A Letter to the West Point Class of 2020, From Fellow Members of the Long Gray Line

Photo credit: U.S. Army/Bryan Ilyankoff

Update on 15 June: Since publication, the number of West Point graduates who signed on to this letter has increased to over 1,000. Every graduating class from 1966 through 2019 is represented.

You are beginning your careers at a tumultuous time. More than 110,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, more than 40 million are unemployed, and our nation is hurting from racial, social and human injustice. Desperation, fear, anxiety, anger, and helplessness are the daily existence for too many Americans. These are difficult times, but we are confident you will rise to the challenge and do your part as leaders in our Army.

Like the classes before you, the Class of 2020 comes with varied life experiences from across America and beyond. You represent the country’s diversity of race, ethnicity, identity and beliefs. Your West Point journey has led you to this moment when, with right hands raised, you take an oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This oath has no expiration date. The burden of responsibility and accountability will both weigh on and inspire you for your entire life. Oaths are solemn, public promises with significant meaning and moral gravity. When they are broken, the nation suffers.

The oath taken by those who choose to serve in America’s military is aspirational. We pledge service to no monarch; no government; no political party; no tyrant. Your oath is to a set of principles and an ideal expressed in the Constitution and its amendments. Our Constitution establishes freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of religion, of equal protection under the law regardless of race, color, or creed — we cannot take for granted these freedoms that are but dreams in too many nations around the world.

By accepting your commission, you incur a moral purpose and obligation to provide for the common defense. In doing so you enable the nation to fulfill the full range of its aspirations. Today, our Constitutional aspirations remain unfulfilled.

The abhorrent murder of George Floyd has inspired millions to protest police brutality and the persistence of racism. Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests. Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events. The principle of civilian control is central to the military profession. But that principle does not imply blind obedience. Politicization of the Armed Forces puts at risk the bond of trust between the American military and American society. Should this trust be ruptured, the damage to the nation would be incalculable. America needs your leadership.

Your commitment to your oath will be tested throughout your career. Your loyalty will be questioned, and some will attempt to use it against you. Loyalty is the most abused attribute of leadership. Weak or self-serving leaders will emphasize loyalty over duty under the guise of “good order and discipline.” Unfortunately, some will make a Faustian bargain and endeavor to please their commanders and advance their own careers rather than take care of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in combat — which is not just a problem, it is a disgrace. America needs your leadership.

We, a diverse group of West Point graduates, are concerned. We are concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to Duty, Honor, Country. Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military. We ask you to join us in working to right the wrongs and to hold each other accountable to the ideals instilled by our alma mater and affirmed by each of us at graduation.

Your West Point education is both a profound gift and a sacred obligation. Our Nation has invested in you and entrusts you with demonstrating the values we expect of our leaders. They rightfully expect some return on that investment. You have the support of the entire nation as well as the heartfelt bonds of our alma mater.

Photo credit: United States Military Academy (Facebook)

It is imperative that West Point graduates work daily to serve as “leaders of character.” When leaders betray public faith through deceitful rhetoric, quibbling, or the appearance of unethical behavior, it erodes public trust. When fellow graduates acquiesce to bullying, and fail to defend honorable subordinates, it harms the nation and the Long Gray Line. When fellow graduates fail to respect the checks and balances of government, promote individual power above country, or prize loyalty to individuals over the ideals expressed in the Constitution, it is a travesty to their oath of office.

On the eve of your graduation and joining the Long Gray Line and the Army officer corps, we, the undersigned, are resolute in our efforts to hold ourselves accountable to the principles of Duty, Honor, Country in selfless service to the Nation. We will not tolerate those who “lie, cheat or steal.” We pledge to stand for the sacred democratic principle that all are treated equally, and each person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is not about party; it is about principle. Our lifetime commitment is to the enduring responsibility expressed in the Cadet Prayer: “to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”

Members of the Class of 2020, welcome to the Long Gray Line. We believe in you. We support you. As your lifetime journey of service begins, we pray that your class motto, “With Vision We Lead,” will prove prophetic. America needs your leadership.

Grip Hands,

Concerned Members of the Long Gray Line, a coalition of over 1,000 West Point alumni from six decades of graduating classes who collectively served across ten presidential administrations.

The full list of alumni who have signed this letter can be seen here.

UPDATE as of 12 June: Due to an overwhelming response from West Point graduates who want to add their names to this letter, the list of signatures is being updated twice daily. Any graduate wishing to sign should reach out to a classmate that has already signed and they will provide you with the instructions to verify your identity as a graduate. Thank you all for your support in sending this message to our newest graduates!

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, United States Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

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A coalition of several hundred West Point alumni from six decades of classes, who collectively served across ten presidential administrations.