Below are Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly’s remarks at The Patuxent Partnership, May 15, 2019 in St. Mary’s City, Maryland.
Thank you, Bonnie, for that kind introduction. And thanks for inviting us here tonight. What a wonderful evening and event to recognize the leadership of this community of service. Some of you may know that Robyn and I live in Annapolis, and it has much the same feel as St. Mary’s, one of neighbors and friendship and support. We raised our four children there, who are now well-embarked on their careers, and we think often of the wonderful, nurturing community they grew up in; that one day we may have to leave behind, and neither of us looks forward to that day.
Last Sunday was of course Mother’s Day, and I can’t help but think of all the mothers here tonight – the capacity to raise daughters and sons who want to serve a cause greater than self, whether in or out of uniform, is something very dear to our American way of life. Many of you are part of the larger family of military and naval service, something of which Robyn and I are especially proud.
Robyn and I met just before my last flight in the UH-1N Huey on board USS NASSAU. So we happened to miss the deployments and long separation while serving on the ship – although Robyn may have wished for one or two deployments on occasion. And after leaving NASSAU, we settled in Colorado Springs, where I took a job as an assistant professor of political science at the U.S Air Force Academy. Teaching those cadets, especially during early morning classes, I would have to resort to some pretty creative and sometimes even devious means of capturing their attention.
Maybe, like many of you, in the late 1980s, I would try to stay awake past 11:30 pm to watch “Late Night with David Letterman.” But almost every night before teaching class, I would make sure to catch Dave’s “Top Ten” before I went to bed. Because there were many times, in those Top Ten lists, I would find something interesting to mention in class that related to whatever we were studying at the time. So when I thought the same about addressing you here tonight – I asked myself, what would make my Top Ten list today?
What would be in the Top Ten, say, of my concerns about our Navy and Marine Corps team and where we fit in the future international security environment.
Secretary Mattis was once asked, “What keeps you up at night?” He answered, “Nothing. I keep other people up at night.” I would have to say mine would not be quite so self-confident. I would probably answer, “Nothing, I am too tired to be kept up at night.”
So my challenge tonight is not just to tell you what might keep me up at night, if anything could, but rather to talk about what will keep you awake during this speech. So, I will rely on my old tried and true David Letterman technique and give you a Top Ten list. Unfortunately, my list won’t be nearly as humorous as Letterman’s lists used to be, and there may not be many surprises, either, but you never know.
If you asked me to give you this list on November 16th, 2017, the day before I was confirmed by the U.S. Senate for this job, I am pretty sure the list would be different. So it has been evolving over time and I will try to capsulize each one with just one word – in case you want to take notes on your napkin. But here goes… imagine the drum roll….
The Under Secretary of the Navy’s top 10 words that if things kept me up at night it would be these 10 words: Number 10: 355 Number 9: Speed Number 8: Information Number 7: Cost Number 6: Audit Number 5: Education Number 4: Warriors Number 3: Adversaries Number 2: Time And…Number 1: Memories. Now I am certain this last one may sound a bit perplexing to you. Memories? Memories of what? What I am referring to is our collective memories as a nation. The common understanding of what is good about this place and what makes it so unique in the history of civilization.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan captured this idea on the cliffs of Point Du Hoc in Normandy on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe by Allied Forces. Political analysts have used this speech to describe how brilliant it was “politically” because it tapped into a shared understanding of what Americans believed in their hearts, and their shared memories, about the sacrifices, and the reasons for the sacrifices, made by our brave Soldiers, Sailors and Airman on that day. Reagan’s words were far more than political, however, and to judge them purely as such diminishes their power and authenticity. The memory of Normandy that President Reagan evoked was real, not fabricated, it tapped into a collective consciousness in which moral clarity and pride in American sacrifice and achievement were unambiguous.
So why is “memory” number one on the list of the things that would keep up at night if things actually kept me up at night? Because it keeps me up every waking hour with concern that we may be losing that shared memory as a nation, as powerful forces in the media, politics, academia, and nefarious foreign actors who are adept at manipulating all of these institutions, seek to create a new shared memory for Americans focused on our historical flaws, our past injustices, our cultural and racial differences, and our inability to secure an impossible utopian ideal for our society.
This year, I have the pleasure to meet Mr. Emory Crowder. Emory is a 95-year-old veteran of World War II. Emory was a corpsman in the Marine Corps. He stormed the beaches in Saipan and Tinian, and for his bravery, he was rewarded with the opportunity to invade Okinawa. He never made it, as his ship was sunk by a Kamikaze pilot and he was rescued from the cold Pacific Ocean a few hours later. I invited Emory to join Robyn and me at the Messiah concert in Annapolis this December. After the concert, he was surrounded by midshipmen who took pictures with him and thanked him for his service. In response to these midshipmen, all of whom were born well after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, Emory simply said, “Thank you, I did it so that you could have THIS life.”
This is what is GOOD about this nation. This is the shared memory we should all embrace to resist the forces that seek to erode our confidence in our ideals and our principles.
To quote Secretary Mattis again, in responding to a particularly bad day in Afghanistan where our troops made some targeting mistakes that led to the loss of innocent civilians, Secretary Mattis said, “We are not the perfect guys, but we are the GOOD guys.”
Now more than ever we need to believe this about ourselves. Now more than ever, we need to do everything we can to make sure this is also THE TRUTH. And if you need to be reminded why this is so important, let me give you one final example. I would like to tell you, as many of you may already know, about Senior Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent. Leaders like Senior Chief Kent, and supporters like each of you, are what keeps America safe and free.
We cannot ask people to defend this nation if we don’t believe the nation is good and worth defending. In my opinion, it is immoral to do so. We need to embrace fully and nurture the shared memories of the past that reinforce this, not blindly, but with a renewed sense of belief that we can address our problems, and strive for a more perfect union each day — a union that is worthy of the sacrifices of people like Emory Crowder and Shannon Kent, and every other soul who puts his or her life in harm’s way to keep us safe — and free.
Thank you for your service, may God bless you all, and may God continue to bless this nation. Go Navy, Go NAS Pax River, and of course, as always, BEAT ARMY.