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Remarks to the Corps of Cadets: Valley Forge Military Academy & College 8 April 2001

The Joy in Taking Responsibility

It is springtime in the District of Columbia, where I live and work in the field of organizational ethics. Though it rained a bit on Friday as it has here today, around the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial, the Cherry Trees are blossoming in all of their glory. Everywhere the world is full of wonder and the promise of spring: the joy of creation, renewal and a sense that we are evolving toward something better, though we know not what.

My remarks this morning are to address the value of responsibility. As it is commonly understood, however, it seems like such a heavy topic, too heavy for a spring day. So, in the spirit of a world being reborn, I want to make the case for an understanding of responsibility that evokes a sense that life is at once both a serious venture and a great, awesome opportunity.

We all come from hearty stock. If you look around, hundreds of people—cadets, friends and family—have come together in this chapel, on this day, each the product of a long line of survivors and thrivers. The product of millions of choices made over millennia that have led to our being together at this moment, at this place. By surviving and thriving, our forebears passed on genes and values that captured the wisdom—body, mind, and spirit—they gained in meeting the demands of a changing world. I take my challenge and great opportunity this morning to be that I pass on to you what I have learned about responsibility over my life and living—especially my 30 years in the United States Marine Corps.

Most dictionary definitions for "responsibility" contain some aspect of duty, obligation, or accountability. But, there is one definition that, with a little enhancement, works especially well for me. According to a third definition, to be responsible is to be:

· "Chargeable with being the author, cause, or occasion of something…."

In this definition, one is responsible to the degree that one is the "author." "Author" is the root word of "authority," which, of course, does not have the most favorable of connotations, such as "authoritarian." This is unfortunate—in my view—because I believe that we have authority to the extent that we are the authors of our own lives. Tying these thoughts together then, if you are the author of your life, you are the cause of it—and responsible for it.

Now we are onto something. If I do what I and others know to be right and avoid doing what is wrong, I am responsible. Let's call this "static responsibility." We may not like doing the right thing, but we know what it is.

However, for many important choices, it is never certain what is right and what is wrong. We often do not know until we make a choice, act on it, and learn from the experience. But if I am to be the author of my life, I must accept responsibility for its quality. Although we may not know what is right for certain in any given situation, we are still called upon to make choices and be able to defend them as well. Let's call this "dynamic responsibility."

Static responsibility, then, is the world of duty, obligation, and accountability: doing what you are told, doing what you promised, doing what is expected.

Dynamic responsibility is the world of embracing problems and challenges; knowing when to renegotiate promises made; and fostering change in the society around us. Here people are responsible for exercising authority wisely. They create something new and different in their lives—for themselves and those around them. Something that goes "beyond" what was before, so that the world is a better place for their having passed through.

Now it is true that choices made are often only the best ones possible under not-the-best of circumstances. For example, in the fall of 1966, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and I was working my way through college—full-time as a special delivery mailman for Tucson, Arizona. I got incredibly ill my junior year and, in my foggy condition, dropped a course. It was only after I recovered my health a bit that I realized, to my horror, that, by dropping that course, I had lost my student exemption from the draft.

What was I going to do now? Well, I did the best I could under what my situation offered me. To avoid being drafted. . . . I volunteered for the United States Marine Corps. . . . That summer I went off to officer candidates school in Quantico, Virginia. One heck of a way to avoid the draft, I grant you, but I chose to enter the Marine Corps as an officer rather than be forced into either the Army or Marine Corps through the draft. There were other ways that others took to avoid the draft, of course: getting married or fleeing to Canada.

Years later, it is 1990. I am now a Marine Corps Reserve Colonel. I had a civilian life as a lawyer and businessman, but was called up to be the logistics plans officer for the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Saudi Arabia. I served this time because I had promised to respond when called. But more importantly, fellow Marines were counting on me to do my part in seeing that they had the transportation, ammunition, food and water, and medical care they needed—when they needed it. All so that they could do their jobs—do them well—and return home to their loved ones.

From my perspective, then, these are examples of "static responsibility." Doing what you are expected to do. Doing something you promised years ago, though you never dreamed it would turn out the way it did. And, make no mistake, static responsibility is important. Society would quickly grind to a halt if static responsibility were not an integral part of its very culture. Nor could any organization survive let alone thrive if static responsibility were not a part of its culture.

But what about the sort of responsibility we have agreed to think of as "dynamic responsibility?" Dynamic responsibility is the kind of responsibility that allows a family, organization or society to thrive. Exercising dynamic responsibility is messy. It is never clear what the right decision is at the time, even one that involves life and death. Let me give an example.

It is now 1969, and I am a rifle platoon commander. My Platoon straddles the Ho Chi Minh trail along the border between Vietnam and Laos during Operation Dewey Canyon, a major Marine Corps operation. The Platoon is already down to just over two-thirds of the 55 men I started with and a number of them have already been wounded—myself included.

A Marine Sergeant, a squad leader who had just joined the Platoon, caught a young Marine sleeping on watch. To "get his attention," the Sergeant beats the Marine badly enough to bruise him. Both offenses, sleeping on post and beating a subordinate, are serious offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. (Sleeping on post, by the way, is the more serious offense, punishable by death in time of war.)

So what do you do now, Lieutenant? (In Marine Corps Officer Basic School training, following a fact situation, that is always the question. "What do you do now?" There is also a school solution called the "yellow canary" because it is on colored paper. In real life, there is seldom a yellow canary.) Follow the law and send both to the rear to be court-martialed? If I do that, young men will have federal convictions that will ruin their lives. They made mistakes they would probably never have made but for being drafted-or having volunteered-to serve in an unpopular war. (Besides, the law only says that it is wrong for them to do what they did, not that they had to be prosecuted. I had discretion, which is to say that I could use my own good judgment.) Moreover, the Platoon will lose their services in the field if I send them back to the rear: jeopardizing the lives of the others. But if I don't send them to the rear, what message am I sending to the rest of the Platoon if they aren't punished?

After talking to each of the men, I decided to give them one more chance. I explained my decision and made it clear that if either committed another offense, he would be court-martialed without question. Fortunately, neither commits the offense again, the Platoon pulls together even more as Dewey Canyon continues, and I am feeling as wise as Solomon until….

Weeks later, I received a letter from the outraged mother of the Marine who had been beaten. She concluded a very caustic letter with the question, "What kind of a unit are you running over there?" I now had to try, for the first time in my life, to communicate to another person-in writing no less-just how I had translated my perceptions and beliefs into an ethical judgment that affected her child. My decision, I wrote to the mother, was the one I thought most apt to achieve the purposes of all those involved. I wrote her what drove my decision:

· That our purpose in being was to block a North Vietnamese invasion during the Tet holiday.

· That if we succeeded, the port city of Danang and its population would be secure, everyone would get home safely (and without federal convictions), and the world would be somehow safer for democracy.

· That underlying my decision were values that I held and that I believed were core values of the Marine Corps as a whole.

Weeks later, I received a letter from the mother. "I understand now," she wrote (her son had written in the meantime, I'm sure) and concluded: "God bless you, and take care of our sons."

While the actual correspondence is lost in the mists of memory and mildew, the difficulty of answering that letter, and the mother's response, has stuck with me over the years.

A few months later, it was clear to most of us that the American phase of the Vietnam War was winding down. However, there was still a push for veterans to volunteer to extend their 12-month tour. One of my Marines came to me when we were in our staging base just south of the Rockpile, a huge mass of rock that reared up into the blue Vietnamese sky, and said that he wanted to extend. I dutifully took that information to our new company commander, who looked up from the papers he was reading as he sat on his cot, and said, "Tell him his request will be denied."

When it was clear to the C.O. that I wanted to understand why, he told me in words I thought were profound. "This war has split our country," he said. "It is important that it preserve the values that will sustain it. Others have avoided their duty to serve, for whatever reasons. They've stayed home. They've gotten jobs; they've married and are raising families-and passing on their values. This Marine has done his duty. He needs to get home, get a job, and marry, raise a family and pass on what he has learned and his values-values that include service when his country calls."

Fast forward many years later, January 1991: the Gulf War. A young Marine on my staff came to me. He was a trained Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) crewman. LAVs are all-terrain vehicles that conduct armed reconnaissance ahead of maneuvering ground forces, but he was somehow serving on my logistics planning staff through the miracle of the Marine Corps personnel assignment process. He was troubled because he was married, and though he was pretty sure he would be safer on the general staff than he would be up front, he felt that he should be with the Marines he trained with. "What should I do?" he asked.

We spoke quietly for a bit, and then I simply told him that he should be who he is: who his wife thought he was when she married him. I told him that I would support his request for transfer back to the division if he wanted to go back to his unit. In the event, he chose to go forward.

Months passed, and as we advanced deeper in the desert to enter Kuwait, the first major casualty we suffered was the loss of an LAV and its full crew from friendly fire. (An Air Force A-10 Warthog fired on it and all on board were killed.) It wasn't his LAV, as it turned out, but I didn't know that for a day or so.

So, who made the responsible choices in these situations? Should I have court-martialed one or both of the Marines who committed serious offenses? Should the Vietnam Veteran been allowed to extend? Did I make a responsible choice by giving the LAV crewman the option to choose following the question I asked? Or did he, in making his choice?

Dynamic responsibility is the world of the military or business leader where the right answer is never self-evident, but the consequences may be immense. It is the world of the entrepreneur, who doesn't settle for the security of a paycheck, but who chooses to serve his or her clients and be compensated only if he or she succeeds in doing so to their satisfaction. These are the people others look to for their wealth and welfare—and the welfare of their families. And yes, for the security of the nation. Moreover, Cadets, you will never be more alive, never more focused on the moment while maintaining a sense of where you fit, than when you are responsible for the lives of others.

In sum, whatever one may believe follows our days on this "mortal coil," life and living is not a dress rehearsal. I believe we have the responsibility to be the most that we can be and to leave the world a better place for our having been here.

So where does this responsibility spring from? I think we are born with it; I think it is passed on naturally. It is just that we so often take life for granted that we sometimes lose that sense of responsibility along the way.

For me, proving this proposition is as simple as pointing to the sense of loss we feel when a young man or woman dies. As you walk along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and see the names engraved there—eight of whom were under my command when they died as well as one of my commanding officers—what do we regret? We don't regret the amount time they could have spent as couch potatoes watching sitcoms. We don't regret the amount of time they could have spent lost in a fog of alcohol or drugs that limits their capacity for good judgment. We do regret the loss of life for the potential that each life has for doing something wonderful! For being creative! For passing on what they might have learned in life and living!

And Cadets, remember this as well, lives can also be lost—chipped away—in countless small ways:

· First and foremost, by people thinking small, by being unable or unwilling to see the world as a whole,

· By people being unable or unwilling to exercise good judgment, quality judgment, especially where it affects others,

· By people not having a strong sense of what a quality judgment is, so that we are content to follow the crowds, or to accept mere opinion as something we should rely on,

· By people being unable or unwilling to communicate with others in their lives what they know and what they have learned, and

· By people being unable or unwilling to cooperate with others having shared purposes, whether it is family, friends, work, or community.

In sum, much of life is static responsibility. Honor your promises; meet others' legitimate expectations. But most of all, it is a wonderful world. Keep it wonderful for everyone. Take on dynamic responsibility for the quality of your lives and this world of which we are but a part. Explore it, embrace it, and strive to leave it a better place for your having passed through. Above all else, pass on what you think you've learned as you go along.

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