As big a business killer as the lack of doctrine, or the lack of sales, or the lack of capital is the leader's lack of moral courage. Former Vice-Chairman of MBNA Bank and the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps, Charles C. Krulak presented the following remarks for Pepperdine University Convocation Series on 14 October 1998.
I am happy to be here this morning--to have an opportunity to talk to the leaders and thinkers of tomorrow and, more importantly, the day after tomorrow.
I considered a few different topics to talk to you about this morning: The importance of my Christian faith in guiding my personal and professional life, the Marine Corps' intensive efforts to develop values in our newest Marines, or even my thoughts about our Nation's role in humanitarian missions around the globe...I will do that if you would like-but during the Q&As.
There is another topic that I would like to talk about today--one that is critical to each of us, our nation, and our world-as we move toward the 21st Century ... A topic that rarely gets talked about in forums such as this, which makes it all the more important to discuss. It serves as the foundation for all that we are, all that we do, and all that we will be ... I will talk about the importance of character.
I can tell you from personal experience that combat is the most traumatic human event. It strips away an individual's veneer, exposing their true character. If a character flaw exists, it will appear in combat--guaranteed.
This morning, I will tell the story of an American whose true character was tested and exposed in the crucible of war. I will then draw some conclusions that are applicable to how the rest of us should live our lives ... lives where combat will hopefully never play a role. He was a 19 year old Marine-about the same age as most of you in the audience this morning. His name was LCPL Grable. He was a man of courage ...a man of character ... and this is his story ... Vietnam ... It was 0600, the third of June, 1966. I was in command of "G" Company, Second Battalion, First Marine Regiment. I was a First Lieutenant at the time, and had been given this command because the previous commander had been killed about one week earlier. My Company had been given a simple mission that began with a helicopter assault. We would land in a series of dried-up rice paddies about 6 football fields in length, and three football fields in width. These paddies were surrounded by jungle-covered mountains, with a dry stream bed running along one side. We were supposed to land, put on our packs, and do what all Marines do: find the largest mountain, and climb to the top. There we would put ourselves in a defensive perimeter to act as the blocking force for an offensive sweep conducted by two battalions.
The helicopters landed, unloaded my company of Marines, and had just started to leave when the world collapsed. Automatic weapons, mortar fire, artillery--it was hell on earth. Fortunately, a good portion of my Company had managed to move into the dry stream bed where they were protected from most of the fire. However, one platoon had landed too far west to move immediately to the cover of the stream bed. As they tried to move in that direction, the fires on them became so heavy they had no alternative but to hit the deck. One particular squad found itself directly in the line of fire of a North Vietnamese 12.7mm heavy machine gun. In a matter of seconds, two Marines were killed and three were seriously wounded.
As I watched what was happening from my position in the stream bed, I knew that it was just a matter of time before that machine gun would systematically "take out" that whole platoon--squad by squad. If I didn't act immediately, they would be lost in just a matter of minutes. I made a call to the commander of the first platoon that had made its way into the stream bed, directing him to move up the stream bed so he could attack across the flank of the gun position--not having to assault it directly from the front. At the same time, I directed another platoon to provide suppressive fire that might diminish the volume of fire coming from the machine gun position. All this was happening in the midst of smoke, multiple explosions, heavy small arms fire, and people yelling to be heard over the din of battle.
Suddenly, my radio operator grabbed me by the sleeve and pointed toward the middle of the rice paddy where a black Marine--a Lance Corporal by the name of Grable--had gotten to his feet, placed his M-14 rifle on his hip, and charged the machine gun--firing as fast as he could possibly fire. He ran about 40 meters directly toward the machine gun and then cut to the side, much like a running back might do during a football game. Sure enough, the machine gun, which had been delivering heavy fire on his squad, picked up off of the squad and began firing at Grable. Seeing the fire shift away from them, the squad moved immediately to the cover of a small rice paddy dike--thick ground, about a foot high separating each paddy from the other. Both they, and the other two squads were able to drag their casualties and gear to the position of safety behind this dike.
Grable didn't look back. He didn't see what happened. He kept on fighting. He dodged back and forth across these paddies, firing continuously. He would run out of ammunition, reload on the run, and continue forward--dodging back and forth as he ran. BAM! Suddenly he was picked up like a dishrag and thrown backward--hit by at least one round.
The rest of the platoon charged. My radio operator grabbed me again, but saying nothing, he just pointed to the middle of the rice paddy. That young Marine--Lance Corporal Grable--had gotten to his feet. As he stood, he didn't put the rifle to his hip; he locked the weapon into his shoulder...took steady aim--good sight picture, good sight alignment--and walked straight down the line of fire into that machine gun.
About four minutes later, my command group and the rest of the unit finally arrived at the now-silent machine gun position. There were nine dead enemy soldiers around the gun... Lance Corporal Grable was draped over the gun itself. As only Marines can do, these battle-hardened young men tenderly picked up Grable and laid him on the ground. When they opened his "flak jacket" he had five massive wounds from that machine gun. FIVE...
About seven months later, I traveled back to Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington and watched the Commandant of the Marine Corps present Lance Corporal Grable's widow with the nation's second highest decoration for valor--the Navy Cross. In this woman's arms was the baby boy that Grable had only seen in a Polaroid picture.
Grable displayed great physical courage. Somewhere in his character was another kind of courage as well--moral courage--the courage to do the right thing. When he had the chance to do something else, he chose to do the right thing. His squad was in mortal danger. He had a choice to make, and he did what was right, at the cost of his life. Let me remind you, this was 1966. Grable was a black Marine from Tennessee, who couldn't even buy a hamburger at the McDonald's in his hometown.
Grable ... moral courage ... personal courage ... character ... So, what of your character? Who are you? No, not the way you look in the mirror or in photographs ... but who are you really? What do you stand for? What is the essence of your character? Where is your moral compass pointing? Which course do you follow?
Everyday we have to make decisions. It is through this decision-making process that we show those around us the quality of our character. The majority of the decisions we have to make are "no brainers." Deciding what we are going to have for breakfast is not going to test your character ... Judgment maybe, but not character. The true test of character comes when the stakes are high, when the chips are down, when your gut starts to turn, when the sweat starts to form on your brow, when you know the decision you are about to make may not be popular ... but it must be made. That's when your true character is exposed.
The associations you keep, the peers you choose, the mentors you seek, the organizations you affiliate with-all help to define your character. But in the end--you will be judged as an individual--not as part of a group.
Success in combat--and in life--has always demanded a depth of character. Those who can reach deep within themselves and draw upon an inner strength, fortified by strong values, always carry the day against those of lesser character. Moral cowards never win in war--moral cowards never win in life. They might believe that they are winning a few battles here and there, but their victories are never sweet, they never stand the test of time, and they never serve to inspire others. In fact, each and every one of a moral coward's "supposed victories" ultimately leads them to failure.
Those who have the courage to face up to ethical challenges in their daily lives will find that same courage can be drawn upon in times of great stress, in times of great controversy, in times of the never ending battle between good and evil ...
All around our society you see immoral behavior ... lying, cheating, stealing, drug and alcohol abuse, prejudice, and a lack of respect for human dignity and the law. In the not too distant future, each of you is going to be confronted with situations where you will have to deal straight-up with issues such as these. The question is, what will you do when you are? What action will you take? You will know what to do--the challenge is--will you DO what you know is right? It takes moral courage to hold your ideals above yourself. It is the DEFINING aspect ... When the test of your character and moral courage comes--regardless of the noise and confusion around you--there will be a moment of inner silence in which you must decide what to do. Your character will be defined by your decision ... and it is yours and yours alone to make. I am confident you will each make the right one. When that moment of silence comes and you are wrestling with your decision, consider this poem:
There is a great battle
that rages inside me.
One side is a soaring eagle
Everything the eagle stands for
is good and true and beautiful.
It soars above the clouds.
Even though it dips down into the valleys,
it lays its eggs on the mountain tops.
The other side of me is a howling wolf.
And that raging, howling wolf
represents the worst that is in me.
He eats upon my downfalls and
justifies himself by his presence
in the pack.
Who wins this great battle?...
The one I feed.
May God bless you and Semper Fidelis!
THE EAGLE AND THE WOLF