Winning future wars starts with winning on “fields of friendly strife”

September 1st, 2016 | Commentary, News

On July 30, 1918, Pvt. Martin Treptow, a 25-year-old barber from Cherokee, Iowa assigned to the 42nd Division, 168th Infantry, was killed by enemy fire during the Second Battle of the Marne in World War I. Among his personal effects was a diary, with the following words written in the flyleaf:

“America must win this war. I will work, I will save, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my upmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”

Through his words, Pvt. Treptow understood that the path to victory required that he give his all to the effort, as if victory depended on him and him alone. He knew that second best wouldn’t cut it, and that failure was not an option.

With the start of the new academic year, the Corps of Cadets once again returns to the “fields of friendly strife” for another exciting season of athletics. Our corps squad teams had a great season last year, with an overall win-loss record of 282-200-17, the best we’ve had in 15 years. Between our corps squad and cadet club teams, we’ve celebrated numerous conference and national championships. In fact, if you’ve seen the championship billboards at the post gates, you know that we had so many national championships, we ran out of room and had to spill over into the conference championship section!

Our men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball teams are already off to good starts this season, and tomorrow night, we head to Philadelphia to kick off our football season against Temple. I know we’re all looking forward to a great winning season, and especially looking forward to beating Navy.

As part of our commitment to being the world’s premier leader development institution, we continually emphasize the idea of building and fostering a culture of excellence and winning in everything we do. We don’t settle for mediocrity or “good enough,” but continually strive to be the best and then strive to make the best even better.

Many of you are familiar with the story of my conversation at the Army-Air Force game a few years ago with Gen. Martin Dempsey (then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) who told me, “when our cadets graduate, they will be laying it on the line and they deserve better than mediocrity.”

That comment always stuck with me. As leaders, we have a responsibility to continually strive for excellence in everything we do. Our number one priority at West Point is to develop leaders who are prepared to fight and win our nation’s wars. Part of that preparation is building a culture of excellence and winning in everything we do, and in turn, helping our cadets internalize that winning spirit and quest for excellence.

Athletics are such an important part of our development as leaders. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur declared “every cadet an athlete” and uttered the words we all know by heart: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are borne the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory”—he knew that athletics develops certain attributes important for future leaders.

They instill tenacity, resilience, discipline, mental and physical toughness, and the desire to excel and push ourselves to goals and objectives we previously did not think possible. That grit and “can do” attitude and the ability to overcome adversity are the same traits that build winning platoon leaders and company commanders when our cadets graduate. It develops the very mindset that Pvt. Treptow espoused in his diary nearly a century ago: to give everything you have, as if the outcome of the entire contest depended on you, and you alone.

This is also what America expects of us as an Army, because when our Nation decides to put boots on the ground, they do not expect us to go out there and “look good” or just “do our best.” They expect us to excel, accomplish the mission and win.

Winning isn’t necessarily a binary win/lose concept. Rather, it’s the idea of committing to excellence and playing to the upper levels of one’s potential. As famed Duke basketball coach and West Point graduate Mike Krzyzewski said: “My hunger is not for success, it is for excellence. Because when you attain excellence, success just naturally follows.”

Winning and the pursuit of excellence isn’t limited to the athletic fields. It’s in our classrooms. It’s acing that exam or project. It’s overcoming the fear of the high dive or finally getting up on the shelf in the IOCT. It’s found in those many individual challenges and obstacles we face and overcome daily.

But that doesn’t mean winning at all costs. Rather, it means winning in accordance with our values and who we are as a Nation. When we beat Navy in December, we will do so honorably, remaining true to the values and standards that define us.

To all of our athletic teams, and to the West Point team at large, think about your role on the team, and consider how you can “do your utmost” and be the catalyst that drives the team to success and victory, as if the entire outcome depended on you. Think about what it means to produce a culture of winning and excellence, and aspire to that winning spirit that allows us to achieve excellence in ALL that we do.

Here’s to a successful winning season! I look forward to seeing you all out there cheering on our teams and celebrating winning and excellence.

Beat Temple! Beat Navy! Beat Everyone!