few stalwart young ladies who are charging into this, but they are too few.  Right now it's not even dozens; it's that few.  So when we get a little more data I'll give you a much more objective answer.  Clearly the jury is out on it but what we're trying to do is give it every opportunity to succeed if it can.

The other nations that have had this for 20 years still have too few women in the infantry ranks to even draw a conclusion.  So I can't give you a good answer right now.  I'm open to it and I'll be working with the Chief of Staff of the Army and the others to sort it out.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

SEC. MATTIS:  You're welcome and thanks for having the guts to ask the question.  There's a lot of places that wouldn't, by the way.  What else?  You're not getting off that light, folks.

Q:  Hello, sir thank you for coming.  Cadet Barrett, class of 2020.  I was just wondering hypothetically, if you could have every American read one book, what would it be?

SEC. MATTIS:  I tell you, these are not easy questions.  Wow-one book.  Just as an aside, I was amazed at how many people talk about strategy or have strategy on their door plates in Washington DC and I've never read one book about strategy, by the way.  And so I was going to respond in a narrow way and then I remembered I'm even more fearful of those who've only read one strategy book and now have all the answers.  But I think if there was one book that I would read, it would be Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

Especially in Washington DC, with all the political heave and ho that I try to keep the Department of Defense out of, there can be a sense at times, my fine young cadet, that it's the first time anyone's dealt with something like X, Y, or Z.  And certainly in combat the reason I kept a tattered copy in my rucksack to pull out at times was it allowed me to look at things with a little distance.  

And so Marcus Aurelius had a very tough life.  He's the Emperor of Rome but he's got everything going wrong in his home life.  His wife and his son were not people that you'd want to spend much time with.  He spends almost all of his time up on the fringes of the Empire trying to protect the thing and the one time he leaves the German forest seems to be to go kill one of his friends who's revolted against him in another place.  It was a tough life and yet the humility and the dignity with which he conducted his life-the commitment to his country, to his troops really comes through as you read those pages.

And while the name of the book is Meditations, if you were to get the real translation of it, it would be, to himself.  He's writing these chapters to himself because he knows he faces nothing new under the sun.  

So I think I'd go with that one.  If I wanted to know about a person who had to deal with big issues and how he did it in his own words, I don't think you could do better than to read Ulysses Grant's autobiography.  I think his memoirs would be the one if you want something that's perhaps not quite so ancient.  I really didn't serve with Marcus Aurelius, I just look that old; okay?  But that's a great question.  You had me there for a minute I was, how do I answer that?

Q:  Thank you, sir.

SEC. MATTIS:  Thank you.

Q:  Good afternoon, sir.  Cadet Joseph Phillips, class of 2019.  My question is based on your experiences, what is the best advice you could give for us who are going to be second lieutenants in the near months?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm going to the Dean to get answers.  Did you see that?  

You know, I think what I would say is, make certain that you listen to your NCOs.  You're going to go somewhere, and your petty officers are out at sea today-even if you're in your rat year, your first year here.  They're going to be out there this year and next year, the year after-you're going to come out of your Navy training or you're going to come out of your army training and the guy has been deployed over in Afghanistan all these years and make certain you listen to those NCOs.  

However, they do not expect you to do exactly what they say each time.  They want you to listen.  You should question them about why they're recommending something.  And as long as there's not an urgency to the decision-but they do expect you to apply your own judgment; okay?  

So it's a balancing act between being open and accepting of all of the input your NCOs can give you, but at the same time you're responsible-you chart your own course and you will be held responsible, so you can't become an automaton to someone else.

Now I will suggest to you that if a Lance Corporal yells at you to hit the deck, you don't get in a big argument about who outranks who; okay?  So sometimes you just do what the young lads tell you.  But other times you employ your quantitative and your nonquantitative judgment and make certain you employee your quantitative first.  

If it has to do with miles of walking or gunnery or something, employ your judgment.  There's a reason we taught you geometry.  There's a reason why we taught you history-but then apply your informed subjective judgment, your professional judgment as well.  But make sure you listen to them.  

I always laugh about the young NCOs who tell me, hey, I got promoted; thanks.  I say, well, you got me out of every bad spot, every tough situation I got you into, so I owe you that, you know.  Just remember, those are the ones are going to take you out, so you've got to listen to them before you get in.  

They'd prefer you talk to them before you crash land the airplane into the ground rather than waiting until you're on the ground-they can help avoid some of those things.  I wouldn't be here if it weren't for listening to NCOs-I'll tell you that.  Who else had a question.  There's a lot of them out there.

STAFF:  Sir, we have time for one more question.

SEC. MATTIS:  How about if we take more than one more.  The general gave me permission earlier-and remember, I don't have stress, I create it, so no problem.  So let's play another question or two here.

Who else has a microphone here.

Q:  Good afternoon, sir.  Cadet Hoops.  My question, sir, is we live in this technology era where people have very sedentary lifestyle and kids today are coming into the military very out of shape-it's causing a lot of problems.  Do you believe that's a problem?  And how do you think we can go about fixing that?

SEC. MATTIS:  There's a little bit of an echo down here, as you can tell.  It's taken two of us to sort this out.  You know, it’s. a sad state of affairs, just talking to an army general here recently.  It's a sad state of affairs when 71 percent of the 18 to 24-year-old males in this country cannot qualify to enter the United States Army as a private.

And that's kind of a baseline, you know.  That's a baseline that you've got to be at least, you know, not obese, not using drugs, you know, a high school grad, and real baseline.  And the army establishes it through army regs, and it is not an exaggerated one.  

The army knows they've got to be the ones who train and bring the young lads and gals up to standard, but they've got to start with something.  It is why I think when I tell you tell you the legacy of this school is so important, if you go back and look at our history, we've needed very large militaries.  

And today, we don't need as large of military, but we need one big enough.  And when are you drawing from only 29 percent at the beginning, only 29 percent is your total recruiting population -- it creates a real problem for us.  

It reminds us why we need allies, frankly, and it reminds us even when we get people in the military, in an increasingly overweight country, an increasingly drug-prone country, we need some of you who are going to be the Spartans of the gate, because we're not going to hang onto these freedoms because our grandfathers fought on the beaches of Normandy or because our fathers fought in Vietnam.  

Every generation, as President Reagan put it, is going to have to fight to keep this experiment alive.  It's a big concern to me.  I don't know what we can do about it.  There are retired officers and NCOs, senior NCOs, who are working across the country, in the schools, to try to restore physical education where it's been taken out, to try to get school lunches to be things that fuel the body, instead of just giving them crummy food.  

I don't have a good solution for it.  We go to the Congress with the problem that Congress wants to help.  They haven't figured out how to make their programs contribute to a better society, but it's also where we're going to have to have leaders.  And for those of you who are not going into the military, don't wait until you have my color hair to run for the school board and get on the school board in your local community.

A lot of America -- most of America's problems are solved at the local level.  And that's going to have to be where this one gets solved.  And there's parts of the country, by the way, that are much more physically fit than other parts of the country, and our recruiters know it and they hone in on those areas.

But they're not going to be enough, in the long run, if we don't turn this around.  And when you look at childhood diabetes, you can see the health risk of what we're doing to the younger generation.  So take the fitness that you're expected to maintain here into every walk of life, not just your family but your parish, your school district, your local communities, and get out there and start working with the kids when they're young, because once they've gone over the edge, it's very hard to bring them back.

Other questions, I'll try and hear the question, hold the mic a little further from your -- go ahead.

Q:  First off, Mr. Secretary, it's quite an honor to be speaking to you.  So my first question is actually -- well, I guess, it's kind of a two-parter, sir.  I asked this to the vice army chief of staff, two years ago, at a leadership conference, so I want to ask you the same thing.  

There's a lot of threats that people consider with cyber and other things.  What is America's first and second most external threat whether that be physical or just psychological warfare, and how do you adapt the DOD whether that be conventional or unconventional warfare?

SEC. MATTIS:  That's a good -- that one is actually relatively -- go ahead and grab a seat, young man.

(LAUGHTER)

That one's actually a pretty easy one for me, and the reason I say that is that this is what we had to deal with when I came in.  I think when you look at external threats, the first one I have to look at is the nuclear threat out of Russia and to a lesser degree China and certainly North Korea, but North Korea's an urgent threat.

So the nuclear threat is one that doesn't get talked about a lot, but believe me standing right over here about no more than 100 feet away is a communicator with a backpack with certain communications equipment and codes in it that accompany me everywhere I go.  

And it is a very real threat and we're going to have to address -- keep that one as a deterrent because a nuclear war cannot be won, so it must never be fought.  And the way we do that in this imperfect world is through a deterrent that basically threatens the worst possible calamity on anyone who would try it.

The cyber threat is one that is actually linked to the growing threat in space.  And I won't spend time connecting the two, but I will tell you that how we protect our country was brought into stark relief on 9/11 when for all of our ships at sea, all of our soldiers in uniform, everything else we had, every one of us who was wearing a uniform and the intelligence agencies knew we had let down America on 9/11.

So as we look at these unconventional threats we cannot think because they don't want to fight our way that we can simply opt out.  We're going to have to learn how to protect our country, and I think that in the long run what's going to happen on cyber is because Department of Defense has about 95 percent or more of the capability to protect the country on cyber.

We're probably going to have to offer to banks, to public utilities, electrical generation plants, that sort of thing the opportunity to be inside a government protected domain.  Now, it's not going to be forced and there are constitutional issues, but I think we should also offer it to small businesses and individuals.

It would be completely up to them whether or not they came inside, but I think eventually we're going to have to change the technology and there's way we can do it.  I'm talking to real smart people about what they do on cyber defense so that we're more resistant and more resilient at the same time.

And you know that right without going into details we are actively engaged and protecting the election coming up as we speak right now.  Matter of fact, we need to be back in Washington, D.C. this afternoon for a discussion on it.

So I would just tell you that as the threats change, we cannot be dominant and irrelevant at the same time, able to fight ground battles, unable to fight in cyberspace or outer space, so we're working on it.

There's also other challenges out there as well, but in terms of urgency, I'd say North Korea.  In terms of power right now, it is probably Russia and the nuclear threat. And in terms of long-term political will, it's China.  

But China does not have to be a threat.  We can find a way to work together with China.  We're two nuclear-armed superpowers and we're going to have to learn how to manage our relationship, and I do believe we can do that.

So that's kind of how I stack the threads up, and on cyber we're going to have to do some real changing of how we guard ourselves.  I got a great Army four star -- General Nakasone in command of Cyber Command, and he's at the top of his game, respected across the country and around the world, and he's making a lot of changes right now.  It's going to take all of us rolling up our sleeves.

We'll go with one last question.  I know you got things to do here.

Q:  Good afternoon, sir.

SEC. MATTIS:  Go ahead.

Q:  Cadet (inaudible), class of 2019.  

I wanted to ask you, you spoke of a more lethal military force.  Given the global push toward demilitarization as well as America's traditional role as the, quote, unquote, "police force of the world," how do you see balancing those few things?

SEC. MATTIS:  I think right now -- let me just take NATO for example because I mentioned that when I first spoke.  Right now in NATO, every country has increased the amount of money it's putting into defense.  Is it as much as we think is necessary?  No.

Now, let me give you some background.  The democracies are always slower to rearm, and you saw that during the inner war year between World War I and World War II when they wanted to think after World War I there can't be any more of this.  And, of course, there were fascists who saw it differently.

So what happens is democracies are slower, but when they move it's much more powerful because they have the will of their people behind it.  I was first at NATO in 1996 when I was the Executive Secretary to the Secretary of Defense, William Perry, in the Clinton Administration, and then Bill Cohen -- Senator Cohen, and I heard both of them in presentations in Brussels say you have got to spend more money of defense because you're counting on us Americans to do it all, and that's not the way an alliance works.

I then heard that same theme from a man from Rumsfeld and a secretary named Gates -- Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Gates, and from President Bush when he was president.  And then President Obama came in and I heard him say it, talk about it's time to start doing nation building at home, going to Europe saying we're not going to keep doing this.

And I was a NATO Supreme Commander in those days.  They were slow to do it.  Slow, very slow.  Even after the terrorist attacks, they wanted to handle it as law enforcement problems.  So there's different ways.  Each country has its own culture and we have to respect that. 

But when I went there now as Secretary of Defense and I'm looking around that same table I once sat behind as a colonel and then I sat as the table.  Only three officers do.  The rest are civilian representing the 28 nations, now 29, and I told them, you know, I've sat at this very table.

Many of them were friends.  You know, you get to know each other.  And I said, "and you heard this for over two decades.  You heard this message that you have to pay more."  I said, now it is manifested politically in America and I'm bringing you a message and the message is very clear.

And that message is, you cannot expect me to go home and look Americans in the eye and say, we want our parents to care more about European children's freedom than European parents care.  You're going to have to start carrying more of your load."

And since then, the Secretary General of NATO said, because of America's leadership, there now are 29 nations in NATO, all increasing their military spending.  Now, that is from the Secretary General, the former Prime Minister of Norway.  Not an American.  That's a European.

And I bring this up because there are times -- if you look through history, World War I, militarism is on the march.  You know, Belgium falls, and the Netherlands fall.  I mean, everyone is falling.  France is fighting and being bled dry.  The British army is being driven to its knees.  And the Americans sit on their side of the ocean and say, it's not our problem.  You democracies handle it on your own.

Finally, we go into the war, in the last year and a half of the war, and we come in fresh.  OK.  World War II, France falls, Norway falls, Greece Falls.  I can go on.  Netherlands, Denmark.  London is getting pounded by bombs and the Americans said, it's not our problem.  We're not going to get involved in another European war.  We're tired of going in there and doing this with you.

We are a very isolationist country by nature.  And the reason I bring it up is, today, the first time NATO went to war when we joined NATO in order to protect Western Europe was when New York City and Washington D.C. were attacked.  That's the first time they went to war.

So, remember that alliances wax and wane, but no relationship stays the same.  They get stronger or weaker.  And if you, and your families, and your communities, and your schools, you too know the same thing.

So, work to make the relationships stronger.  I will tell you that, right now, all of NATO woke up after 2014 and Russia moved into Ukraine and took Crimea.  And all of NATO is wide awake now.  I'm on my way there next week, again.  And it is very clear that our capability is building up across all the western democracies.

Prime Minister Abe in Japan is rearming there in a way that Japan was never willing to do because of what happened prior to World War II.  Certainly, Australia, I can go on.  So, sometimes America has to lead by example.  And we haven't been perfect in anticipating things either.

So, let's keep patience.  Keep working with one another.  Keep respect for one another.  But at the same time, be guided by absolute realism as we go forward.  And democracies are now rearming.

My fine young cadets, I've got to get out of here.  But I just wanted to tell you that I don't get to see people like you very often, and I don't know you individually.  But every one of you could've picked an easier school to go to.  Every one of you could've gone to a place that wasn't going to demand as much of you as this one.

So, just remember, if you want three words that I would leave you with that will keep you from laying on a shrink's couch when you're 45, wondering what the hell did I do with my life?  

Just remember three words here, put others first.  And if you're always putting your wife, or your husband, your children, your parents, your parish, your school district, your community, your infantry platoon, your fighter squadron, whatever it is.  If you're always putting others first, you're going to be in for the most wonderfully satisfying life you could imagine.

And you don't have to learn some things that most people could learn by reading an old book.  That going out for yourself, alone, is just not the way to go if you want to have a truly happy and satisfying life.  So, God bless you all.  Thanks for spending some time and having me here today.  It's been a pleasure for me.  And I wish you all the best in this great school.  Thanks very much, General

(APPLAUSE)

 Cadet: Well, Secretary Mattis, it's been a very great honor to have you here today.  I know that this, personally, been one of the highlights of my cadetship.  Your message was timely and thought provoking.  So, on behalf of the superintendent, the VMI faculty and staff, and the Corps of Cadets, I would like to present this gift as a token of our appreciation.  Thank you very much.

SEC. MATTIS:  Thank you young man.  Thanks, very much, for your kind words.

(APPLAUSE)