Anthony Woods MPP 2008 Calls Graduates to Action in Harvard Commencement Address

"Q. & A."

June 5, 2008
by Anthony C. Woods

We all traveled different paths to Harvard. My journey began in the desert heat of Iraq. Months after graduating as a lieutenant from West Point, I took charge of 17 soldiers and led them to that war-torn country. It didn’t take long for me to confirm that my three hours of Arabic language training weren’t going to get me very far.

Like many of you, I had very serious questions about the legitimacy of this war. These questions grew louder on days when tedium and toil turned into chaos and tragedy. I remember the 27th of July 2004. Earlier that day, I spoke with 24-year-old SGT Deforest Talbert about his two-year-old son. Three hours later, I stood next to his lifeless body and questioned why he made this sacrifice.

One day in September of 2004, four of my soldiers would tempt fate and survive. I watched in what felt like slow motion as the blast of a roadside bomb engulfed their vehicle. Later, I wondered if next time we’d be so lucky.

On the 11th of October 2005, my men and I responded to the scene of a suicide bomber who violently ended his life and the lives of forty others at a local market. I wondered if the media would portray the victims as individuals with families like SGT Talbert, or would their fate be presented as a cold statistic?

Harvard is a very long way from Iraq. The Army sent me to the Kennedy School in the summer of 2006, and I welcomed the break from the battlefields of the Middle East. At Harvard I found myself engaged in a battlefield of ideas.

Questions shifted from my personal experiences to the universal. Will we reverse the tide of global climate change? Why do we turn a blind eye to genocide and human suffering? Why don’t we commit more resources to scientific research? Why are corporate boardrooms so prone to corruption? Why do we send so many of our children to crumbling schools?

I’m not afraid to admit that I felt helpless in the face of these questions. After all, they seem unanswerable – these problems seem insurmountable. But, something inspiring happened for me at Harvard. As the list of questions grew, I met more and more talented individuals from all across this university – from all around the world – who were also asking difficult questions. I soon realized that Harvard chose us because we know these questions don’t have easy answers.

These reflections reminded me of the words of a member of Harvard’s Class of 1940. John F. Kennedy said, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and [I] believe [we] can do it again.” Kennedy was saying every generation needs to find the capacity to respond to the challenges of its day.

Many who came before us – some who sat in your place – looked upon the world and could have found reason to despair. But, instead of losing hope, they chose to act.

Let us remember the abolitionists. Their legacy calls on us to end slavery and human trafficking in our own time.

Let us remember the scientists. Their eradication of polio and smallpox inspires our effort to cure cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Let us remember those who ended apartheid in South Africa. Their struggle shows us how to stand up for human rights for the citizens of Tibet.

And let us also remember the students of our parent’s generation. Some of them fought to end the war in Vietnam and hoped the United States would never again wage a war of choice.

What made all of these generations special was their ability to redefine “Q & A.” Instead of responding to questions with answers, they responded with actions. They left a legacy that compels each of us to do the same – we have no choice but to follow their example. And so… fellow students of the Class of 2008, I ask one final question: will you take action to respond to the challenges of our day?

Image of Anthony Woods MPP 2008.

Photo: Matt Craig, Havard News Office

Anthony Woods: "Will we reverse the tide of global climate change? Why do we turn a blind eye to genocide and human suffering? Why don’t we commit more resources to scientific research? Why are corporate boardrooms so prone to corruption? Why do we send so many of our children to crumbling schools?"

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf delivered the Harvard Kennedy School graduation address on June 4.

See link to coverage and video below.


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