By Elder Jeffrey R.
Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, on May 7, 2010.
Thank you [dignitaries] and especially you cadets for this invitation to be with you today. Although my professional life was spent as an educator, I have never had the privilege of visiting this academy until today. It is stunningly beautiful, all that everyone told me it would be. You represent a grand tradition in American history, and I am deeply honored to be on your campus today to meet some of you personally and to pay tribute to you and this nation’s history of which you are a part. And thank you personally for your attendance at such an early hour!
In this series of prayer breakfasts, I have been invited, with leaders from a variety of religious faiths, to address one of the values which informs the academy’s moral identity and mission. Other speakers have or will yet address loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, and personal courage. I am pleased to speak briefly on integrity, which, like the word itself, is an integrating value for all the others.
You will remember from your junior high math class that an integer is a whole number, a number without fractions. In that spirit I wish to speak of soldiers who are whole, soldiers who are not fractured or fragmented in their character, soldiers who are, as one scriptural prophet said, true to themselves, to their country, and to their God “at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death” (Mosiah 18:9). Integrity, in my own homely definition, is to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason—at any cost.
In this I stand with Thomas Jefferson who once said, “I am sure that in estimating every man’s [or woman’s] value either in private or public life, pure integrity is the quality we take first into calculation, and that learning and talents are only the second.”1
And no less an alumnus of this academy than Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”2
That reference to football allows us to lighten things up here a little. The story is told of Frank Szymanski, a center on the Notre Dame football team in the 1940s, noting that he had been called as a witness in a civil suit at South Bend and was placed on the stand to testify.
“‘Are you on the Notre Dame football team this year?’ the judge asked.
“‘Yes, Your Honor.’
“‘Center, Your Honor.’
“‘How good a center?’
“Szymanski squirmed in his seat, but said firmly: ‘Sir, I’m the best center Notre Dame has ever had.’
“Coach Frank Leahy, who was in the courtroom, was surprised. Szymanski always had been modest and unassuming. So when the proceedings were over, he took Szymanski aside and asked why he had made such a bold statement. Szymanski blushed.
“‘I hated to do it, Coach,’ he said. ‘But, after all, I was under oath.’”3
Now, I know that Army has played a few football games with Notre Dame over the years. Some of you may find it hard to believe a Notre Dame player could actually act with integrity. But so at least the story goes. Now, Navy, that is another matter, but I’d better stop there while I am ahead.
For the few minutes we have together here, let me build upon the simple homespun definition of integrity I have already offered by considering three additional aspects of the word. One is “firm adherence to a code of . . . values: incorruptibility.” The second is “an unimpaired condition: soundness,” and the third, “the quality or state of being complete.”4 I’d like to examine each of these definitions as they apply to your success as cadets, soldiers, and moral human beings.
Adherence to a Code
First, adherence to a code. At West Point you have a code that declares simply, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” All who come here are expected to live by that code. As such, the code is external—in other words, it is imposed by the institution, and those who violate it are subject to harsh discipline by the institution.
But men and women of honor have an internalized code of conduct that informs their decisions, which is far more demanding than anything this academy can impose. If that internal code is built on the right principles, a soldier will do the right thing in any given situation, even if doing it is at great personal cost.
May I share with you a little story that I remember from my childhood which helps make the case for integrity in little things so that the big things may then take care of themselves.
A storybook emperor called all the young people in his kingdom together one day. He said, “It has come time for me to step down and to choose the next emperor. It will be one of you. In making that selection, I am going to give each one of you a seed today. Come back here one year from today with what you have grown from this one seed.”
A young boy named Ling was in the crowd of children. He went home and excitedly told his mother the whole story. She helped him get a pot and some planting soil. He planted the seed given him. Every day he would water it and watch to see if it had grown.
After about three weeks, some of the other youths began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow. Ling kept checking his pot, but nothing ever grew in it.
Eventually all the others were talking about their plants. Ling was apparently the only failure. Everyone else spoke of small trees and tall plants, but he had nothing.
Finally a year went by, and all the youths brought their plants to the emperor for inspection. Ling told his mother that he wasn’t going to take an empty pot. But she encouraged him to go, report how hard he had tried, and be honest about what happened. Ling felt sick to his stomach, but he knew his mother was right. He took his empty pot to the palace.
Ling put his empty pot on the floor amidst beautiful plants and flowers of all shapes and sizes. When the emperor arrived, Ling tried to hide in the back of the room. But the emperor spotted Ling—empty pot and all. He ordered his guards to bring him to the front, where the leader said, “Behold your new emperor!”
To a now very quiet audience, the older man said, “One year ago today I gave everyone here a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds, which would not grow. Yet all of you, except one, have brought me magnificent trees and plants and flowers. Obviously, when you found that the seed I gave you would not grow, you substituted another. Apparently only one young man among you had the integrity to abide by the rules I gave you. I can trust him to take my place and lead my people.”
I suppose I was only six or seven years of age when I first heard that story read to me by my mother. Forgive me for such a homely example, but the fact of the matter is its meaning has stayed with me for more than 60 years. The code in that story and the code here at the academy are essentially the same. In a word, they make a man or a woman incorruptible. And the world needs incorruptible men and women today as desperately as it ever has in its history. Thanks for believing that at the United States Military Academy.
John J. Baxter has said of you:
“Every organization, every society, every family is built upon honesty and morality. Every one of these groups has a foundation that is the basis of all their functions and actions. . . . Integrity builds character and . . . sets the conditions for success. [It] is the only way a military unit can accomplish its mission. . . .
“Integrity literally holds the military together. Integrity is what soldiers stand upon when [all else fails]. It is what they hold on to when authority holds them accountable. . . . Integrity allows them to face their mistakes and accept the consequences. . . . The organization can [then] identify problems and develop solutions, others can see the importance of standards and regulations, and individuals maintain the honor of their name, organization, and nation.”5
As the young Joan of Arc says in Maxwell Anderson’s play: “One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”6 I too believe that a fate worse than dying is to live without integrity to a cause you believe to be more sacred than life itself. Thus integrity is an incorruptible adherence to a code.
An Unimpaired Condition
Let me address the second definition: the soundness of an unimpaired condition.
Cardiac surgeons speak of the heart in terms of structural integrity. When the condition of the heart is unimpaired, it beats steadily and surely, year after year. The mitral valve alone opens and closes about 100,000 times a day, 36 million times a year. If impaired by some kind of anatomical flaw, however, the heart can fail. And when the heart fails, we die. The goal of any cardiac surgery is to restore the structural integrity of the heart.7
Similarly, engineers refer to structural integrity in aircraft. Even small flaws created by faulty design, metal fatigue, weather conditions, or any number of other conditions can cause a wing to fail, a fuselage to open up, a tail to break off—with disastrous consequences.
The human body is by nature flawed. It is subject to structural failure. But more challenging to deal with than physical flaws are the spiritual flaws that result in a failure of the integrity of the soul.
Internal conflicts created by the dissonance between what we believe to be right and what we actually do can be even more debilitating than failures of physical health. The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles offered some insight into that problem—and its solution.
In Sophocles’s play Antigone, Creon, ruler of Thebes, decrees that no citizen who dies while fighting against his city may be buried. The corpse must lie where it is. Unfortunately, his nephew Polyneices becomes an enemy and is killed in that conflict. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister, defies her uncle’s orders and buries her brother’s body, as her love for him and for their culture requires. Creon is furious and has Antigone walled up in a cave. Later he repents of his decision and has the cave opened, only to find that Antigone has hanged herself. The tragedy compounds when Creon’s son Haemon, engaged to Antigone, tries to kill his father in retribution and dies himself instead. Distraught over the death of her son, Creon’s wife, Eurydice, kills herself. (These ancient Greeks really could make a mess of things, couldn’t they?)
Here’s where the question of integrity comes in. At incredible cost to himself, Creon held true to his decree despite any personal feelings he had for his nephew. Antigone remained true to her heart and the traditional values of her culture in defiance of Creon, also at great personal cost. Who had the greater integrity here? And what do we do when the integrity of one person is in conflict with the integrity of another?
For Sophocles, the nod must go to Antigone. The reason has to do with the fact that Creon, while acting on a code, nevertheless reveals that to be a shallow, shortsighted, and ultimately selfish code. In fact, in the play he gives little thought to the consequences of his actions. Antigone, by contrast, spends a great deal of time reflecting on the morality and the consequences of her actions and what the larger issues of her code involved. Her reflections on all of this constitute the heart of this drama and are the reason her name was given to the title of the tragedy. When Antigone acted, she based her actions on values she had examined thoroughly and felt in her soul were values by which she must live—or, if necessary, die.
I hope you take the time offered you here at West Point to reflect broadly and deeply on what it is you value most. What is it, in your heart of hearts, that rings true and pure and right? Once you’ve identified that, build your life around it and, if necessary, be prepared to die for it.
In searching your soul for these truths, you will find it helpful to seek counsel from those who have gone down that path before you—trustworthy friends, respected leaders, people you admire, the writers of great books, including the holy scriptures. Above all, I commend to you quiet prayer, worship, and reflection, where the whisperings of God’s voice will not be drowned out by the cacophony of our culture. Avail yourself of your chapel or the woods nearby or anyplace where you can slow down the frenetic pace of your life. And feel the spirit of heaven’s love for you. “Be still” (Psalm 46:10), the scriptures say, and feel again why the most reverenced name for God is “Father.”
Yesterday was this country’s national day of prayer. This morning is one in a series of prayer breakfasts. I hope with all my heart, as one who is old enough to be your grandfather, that you include prayer to God as part of the formation of your character and that you learn that a man or a woman never stands taller than when kneeling in humble, urgent prayer.
Not all of you are of the same faith, but whatever your beliefs are, I am sure you have a revered tradition of prayer. All religions do. As a Christian I sing with my family in our congregation:
Thou by whom we come to
The Life, the Truth, the Way!
The path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray.8
In conclusion, my third definition of integrity: the quality of being complete or undivided.
Earlier we talked about structural integrity in reference to the workings of the heart and the safety of aircraft. Political and military leaders also refer to territorial integrity and strive to keep that integrity intact. Perhaps the best example of that effort in our own history is the American Civil War.
What a tragic, bloody war that was, and we don’t need to recount its horrors here. But we are all happy that the territorial integrity of the United States was preserved. And at least one reason for that victory was the personal integrity of its commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln.
In a book titled The Integrity Advantage, you’ll find this observation about Lincoln:
“The heritage of our American nation includes a profound reverence for integrity. . . . In one speech, characteristic of others he would make, Abraham Lincoln took a position that would end up costing him his race for U.S. Senate vs. Stephen A. Douglas. [He said boldly that] the country could not survive . . . as a house divided, ‘half-slave and half-free.’ He knew [what the] consequences of his words [on such an emotional issue might be, but he said]: ‘I would rather be defeated with [that declaration in my] speech . . . than to be victorious without it.’ [And he was defeated.]
“[But] the integrity that cost him the senate seat [later] won him the presidency [of the nation]. It . . . also inspired the nation to prevail in [its most brutal war] and [ultimately it freed those slaves about whom he spoke. In great measure] Lincoln’s integrity shaped our young nation’s values [at that crucial time and still defines] what it means to be American.”9
Fundamental to your efforts as cadets and future officers of the army of the United States is this very same effort to preserve the territorial integrity of our country. You will succeed largely on the strength of your own personal integrity.
Integrity. Values. Codes of conduct. Peace. War. Liberty. Life. My what heavy subjects for your young shoulders at this academy. I stand in admiration of what you can and will do in the world that awaits you and needs you.
May I close this morning together with advice from the steamy jungles of Vietnam, when I and others of my generation were just your age. This comes from one of my closest friends who, after a career as a successful attorney, now stands at my side as a General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He once shared this story with me, and I now share it here with you.
“In November 1966, I had been in the combat zone of Vietnam for nearly ten months. I was an infantry platoon leader. I had experienced much of the perils, the trials, the moment-to-moment anxiety of combat. Our battalion had just returned to our base camp for some ‘R and R’ . . . after several weeks in the jungles and rice paddies. It was a Saturday night. Having taken our first showers in a very long time, we were sitting around on our bunks cleaning our rifles and listening to music on the Armed Forces Radio Network. Suddenly, an urgent message crackled over our battalion radio network. A sister battalion in our brigade—still in the jungle—was being overrun by a much larger enemy force. We were needed. We had to go, right then, to the rescue.
“It is very hard to adequately describe the icy feelings that clutched at my heart in that moment. . . .
“How I would have liked [more] time. [Time to rest. Time] to prepare! Time to ponder inspiring scripture. Time to pray. . . . Time to ‘gird up [my] loins’ [scripturally speaking]. But there was no time. I only could grab my helmet, my rifle, give some terse orders to my men and move out. But one thing I could do was to utter a silent prayer in my heart. And as I did, there came to my mind—literally—a ‘still, small voice.’ The voice repeated the words to a passage of scripture that I had memorized . . . as a missionary. Words that have become my very favorite in all scripture: ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he will direct thy paths’ (Proverbs 3:5–6). As those words came to mind, peace filled my heart. The foreboding retreated.
“. . . We remained in the jungle on that operation [for many weeks] following that nocturnal SOS message. Finally, it was the very last day of [the] operation. I was riding in an armored personnel carrier through a lightly forested area of jungle. Suddenly, an enormous explosion beneath the vehicle [literally lifted] it off the ground. . . . Enemy soldiers nearby had detonated a huge landmine. The engine was blown out. The tracks and all the road wheels were blown off. Everyone inside, including me, was wounded. But no one died.
“And in that . . . moment, there again came to my mind that same still voice and that some passage of scripture. ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he will direct thy paths.’”10
In life or in death, I declare as an expression of my integrity that God lives and loves us, that He will always be with us and will—if we but trust in Him—direct our personal paths.
In that spirit I say what One said whose path surely was divinely directed. Said Jesus of Nazareth:
“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
On a day of prayer I pray that God will bless you always, in the name of Him who was the personification of integrity and who declared peace and good cheer to us all, even the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
- 1. Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian Parks Boyd and Lyman Henry Butterfield (1950), vol. 24, 82.
- 2. Dwight D. Eisenhower, quoted at successmethods.org/leadership-quotes.html.
- 3. David Casstevens, “Nothing but the Truth!” in Chicken Soup for the Soul, comp. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (1993), 72.
- 4. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (2003), “integrity.”
- 5. John J. Baxter, quoted at churchboy316.com/story.htm.
- 6. Maxwell Anderson, Joan of Lorraine (1974), 80.
- 7. See Russell M. Nelson, “Integrity of Heart,” Ensign, Aug. 1995, 19.
- 8. “Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” Hymns, no. 145.
- 9. Mitt Romney, in Adrian Gostick and Dana Telford, The Integrity Advantage (2003), xii–xiii.
- 10. Lance B. Wickman, “Confidence Tests” (BYU–Idaho devotional, Sept. 25, 2007), 9–10, byub.org/talks/Talk.aspx?id=2888.