Commencement Address by CIA Director David H. Petraeus at Dickinson College

Well good morning to you all! Thanks for that great honor; thanks for that warm welcome! Parents, family members, friends and especially graduates, it is, needless to say, just plain terrific to be with you all today and to share this wonderful occasion with you—especially given how much Dickinson means to my family, with my wife Holly and our daughter Anne both being alumnae of the classes of 1974 and 2004, respectively.

I must note upfront, that it was great to see the toga adaption of the medieval academic robe. In fact it was quite innovative. And speaking of initiative and a capacity for independent action, those are qualities, by the way, that we prize at the CIA—and we are hiring! But there are about 150 applicants for every slot, so you never know!

Now, the toga did remind me, though, of the story of a young schoolboy who had to give a report on Julius Caesar:

“Julius Caesar was born and raised a long time ago,” the little boy told his classmates. “He was a great general. He won some important battles. He gave a long speech. They killed him.”

I will try to avoid his fate today.

Now, as the president noted, it is also great to be here today because I was unable to honor my commitment to speak at last year’s graduation ceremony. As he recounted, in fact, shortly after I actually accepted the invitation in June 2010 to be the commencement speaker at the 2011 graduation exercise, I went to a monthly meeting, routine meeting, at the White House—and came out with a new job, when President Obama, on short notice, asked me to take the reins in Afghanistan. And, as President Durden noted, I still had some hope of honoring my commitment. But, as the winter turned into the spring, it became very clear that the tempo there would not allow travel stateside for the occasion. So it really is great to finally be here.

Up front, I’d like thank you, President Durden, for graciously re-extending the invitation to me and, far more importantly, for the extraordinary impact you have had on this great institution and its students since you became president in 1999. (Reacting to applause: Yes, the highest approval ratings of any president in the United States, we think.) Under your leadership, Dickinson’s academic excellence has truly thrived, and its commitment to global education and community service has grown. You have reinvigorated Benjamin Rush’s revolutionary goal for Dickinson to provide “useful knowledge” for building a democracy, and you have made that goal a driver of global engagement and active citizenship for Dickinson graduates in the 21st Century. So again, thank you for your vision, your leadership, your energy, your infectious enthusiasm and your obvious love of this exceptional institution! Well done!

Now, Mr. President, I have learned that you are planning to retire next year. You know—I do intelligence! And such knowledge is clearly another intelligence success. In any event, I am living proof that one can find meaningful work after retirement! As you have heard, after 37 years in Army, I retired and had the privilege of taking a wonderful entry-level job at the Central Intelligence Agency! It is the most intellectually stimulating job in the world. But, in any event, I know that I speak for all your admirers here in wishing you and your wife Elke continued success, intellectual stimulation and fulfillment in your future pursuits, whatever they may be—knowing that whatever organization ends up with you will be a very fortunate and lucky organization indeed!

Thanks, as well, to you, Professor Stuart—Doug—thanks for your leadership and also for your very kind words of introduction. You know when you hear one of those kinds of introductions … I have to confess, I wish my parents could have been here to hear those very kind words. My crusty old Dutch sea captain father would have been a bit skeptical, of course, but would have enjoyed your gracious introduction, nonetheless—and my dear old mother would have believed every kind word of it!

In truth, Doug, you have influenced the lives of innumerable students as well, both here at Dickinson College and also at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. In fact, when word got around at the CIA that I was going to address this graduation ceremony, I heard from a number of Dickinson alumni at the agency who told me what a difference the school’s focus on international studies made in their lives—and several singled out your influence in their decision to focus on world affairs and government service. So, on behalf of some of your former students who cannot be here—or, in some cases cannot be named—thank you very much for all that you have done to inspire and kindle an intellectual spark to study international and security affairs! Well done to you!

Now, I know that some of you are waiting for me to confirm or deny the report in the "D-Book” that the old “Potato Chip Factory,” now an annex of South College, was ever used by the CIA! I cannot do either—I can neither confirm nor deny. I can report having heard, however, that once the building was reclaimed by Dickinson, certain clandestine operations on campus—such as kidnapping the mermaid on top of Old West—fell off markedly. But I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions from that!

It is also a privilege to be in the company of a very distinguished group of honorary degree recipients: John Adams, whom the Earth calls upon when it needs a lawyer, and a great one; Nobel Prize winning author Herta Müller; and NPR’s distinguished correspondent, Nina Totenberg, who, as you’ve heard, has won it all, including the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. Each of them represents and reflects Dickinson’s strong commitment to academic leadership and public service, as well as a commendable spirit of intellectual curiosity that extends beyond the classroom and into a lifetime. Please join me in recognizing them again as well.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not also add my recognition to those of the president and others to recognize the proud parents and devoted friends and families and significant others of the students who are here today. I understand what the parents are feeling right now because, as you heard, Holly and I sat here where you are now. We watched our own daughter, Anne, graduate from Dickinson—a moment filled with immense pride but also tinged with a bit of sadness, as we reflected on how quickly our little girl had grown up. And I’m sure some in the audience are experiencing similar sentiments today.

I am, moreover, also familiar with the hope that parents here may have that withdrawals from the “National Bank of Mom and Dad” may soon come to an end. Well, I hate to break the news to you, but based on personal experience, the ATM doesn’t close just because the tuition checks have stopped!

Regardless, in view of the wonderful support the parents and families here have provided to those who will receive their diplomas today, let’s give all of them another well-deserved round of applause as well!

Well, being here among so many who are about to embark on their careers reminds me of a story I heard recently in Washington. As it goes, it seems that a mid-level federal executive was frustrated at being passed over for promotion year after year. In fact, he began to suspect that his admittedly modest intellect was holding him back, so he decided to visit a brain-transplant center with the hope of raising his I.Q. Well, after a battery of physical and mental tests, he was accepted by the director of the center as a candidate for a brain transplant.

“That’s great!” the executive exclaimed, shaking the director’s hand vigorously. “But you should know—I’m a working man, and I understand that this procedure can be very expensive.”

“Well, it can be expensive,” the director replied, “but the price is a function of which type of brain you select. For example, an ounce of lawyers’ brains costs roughly $12,000.”

“Gosh,” the man replied, “that’s not much. And with a lawyer’s brain, I could maximize my jurisprudential powers and bill the government by the hour, penetrating the legal jargon of federal contracts as if by x-ray vision! I’d be a veritable bureaucratic ninja, slicing and dicing my way through torts and courts! But, wait, are there other options?”

“Well,” the director said, flipping through the pages in his inventory notebook, “here is an excellent choice: Dickinson College graduates’ brains. They run about $17,000 an ounce.”

“Dickinson College graduates’ brains!” the executive replied in awe. “Why, with that kind of intellectual firepower, I’d stop pushing paper and start taping lectures! I’d solve complex global problems, speak a dozen languages, use my critical thinking skills to find ways to balance the federal budget and cure menacing diseases worldwide—and then I’d take a break for my morning cup of coffee and think some more!”

“Absolutely,” the director responded with enthusiasm. “But here is one more match for you to consider—generals’ brains. They’re priced at $100,000 per ounce, and we just happen to have some in stock.”

“Wow,” the executive said, “there’s no limit to what I could do with generals’ brains! Why, I could combine the audacity of George S. Patton with the sagacity of George Washington, marshalling friends against foes and conquering the commanding heights of the general-service pay scale!”

“But,” he asked, “why on earth do you charge a hundred thousand dollars for an ounce of generals’ brains, when the others are priced so much more reasonably?”

“Well,” the director responded, “do you have any idea how many generals it takes to get an ounce of brains?”

Now, you notice I didn’t say anything about retired generals’ brains!

But, thanks for laughing anyway. You know the deal: When you reach this stage in life, you’re only as good as the material they give you!

In any event, those about to receive their diplomas today can venture forth with confidence that they will not need to visit a brain-transplant center.

In fact, class of 2012, when you walk down the Old West steps and out into the world, the education you received here and the Dickinson values of global engagement and active citizenship will serve you very, very well indeed.

To be sure, ours is a time with no shortage of pressing issues. And our country and our world need thoughtful, dedicated, talented people like you to help find and implement new solutions to stubborn problems. And, as a result, we need many of you to choose careers in public service and in other arenas in which you can help make a real difference in the life of our country, and in the lives of your countries, in the cases of those from abroad.

You might suspect that someone who has spent his entire adult life in uniform until eight months ago would think of public service largely in terms of military service. But even on the battlefields of the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan I have seen that progress can only be achieved by committed, selfless individuals working across a wide range of disciplines, through a comprehensive, often civil-military approach. Indeed, there are few challenges that can be resolved with only a single approach. No matter the endeavor, solutions require the efforts of many—and it is thus the character, the spirit, and the quality of service that counts. As my old boss, former Secretary of Defense and former CIA Director Bob Gates once observed, and I quote:

“Each person in public service has his or her own story and motives. But I believe, if you scratch deeply enough, you will find that those who serve—no matter how outwardly tough or jaded or egotistical—are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists. And optimists. We actually believe we can make a difference, that we can improve the lives of others, that we can better the future of this country and the world.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Secretary Gates’ sentiment. And never forget, service can take many forms, as I am sure you have learned from your time at Dickinson, and in reflecting on Benjamin Rush’s and John Dickinson’s views of engaged and educated citizens furthering American patriotism and liberty. And Dickinson’s Public Service Fellowship program and its participation in the U.S. Veterans Affairs Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program, among many other initiatives here, have put those values in action.

In fact, I’d like to take a moment to point out again the selfless service of one Dickinson graduate in particular, my wife, Holly, who, as you heard, graduated from here summa cum laude with honors in both her majors—French and English—and who then followed her husband through 24 moves in 37 years, with overseas absences during five general-officer combat commands—all of this with considerable challenge. And, during which, she applied the strengths and skills she gained here at Dickinson generally to hold everything together for our family as one move led to another. The small Army posts where I was stationed in those early years did not lend themselves to the kind of career for which she had originally prepared, though she did pursue a career in civil service in much of our first eight years of marriage. She then worked at home after our children were born, and she also took on a number of volunteer posts and ultimately was the “first lady” of two Army installations—one of which we deployed from in the beginning of the effort in Iraq in 2003. In the past eight years, however, with our children grown, she has drawn on her great Dickinson education and her deep understanding of the challenges facing military families to become their advocate, first, as you heard, at the Better Business Bureau, and now as the Director of the Office of Servicemember Affairs and Assistant Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Service both to family and to country has defined her life. And I count my blessings frequently to have accepted a blind date with her some 38 or so years ago!

Now, it is no surprise to me, as I mentioned previously, that a number of CIA officers are Dickinson alums. Many learned their passion for international service right here. John Dickinson’s description of the college that bore his name as “a bulwark of liberty” is much like the CIA’s conception of itself as the nation’s first line of defense. Moreover, the agency’s core values of service, integrity and excellence mirror Dickinson College values.

So whether you follow in the footsteps of soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, educators, environmentalists, health care professionals, legal advocates, political figures, titans of industry or exemplary citizen volunteers, there are countless ways to serve the public good—and numerous issues that stand to benefit from the principles and values that are at the core of a Dickinson College education.

Service by its nature is hard work, and I’d ask each of you graduating today to recall the wisdom in Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion that, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” In fact, living those words will not only ensure that you enjoy the best prize that life has to offer, but also ensure that you remain faithful to the values of your beloved alma mater.

Inevitably, there will be days when you may feel overwhelmed by what you view as a seemingly insurmountable task or intractable problem. Never let those moments of frustration deter you. Rather, rely on the strength of what you learned here.

Some five years ago, I was the newly appointed commander in Iraq, overseeing a surge of forces and implementing the most important surge—the surge of ideas on the conduct of counterinsurgency operations. It was an excruciatingly difficult period, with well over 200 enemy attacks per day at the height of the violence.

During that time, I occasionally drew strength by recalling General Grant’s words after the first bloody day in the Battle of Shiloh. Grant was sitting in the rain under a tree late that night, his Army having nearly been driven into the Tennessee River, his men having sustained terrible losses to a fierce Confederate attack.

His most trusted comrade, General Sherman, appeared out of the dark and sat down next to him in the rain. Sherman could hear the cries of the wounded all around them, and he could sense Grant’s mood. He let a few minutes pass before saying a word. Finally, he spoke.

“Well, Grant,” he observed, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”

“Yep,” Grant replied, taking a soggy cigar out of his mouth, “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

“Lick ‘em tomorrow.”

Relentless and determined … our soldiers embodied those qualities—as well as initiative, innovativeness and courage—during the tough, long days of the surge. And those qualities continue to be their hallmarks as we carry out further difficult missions against resilient enemies in the most challenging of conditions. Our troopers have,
in truth, helped us learn yet again that there are few tasks in life of value that can be earned by any other course than through sheer hard work.

Of course, even sheer hard work is only productive if it is informed—by study, by the lessons learned by others and, of course, by one’s own experience. And I encourage you, as well, to make yourself an expert in your profession or craft, to be a voracious reader and always to thirst for more knowledge and more understanding.

To again draw from the words of Teddy Roosevelt, these from his famous “Man in the Arena” speech: “It is not the critic who counts,” Roosevelt observed, “not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Each of you graduating today is about to enter an arena. For some, including those who have served in the ROTC program here, it might be what is arguably the most unforgiving arena, helping to fight our nation’s wars as leaders of its most precious resource, its sons and daughters in uniform. And you should know that we look forward to your leadership of our men and women as they undertake critical missions.

Or it might be in our nation’s intelligence community—as a clandestine officer, an analyst or as one of our diabolically creative science and technology officers—all in one way or another at “the pointy end of the spear,” fighting against terrorism and working to prevent a variety of other threats to our nation.

But the arena is big, and the needs are many. And those of you who will now turn to serving our nation or our world in civilian capacities, in business, in academia, in government, whatever the pursuit—you too will very much be in the arena. And we look forward to your accomplishments, as you take your newly earned Dickinson diploma, begin to master a profession and work to find creative solutions to the challenges that face us at home and abroad—helping our country down the path to further economic recovery, to improve our children’s education and to preserve our freedoms.

Well, this morning is an occasion on which we say, “Well done, and congratulations on all that you have accomplished here in the course of earning the coveted diploma you will receive in a few moments.”

All of us here to celebrate this occasion with you are confident that the wonderful education you’ve received, the great experiences you’ve had and the superb leadership skills you’ve gained at this great institution will stand you in very good stead as you embark on the endeavors that lie before you. May God bless your efforts as you grapple with the challenges of your time and work hard at what we all hope to be work that is truly worth doing.

Good luck, godspeed, go Red Devils! Thank you very much.

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