Look to our public servants to see America’s promise

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Public servants and public service have been taking it on the chin. Not only is there the old canard of a “deep state” that runs Washington, but there have been personal attacks on intelligence officers, the FBI and, of course, the good old faceless bureaucrat, the perennial root of governmental evil.  

This tidal wave of negativity has not drowned out the fact that the fire of career public service still burns brightly. A new generation of military officers, diplomats, intelligence officers and other public servants is preparing to lead key elements of our government to serve the national interest and carry out the legal orders of their superiors. I have been reminded of it three times in the past eight months.

{mosads}First, last December, the FBI graduated new special agents. The class was most impressive: Ivy League lawyers, hero cops, combat veterans and counterterrorism experts, including my young colleague who gave up a research job and delayed the completion of his doctorate to join the bureau. More than a third of the class were women.


The ceremonial speeches stressed rule of law, integrity, human rights and the Constitution. Dozens of these new agents were presented their badges and credentials by relatives who had served in the bureau. Like the military, the FBI is, in part, a family business. It is a nod to the excellence that is the hallmark of FBI work.

Second, as has happened every July for two decades, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a West Pointer and former paratrooper, hosted a reception for West Point cadets doing summer internships in the nation’s capital. This year’s reception was particularly inspirational. Secretary of the Army Mark Esper spoke about the importance of leadership. The new superintendent, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, spoke with the type of humility that comes from inner strength and 35 years of experience. He was accompanied by the dean, Brig. Gen. Cindy Jebb, West Point’s leading soldier-scholar and a role model for cadets and faculty.

Superintendent Williams also brought the academy’s Command Sgt. Maj. Jack Love, a tough paratrooper whose surname belies that fact he and a small cadre of sergeants will teach the cadets, their future bosses, by force of example what it means to be a soldier. The cadets who master their lessons also will learn to be humble — and that will serve them well in the U.S. Army.  

The dozen or so cadets with whom I spoke were bright young men and women, mentally and physically capable. With them were alumni and friends, some still serving and others who have moved on to second careers in or out of the government. Like car buffs, the old grads come to check out the new models and marvel at their capabilities. West Pointers are sure that they had it tougher “back in the day,” but they rarely fail to be impressed by the current crop of the academy’s best and brightest.

Then on Aug. 8, a third event cemented my hope for a strong future for public service in America: seated in front of the venerable Theodore Roosevelt Hall at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., were hundreds of decorated colonels and commanders — the incoming senior classes at the National Defense University. These budding senior officers are what Sen. Reed’s cadets likely will become two decades hence.  

The military students of the National Defense University are poised to begin strategic studies that will allow them to enter the ranks of senior officers. Mixed with them are 100 international fellows, hundreds of civilian intelligence officers, policy experts, diplomats and industry fellows, all on the brink of senior executive service in their respective enterprises. This group of 600 will study together in four colleges for 10 months. They must master strategic studies and forge bonds of friendship that will guide them through decades of service.

The convocation speaker was the university president, Vice Admiral Fritz Roegge, a submariner and strategist. Adorned in the Navy’s “choker white” uniform, he joked that convocation speakers are largely forgettable, but he hammered home the need to study and the value of the organizational diversity of this class. He knows, as do the faculty members, that the process of coming to understand their interagency and international classmates will be as big a lesson as anything they learn from texts by Thucydides, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu or Henry Kissinger.

At the first Army War College convocation, 110 years before, Elihu Root, the secretary of State and founding father of the war college, urged the students to “never forget your duty of coordination with the other branches of the service,” later reminding them “to learn to serve together without friction.”  He charged them to mingle with “those outside the service” and learn “from them the things that they can teach you.” He added one final admonition: “As you are good soldiers be good citizens.”

The Psalms tell us to “put not your trust in princes.” Our nation’s Founders took this to heart and created checks and balances on all types of power. Later, as America grew in size and complexity, presidents and Congresses created a class of career public servants and military officers to carry out the legal directives of their political masters — placing the duty of public service ahead of personal gain or partisan inclination. That system still works, thanks to the military and civilian public servants who dedicate their lives to it.

Joseph J. Collins, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is University Professor and the former director of the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. In his last policy assignment, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations (2001-2004). His nearly 28 years of military service include infantry and armor assignments in the United States, South Korea, and Germany; teaching at West Point in the Department of Social Sciences; and a decade of policy assignments in the Pentagon.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Tags Cadet Federal Bureau of Investigation Jack Reed military academies United States Army United States intelligence agencies

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