On Friday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin released his “day one message” via the Pentagon to all Department of Defense employees. It was short, contained no flash or ten-dollar words, and was straight to the point. It was, in many ways, much like the man himself.
During his time as CENTCOM Commander, Austin was often referred to as “the invisible general,” not because he was absent but because he eschewed the media spotlight and would not talk openly about military matters. He is known to be very private and sometimes even speaks of himself in the third person as if Austin the man and Austin the general are two different people. He is a devout Catholic and has been married to his wife for 40 years.
Austin has spent the vast majority of his life in uniform. Since graduating from West Point, Austin’s assignments have been with historic and revered units like the 3rd Infantry, the 82nd Airborne, and the 10th Mountain Divisions. He has served at the Pentagon and as vice chief of staff of the Army. He was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and led CENTCOM.
Though I have never met the man, nor had the pleasure to serve under him, I think it’s safe to assume that he bleeds O.D. green.
If I’m honest, the first time I read his day one message I was a little letdown. I expected big words, sweeping gestures. I figured that since Austin, who is now the first black Secretary of Defense, is making history, he would carve out a few paragraphs for grandeur. Perhaps even an Abraham Lincoln quote.
After brushing up on the man, I read it again.
In a message of just 281 words, a handful stood out. He spoke of the honor of serving, but immediately recognized the military families that bear the burden that honor often carries with it. He stressed clarity by promising “sound policy” and “clear missions.” He acknowledged the need for humility, respect, and devotion.
And I’ll admit that upon my first read I was troubled to see the pandemic co-opt an entire paragraph of remarks that fill little more than half a page. My second reading made me wonder how much of it is just Austin’s way of addressing the “X’s and O’s” of a national health crisis that has now claimed more American lives than any of this country’s foreign wars. Step one, snuff out the virus. Step two, everything else.
On my first read, I wondered about the things glaringly left out of his remarks. What are we doing about Iran, China, North Korea? Where’s the commitment to fighting extremism or examining our fight with Post-Traumatic Stress? How will we modernize rapidly enough to compete in a new era of near-peers and great power competition?
But then I realized that this simple message, the kind you might jot down to an old friend, was not for the media or the pundits. This message was addressed to the people at the DoD; the 1.3 million active-duty service members, 811,000 Reserve and National Guard, and the 750,000 civilian personnel that have devoted their lives to the defense of this nation. It’s not a photo-op or an opportunity to polish one’s laurels.
No, I told myself after re-reading. It’s a quietly-disseminated 281-word missive that says, above all else, that teamwork makes the dream work.
I think that speaks volumes.
What do you think?
MEMORANDUM FOR ALL DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE EMPLOYEES
SUBJECT: Day One Message to the Force
I am honored to have this chance to serve again and to do so alongside you and your families. My wife, Charlene, and I know all too well the sacrifices you make to keep this country safe. That safety is job one, and I promise to work as hard as you do at it.
The way I see it, my job as Secretary of Defense is to make you more effective at doing yours. That means ensuring you have the tools, technology, weapons, and training to deter and defeat our enemies. It means establishing sound policy and strategy and assigning you clear missions. It means putting a premium on cooperation with our allies and partners. And it means living up to our core values, the same ones our fellow citizens expect of us.
Right now, of course, doing my job also means helping our country get control of the pandemic, which has killed more than 400,000 Americans. You have already come to the aid of our Nation’s health care professionals. You can expect that mission to continue. But we must help the Federal Government move further and faster to eradicate the devastating effects of the coronavirus. To that end, we will also do everything we can to vaccinate and care for our workforce and to look for meaningful ways to alleviate the pressure this pandemic has exerted on you and your families.
None of us succeeds at this business alone. Defending the country requires teamwork and cooperation. It requires a certain humility, a willingness to learn, and absolute respect for one another. I know you share my devotion to these qualities.
I am proud to be back on your team.