to the Corps of Cadets: Valley Forge Military Academy
& College 8 April 2001
Joy in Taking Responsibility
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.
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
all come from hearty stock. If you look around, hundreds
of peoplecadets, friends and familyhave 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 wisdombody, mind, and spiritthey
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 livingespecially my 30 years in the
United States Marine Corps.
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
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 unfortunatein my
viewbecause 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
itand responsible for it.
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.
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."
responsibility, then, is the world of duty, obligation,
and accountability: doing what you are told, doing what
you promised, doing what is expected.
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 livesfor themselves and those
around them. Something that goes "beyond" what was before,
so that the world is a better place for their having passed
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 collegefull-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.
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.
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 neededwhen
they needed it. All so that they could do their jobsdo
them welland return home to their loved ones.
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.
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.
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 woundedmyself included.
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.)
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?
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….
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
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
That underlying my decision were values
that I held and that I believed were core values of the
Marine Corps as a whole.
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
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.
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."
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."
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?"
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.
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.
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?
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
welfareand 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.
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
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.
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 thereeight of whom were under my
command when they died as well as one of my commanding officerswhat
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!
Cadets, remember this as well, lives can also be lostchipped
awayin 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
By people being unable or unwilling to cooperate with others
having shared purposes, whether it is family, friends, work,
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.