Opening Convocation 2004 - Colorado College

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Thom Shanker, right, with fellow honorary degree recipients Eric Stover '74, director of the Human Rights Center at UC-Berkeley, and Ricki Spector Booker '90, an executive and creative contributor in the L.A. entertainment industry -- see a release for more about their degrees and opening convocation at Colorado College.

Dateline: The Edge of the World

By Thom Shanker
CC Class of 1978
New York Times Pentagon Correspondent

Remarks from CC's Opening Convocation
Sept. 6, 2004


Thank you President Celeste for this great honor, this truly unexpected honor.

One caveat before I begin my remarks. I tend to shy away from public speaking. I am hopelessly Gutenberg. I believe in the printed word. In fact, it was on this very campus that a woman broke up with me by saying I had a face made for radio. But it was also on this campus that I met the woman who some years later consented to be my wife, partner, best friend and mother of our two sons. I am truly one of the lucky ones. Every morning -- when I’m not in the field -- every morning I get to wake up next to the girl of my dreams. She’s not always talking to me, and it’s usually my fault, but at least I get to wake up next to her.

I want to salute my comrades who also are receiving honorary degrees today. Ricki Spector Booker exemplifies what my wife and I are hoping to teach our boys: That while it’s important to try to save the world, it’s equally important to find time to savor it. So, Ricki, thanks for so many hours of quality family programming that you have allowed this family to enjoy.

Eric Stover is among the wise and patient scholars of international law who have helped my generation of journalists evolve and mature from war correspondents to become crimes of war correspondents. We are trying to develop a category of reportage that contributes significantly to the public debate -- something beyond the traditional, dramatic descriptions of what goes on in the battle space. Our goal is something lasting, something that measures the wrongdoings of warriors against standards set by international treaties freely accepted by the nations of the world.

You go off to cover a war, but the war covers you, and you can never really wash it off. But the sense that maybe you’ve brought just a little piece of justice back into the world helps you through the nightmares that are the personal cost of each deployment to the combat zone.

In wrestling with this assignment today, I must confess to a little bit of outside help. I returned a couple of weeks ago from a trip through the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. The last stop was St. Petersburg, Russia, where I covered a meeting between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Both Secretary Rumsfeld and Minister Ivanov know Colorado Springs and know of CC, as they were at the Broadmoor just last autumn for a NATO defense ministerial session. So I had a rare opportunity to ask the two most powerful defense ministers on the planet earth this important question, “What should I say at the Colorado College Convocation?”

Minister Ivanov told me to tell you students to study hard, and learn all you can -- but to remember and never forget that everything you learn will change or be proven wrong in five years.

True enough. But to truly appreciate this comment you have to understand that Mr. Ivanov spent most of his career as a foreign espionage officer for the Soviet KGB, is now defense minister of a Russia struggling with democracy and terrorism, and is being groomed as a possible successor to Vladimir Putin in the 2008 Russian presidential election.

Then I asked Mr. Rumsfeld.

Now to truly appreciate his comments, you have to understand that Don Rumsfeld likes to take a poke at The New York Times as much as the next guy -- unless the next guy is Dick Cheney, because nobody likes to take a poke at The New York Times as much as Dick Cheney.

Secretary Rumsfeld told me: “You shouldn’t bother writing anything. Just stand up there and read them Adlai Stevenson’s address to Princeton graduates of 1954.”

Fortunately, I had President Celeste on my side, and he gave me the best advice: Just talk about how it all started here.

Indeed. My Mom and Dad raised four kids. One went to Harvard, one went to Yale and one went to Stanford. I came here not because I got tired of people asking whether I was going to Princeton. I came here by choice. And to this day, my father says I received an education as good if not better than my siblings. I mention this not in critique of any other academic institution, but only to say to the students of Colorado College: Your investment of time, and effort, and no small amount of financial resources -- your investment is sound.

CC was perfect preparation for life as a daily journalist. The block plan’s format, based on the concrete and sequential and well-defined, gave me an architecture for living and working in a world that is random and ambiguous and ill-defined. As a journalist required to meet unyielding daily deadlines, I’ve been working on an accelerated block plan ever since graduation.

It all started here.

From Professor Lee, I took courses on media and politics. He taught me that anybody can learn to write an inverted-pyramid-style news story on deadline, so it was essential to broaden your horizons, to learn about the world -- to get the content. And be wary of any journalism that described itself as “new.” Stick to the fundamentals. His experiences traveling and reporting from the developing world also inspired in me a desire to stretch the traditional boundaries of what could be defined as the leading story of the day.

I took Professor Fuller’s very demanding blocks on political philosophy. I already was an aspiring journalist, so imagine my pleasure when a paper -- I think it contrasted the Platonic and Machiavellian view of political leadership -- came back with Professor Fuller’s comment: “This reads like an essay one might find in Time or Newsweek.”

It was a while before I realized he did not mean that as a compliment. It was the lowest grade I got in my entire tenure at CC. My friend Gregg Easterbrook plastered my mug shot on page one of the Catalyst, with one of those fugitive black bars over my eyes, under the headline: “CC Grade Scandal. Student Gets B.” [See more on Easterbrook.]

I have been grateful to Professor Fuller ever since. What journalists do is struggle daily to write a first, rough draft of history. We rarely reach the highest standards. But at least I know and never forget that those higher standards exist. A deadline may be absolute. But perfection is unattainable.

I owe a special word of thanks to my two academic advisors, Professor Sondermann, now of blessed memory, and Professor Finley, who fed the passion for international relations in this kid from a landlocked state on the Great Plains. More importantly, they set me on the path of understanding the importance of source documents, treaties, and original speeches and memoirs.

I learned that you have to read the thing itself, and never settle for anyone else’s summary of the thing.

Today, I can share with you that a number of administration officials and military officers wish they had learned that lesson, especially when it came to intelligence assessments on weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. In retrospect, they wished they had demanded or read more carefully the often-conflicting source documentation on intelligence regarding WMD. Instead, they settled for the executive summaries and prepared National Intelligence Estimates. In those, the rough edges, sharp points, contradictory views and ambiguity were knocked off by the politicking of the inter-agency process.

I learned here, from all of these professors, the importance of searching for that place of definition, of clarity in language that would guide one to clarity of thinking.

My college roommate, Adam Margolin, is here today as well. We spent many afternoons in Tutt Library looking at maps of the world and plotting the places we wanted to go. But late in the evening, when I was alone and still studying, I took out the maps that really spoke to me, the antique and ancient maps. They are beautiful to look at. The earth is supported on the backs of elephants, or held aloft by hooks dangling from the clouds.

And, best of all, were the unknown regions at the edge of the map, depictions of places where a traveler could fall off the end of earth.

And the ancient cartographers warned: Here There Be Monsters.

Well, that was where I wanted to go.

And, for the better part of the past 25 years, I have gone to those places, where a traveler even today risks falling off the edge of the world -- at least over the edge of any kind of civilized world ordered by laws and human decency. And, I assure you, those monsters are there, just as the ancient cartographers warned.

My beat? Basically I cover the Seven Deadly Sins of modern civilization: Hate. Fear. Lies. Dictatorship. Mass murder. Mass rape. War. Frankly, it makes me yearn for good old-fashioned sloth. Maybe all the rest of the sinning would slow down.

My role as a newspaperman allows me to distance myself, even disdain, partisan politics. But as many in my field have said, this allows us to become even more fiercely partisan for a set of political ideals. This is especially relevant in an election year, when the candidates of all the parties spend more time defining their opponent’s negatives than in defining their own stances and bringing clarity to the debate.

Think about the most important national security issue of the day.

In all of the political camps, from Michael Moore and Ralph Nader through John Kerry to George Bush, the language of the public political debate all too often is used to manipulate fear, and not to inform, educate or clarify.

If I were a bright young undergraduate at a small liberal arts college nestled at the foot of Pikes Peak, here are the kinds of questions I’d be asking those seeking elected office this year.

Both Democrats and Republicans talk of the Global War on Terror. But those terms have never been defined correctly.

Global. This comes closest, as attacks may come at any time and at any place, but the center of gravity for terrorist planning is mostly a crescent of the Near East, Central Asia, Southwest Asia and parts of Southeast Asia. Our military today is positioned too far north and east in Asia and too far north and west in Europe to effectively counter this threat.

Global War on Terror. Terror. This sounds like we’re against terror, which we are. But, really, we’re against people who use terrorism as their weapon of choice, as their tactic and technique to influence the behavior of a free people.

War. This is defined worst of all. To call it a Global War on Terror sounds like there is only a military solution, one limited to ground forces, navies and air forces. Let me assure you, America cannot lose this competition militarily -- but we just as certainly can't win with the military alone.

How you define the problem defines the response. And I question whether the U.S. government today is organized correctly for the 21 st century threat, and whether all the proper tools are being brought to the effort.

It would be fair of you students to ask the candidates which of their programs would actually capture, kill or -- best of all -- convert the thinking to neutralize more of terrorism’s organizers and foot soldiers than the number created by America’s policies that alienate the Muslim world.

Is enough being done to dry up the financial networks that underwrite terrorist acts?

What is being done to counter the messages of hate and extremism and violence being preached in certain maddrasses and mosques?

Why are America’s best values not being more effectively projected to allies and adversaries alike? Why is this country, so effective at producing TV and movies and great rock’n’roll and so brilliant at advertising -- how is this country such a failure in the competitive marketplace of ideas against extremism?

You have until the first Tuesday of November to figure out the answers, and decide how to vote.

I don’t tell war stories, because true stories of combat defy retelling. But I will relate one conversation I had in the combat zone.

It was in the desert outside Kandahar, the final Taliban hold-out, whose fall ended the war in Afghanistan. This place is truly at the edge of the world.

I was embedded with Army Special Forces, the Green Berets. This A-Team had joined up with Hamid Karzai to route Mullah Omar and take Kandahar. These guys are among the smartest and bravest warriors in the U.S. military. Not since the war in Vietnam had a reporter been allowed to live with, travel with and go out on missions with Special Forces in combat. I cut the deal back at the Pentagon, but these Green Berets, at a primitive forward operating base in the desert outside Kandahar, were reluctant, at first, to say the least.

They warmed up over the course of a week, maybe after they saw I carried my own gear, wouldn’t freak out under fire and, most importantly, could eat boiled Ramen noodles three times a day and not complain about the chow.

One night, we were sitting around the campfire, and I asked: “It would be pretty bad for you guys if I got killed, wouldn’t it?”

“Nah,” they said. “If you got killed, it would be because we were on a mission or came under attack. That’s the risk we accept, because we believe our work is important, and that’s the risk you accept, because you believe your work is important.”

They said, “We don’t care if you get killed. But it would be very bad for us if you got lost.”

After returning to Washington, my two boys and I went to our favorite camping store, where they picked out this pocket compass for me to carry.

I carry it as a reminder: Don’t get lost.

I carry it as a reminder that there are things in this life truly worse than death.

It is a reminder that the opposite of life is not death. No, the opposite of life, the antithesis of life, the negation of life -- is a life wasted.

Before you think I am dispensing reckless advice, let me tell you something about courage. It doesn't take any special talent to get shot at. In fact, it takes talent not to get shot at.

You want my description of the characteristics in people I think are really courageous?

Courage? To get up and go to work every day, and try to make a contribution to society, despite the manifest frustrations of the modern work place.

Courage? To ask questions of those in authority and do what is right, even though you risk severe repercussions from those in authority.

Courage? To choose to bring a new generation of children to life on this earth, despite seeing every day on TV and in the newspapers the horrors committed by the current generation.

What takes courage? To love, even when that love is not returned.

And just as much as the courage of your convictions, have the courage to listen to your doubts.

Earlier I mentioned Secretary Rumsfeld, and his recommendation of Adlai Stevenson’s address. Don Rumsfeld certainly knows a great piece of oration when he hears it. And it is fascinating that it remains one of his favorite speeches.

One of its central themes: Adlai Stevenson surveyed the events of the day and America’s role and said his observation “raises the question whether we have reached the awesome pinnacle of world power we now occupy too soon, before we have sufficiently elevated our national mind to lead the world wisely.”

Then, as if he had wandered our own quad and read the inscription chiseled above Palmer Hall, he went on to say, “We, too, have a powerful weapon -- truth -- and we gain our strength from our thoughtful citizenry, which seeks and holds the truth with both its heart and its mind.”

The question Adlai Stevenson asked is worth repeating in today’s global campaign against those who choose terrorist tactics. Is America leading the world wisely?

That question will not be answered today or tomorrow, and not by election day nor by the next administration in the White House, and not even by my generation, since the effort to suppress violent extremism is a marathon and not a sprint.

Grim, but true: This war, this campaign, this effort, this danger, will last your entire life. So, as Adlai Stevenson would say, it is up to you, the educated and privileged of America. Indeed, you are the best this nation at war has to show the world to express what is best and most valuable about us.

Your assignment today is to go out and get a good compass. You may choose to calibrate its bearings by the natural sciences, the social sciences or the arts and humanities, whatever you study this year at Colorado College.

And if none of those point the way, I suggest a good old-fashioned method to find the magnetic north poll -- which requires personal magnetism. Nurture friendships and -- someday, if you’re lucky -- form a lifetime partnership with someone whose love is constant as the star Polaris shining at true north in an otherwise darkening sky.

So, to the students of Colorado College, as you start a new academic year, I will say to you what some very brave warriors said to me at Kandahar:

It would be very bad for us if you got lost. It would be bad for our nation, too.

Of course, feel free to take the long way home. Peek over the edge of the world if you care to. But set your course for that place of precise definition.

When you get there, honesty, integrity and a little bit of justice are then within reach.

Thank you. Good luck. And God bless.