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War, Leadership, and a Moral Life--John Graham speaks at the Naval Academy

At Annapolis all 4,500 midshipmen roared to their feet in response to this address by Giraffe Project President John Graham, as had the warriors-to-be at the Air Force Academy earlier that year. There is hope.

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Closing Keynote, National Conference on Character and Leadership – U.S. Air Force Academy

Forrestal Lecture, U.S. Naval Academy

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Thirty-four years ago I went to Vietnam for the fun of it.

I was a 28-year-old civilian Foreign Service officer. I was also an adrenaline junkie whose whole life up to then had been one risky adventure after the other. I'd shipped out on a freighter when I was 17, climbed the north wall of Mt. McKinley at 20 and hitchhiked around the world at 22. In the Foreign Service, I'd been in Libya when Qadhaafi seized power in 1969,and for a year dealt with nervous rebels and screaming mobs.

After Libya, I wanted a real war, so I asked the State Department to send me to Vietnam, and to give me the hardest, most dangerous job they had. They obliged, posting me as advisor to Hué, a key city just 50 miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) which then separated North from South Vietnam. Hué had been overrun in the Tet Offensive of 1968, and 3,000 civilians had been massacred by the North Vietnamese Army before the NVA had been beaten back by US Marines. Hué had remained in the NVA's crosshairs ever since.

In Vietnam, I was part of the "pacification program" called CORDS-Civil Operations Rural Development Support. CORDS had a joint military/civilian structure, and did everything from build fish ponds and schools to conduct brutal counter-intelligence operations.

You know that Vietnam fell in 1975. What you may not know is that Vietnam almost fell three years earlier. In the spring of 1972, the NVA had attacked across the DMZ, this time with no US Marines to stop them. The US 101st Airborne Division, stationed near Hué, had already stood down and was heading home, as were the military members of CORDS. The only thing between Hué and the NVA were two South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) divisions-which promptly broke and fell back toward the city.

By April 2, the NVA had pushed to within six miles of the city on the north and ten miles on the west. To the east was the South China Sea. To the south was the road to Danang, now choked by hundreds of thousands of frightened people who remembered the massacres of four years before. Worse, panic-stricken refugees had mobbed the port, blocking the flow of ammunition north and creating a huge security threat.

The city government had collapsed, with most key officials joining the headlong flight to Danang. Another 250,000 refugees were pouring into the city from the north, overwhelming the available capacity for food and shelter. Looters had burned the market place, and a pall of greasy black smoke hung over the city, which reverberated with the crash of bombs and artillery, the screams of people and the shattering of glass.

I was one of four CORDS civilians in the city that day. We knew our lives depended on the course of the battle. South Vietnamese would mob any helicopters sent to rescue us. We'd have to shoot them off the skids, and they'd be shooting back.

So we risked our lives, moving around the panicked, desperate city, grabbing any city officials who had not yet fled and organizing them into a martial-law government. As far as we knew, we had only hours to re-establish law and order in the city and create a stable base area that could support the ARVN troops fighting to the north. I remember pulling the engineer for the city water plant out from under his bed. All day, we were ready targets for anyone who might kill us for our jeeps. US Navy F-4s on strafing runs flew so low over my head that I could almost read the names on the cockpits. Every ten minutes of so, the earth would shake as B-52s dropped their bombs on the advancing NVA troops. A line of American warships just offshore sent shells crashing into the enemy lines.

One key objective was to stop the looters, most of them deserters from the ARVN. I went to the deputy mayor and slammed my fist down on his desk, demanding he set up a firing squad and start shooting them. I had no idea if doing that would help quell the violence, but I didn't know what else to do.

Finally, when we'd rounded up enough people to restart a government, I went back to CORDS headquarters, exhausted. And I sat in the dark, thinking. My sidearm pinched me in the chair so I took the .45 out of its holster and laid it on the desktop. The perimeter lights glinted off the black steel. Outside, the artillery and bombs crashed and boomed. I was thinking not about the government I'd helped create, but about that firing squad I'd demanded. I knew the ARVN deserters were almost certainly farm boys conscripted off the rice paddies a month or even a week before, boys who were scared out of their wits.

There were lessons of character and of leadership that day in 1972. In setting up the martial-law government, the four CORDS Americans showed what you and I might agree were some basic qualities of good character-we were tough, brave, decisive, persevering, accountable... If you've seen the movie, A Few Good Men, you saw these qualities in Col. Jessep, the spit-and-polish Marine commander of the Guantanamo base.

It's no secret that these basic qualities of character support good leadership. In Hué, in a dangerous, chaotic situation, they gave both direction and hope to the South Vietnamese and moved them to respect the CORDS Americans, to trust our leadership, and to follow us.

And it worked. The martial-law government we set up stabilized the city and, thanks to American air and naval power, the NVA were beaten back from the gates the next day.

My personal case is harder to talk about, although I've thought about it for 34 years. It was a failure of character, and of leadership.

As I said, I had no idea if setting up that firing squad would work. I knew the looters were frightened conscripts. I also knew that no one had ordered me to go to Vietnam and that, in any case, I didn't believe in America's war aims there. I knew the war was a lost cause from the day I'd arrived. The key thing was-I knew all this and I didn't care.

I was in Vietnam only for the adventure. It was the only war America had and I had to be part of it. I was also there to get my ticket punched. After doing a great job during the revolution in Libya, another good tour under fire would rocket me further up the promotion ladder. Vietnam was a game for me and those farm boys were just pieces on the board.

The question wasn't whether setting up that firing squad was militarily a smart thing to do or not. The question was, why was I treating this life-and-death responsibility so lightly? How had I allowed my life to become so shallow and so irresponsible that I saw playing with people's lives as a game? Something was missing-some crucial element of character. What was missing for me in 1972 was a moral context for my actions and my life.

What do I mean by moral context? For starters, I mean a positive overarching view of myself and of my role in the world that would have provided a more reliable guide for my actions than my own ego. I realized that night that I had no such view of my life. My context was that of a self-absorbed adventurer, a hot-shot Foreign Service Officer heading for the top. Beyond that, I didn't know who I was. I felt a profound emptiness. And I realized that those farm boys could be dying because of my emptiness. It was the worst night of my life.

As to my leadership-if anyone that night had known the shallowness of my motives, would they still have trusted me? Would they have followed me? If you'd been there, would you?

A moral context-what I lacked that night-is a private thing, not something you can get out of a book. Not something somebody else can give to you or enforce on you. You have to develop it on your own. It's looking up at a starry sky or taking a quiet walk in the woods and understanding that you're part of a much larger reality than just you, and that you have a positive role to play in that reality which, when you find it, guides your life.

A moral context-you know it when you see it in others, although you may call it by different names. I found it in South Africa in a man named Robert Sobukwe.

Eight years after that awful night in Vietnam, I was transferred to the US Mission to the United Nations, as an assistant to Ambassador Andrew Young. In that job, I traveled often to Africa. On one trip to South Africa I went to see Sobukwe, who'd been a partner with Nelson Mandela in the fight against apartheid. The two of them had been arrested and sent to Robben Island prison, presumably for life. In prison, Sobukwe had contracted TB, and was released under house arrest and sent off to die in Kimberly, a mining town in the Transvaal.

A pair of South African plainclothes policemen lounged in chairs across the street from Sobukwe's house. When he opened the door, I could smell death. His body was emaciated, with his skin stretched tight and shiny across his cheekbones. But his handshake was firm. He invited me in and made tea. Then we sat down to talk. Under the terms of his arrest, we had to sit in his front window so the cops outside could see us.

Of course, being a diplomat, I wanted to talk politics. Sobukwe dismissed that with a wave of his hand. Apartheid will end, he said. The real problem is what happens then. "As South Africans, black and white," he said, "we need to find reconciliation. We need to forgive each other." That said by a man who'd been killed by the apartheid regime.

Sobukwe had all the same basic qualities of character as Col. Jessep. He was brave, decisive, persevering, accountable... He was also tough. He was the toughest man I ever met-and I've worked for both Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld.

Like Col. Jessep, he also operated within a context bigger than he was. Jessep's context was "God, Country, Corps." That context carried him to a certain point as an officer and as a human being. Then it let him down. What was missing was heart, was compassion. His uniform had become a strait jacket. He'd lost the ability to think and feel beyond the rigid rules that controlled him. These failures destroyed him and his command. When finally challenged on them, he came apart.

Robert Sobukwe's context was quite different. It had heart. It was focused on service, on bettering the lives of people and ending a huge injustice. His context gave him an emotional independence, a trustworthiness, a calm inner strength, a completeness that Col. Jessep lacked.

Sobukwe could also focus beyond his job description; his service, his heart, was directed not just toward black Africans but to whites too. Robert Sobukwe knew who he was-he was at home in his own skin. All this gave the context under which he operated a moral dimension.

This context, this moral context, which enveloped Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela, made them great leaders. The two of them were models, leading others to see that what was needed in South Africa was not just transferring political power but building peace in the hearts of all South Africans, white and black-and that meant forgiveness, each of the other. The goal had to transcend even the end of apartheid. It had to aim for the reconciliation of the entire country.

What a huge, bold impossible vision, from a man dying under guard in a country completely gripped by apartheid! But it happened. They made it happen. That broad and deep moral context gave Mandela, Sobukwe and others the courage, insight and compassion to challenge the odds and to get others to follow their lead. It made them incredibly compelling and charismatic. People trusted them, even, eventually, many whites.

My organization, the Giraffe Heroes Project, honors people who stick their necks out for the common good and gets their stories told through the media and in the nation's schools, creating role models for others. Many of these "Giraffes" are good examples of a moral context.

One of them is a man named Casey Ruud. Ruud was hired as a plant safety inspector at the Hanford nuclear installation in Washington State. The problem was, the company that hired him really didn't want him to inspect anything. They wanted him to look the other way at flagrant abuses. Ruud found 55-gallon drums leaking plutonium. He found tanks that were leaching radioactive waste into the groundwater and threatening the Columbia River. When he reported these safety violations, he was told to shut up. Ruud didn't shut up. He carried his reports to the US Congress. Of course he was fired. But then he was hired by the EPA as a federal inspector on the same site. The plant managers were fired and the dangers addressed.

Ruud was tough, brave, decisive, persevering, accountable... But he was something more. Like Sobukwe, he had heart, his life was anchored in service, and his reach was not limited by his job description. Ruud would go anywhere and risk anything to stop plutonium poisoning of the water supply. Like Sobukwe, his moral context gave him the motivation to take on very tough tasks. And it helped him inspire many other concerned citizens, who followed his lead.

I slowly began to figure all this out for myself. I told you that, in the late 1970's-eight years after my low point in Vietnam-my career took me to the US Mission to the United Nations. Part of my job there was overseeing the arms embargo on South Africa. It had been imposed because guns sold to the South African government in those years could be used to enforce apartheid. But the embargo leaked like a sieve. There were huge amounts of money involved in the arms trade, and the arms dealers had their friends in parliaments in Europe and in our own Congress.

I ignored my instructions to go easy with those flaunting the embargo and instead worked secretly for months to tighten it. I did that by helping Third World countries increase their pressure against my own government, both Congress and the Executive Branch. Once, for example, our Secretary of State received a strong message from an African Foreign Minister that I had helped draft two weeks before. It worked. A tougher embargo was enforced, and that helped end apartheid. At any time in this sub rosa process I could have been fired-and almost was.

Why did I do this? Why did I take these risks? I did it because, a few days after meeting Robert Sobukwe, I spent a day that started in the squalor and oppression of the black township of Soweto. I felt the hate-filled eyes of young black men boring into the back of my head. The day ended with a diplomatic cocktail party in Johannesburg's fanciest white suburb, in a mansion surrounded by iron fences and guard dogs.

Apartheid stank. From that day on, helping end apartheid meant something to me at some deep place in my soul. I took these risks to serve a cause I believed in. In the end, the motivation was so strong I couldn't not do what I did.

That action helped set the direction for the rest of my life. The experience was like learning to swim. I couldn't forget what it felt like or how to do it. I couldn't forget the sense of joy and fulfillment of making a difference like that. I'd found the moral context for my life, and, like Sobukwe and Ruud, I'd found it in service, in bettering the lives of others, in helping solve a significant public problem.

But-didn't I break orders? What kind of moral context is that? First, no, I didn't break orders. America's official policy was strong opposition to apartheid but, because of the money involved and the power of a small group of people in Congress, it was a policy often ignored. I simply called my own government to account. I upheld American policy when my superiors and Congress would not.

Second, even if I had broken orders, I had a moral obligation to do so. The Nuremberg defense has never been accepted in law. As the noncoms convicted of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib have learned, it is not enough to say, "I was following orders." I challenged my own government because I had a moral context, not because I lacked one. An important part of a moral context, in or out of uniform, is the capacity for making independent moral judgments.

How do you develop a moral context? I have my own story. I can tell you what I learned in those eight years between Vietnam and the UN. There are three elements:

First, clear the clutter. In my case, I had to find out who I really was behind a fog of testosterone and adrenaline.

Second, develop a spiritual life. I'm not talking about religion. I'm talking about a spiritual life. While looking up at that starry sky or taking that quiet walk in the woods, listen to what the prophets call the "still small voice within." Where do you fit in with these larger realities? Find a relationship with the universe that you're comfortable with in that deepest part of you.

What about God? I think you can develop a moral context for your life without God, but I think it's harder to do that way. But the God that will help you develop a moral context is not a God you accept without question from others. It's a God you discover yourself, in the privacy of your own soul. That God may be the same God as the one you grew up with and it may not.

Third-with a cleaner deck and a spiritual life-ask: What do I care about? What ideals am I willing to commit to? How can I serve? I believe that every one of us has and will have unique opportunities to make a difference, if only in small and quiet ways. A successful life is about spotting those opportunities and acting on them. The only mistake you can make is to ignore the quest, to settle for an ordinary life, to just look out for Number One, to grow up and live and die without every having made a difference.

I'm not talking about becoming Mother Theresa. I'm not talking about whether or not you get into heaven-that's your business. I'm talking about creating an operational framework that will help you create successful careers and successful lives, a framework rooted in service, in helping solve tough public problems, in bettering the lives of others.

Is that so strange? Why do those of you in uniform say you belong to a "service?" Why is a career in government called "public service?" What were our ancestors thinking of when these used that word? Maybe we've lost sight of something.

Moral context has everything to do with good leadership. If all you've got to move people to follow you is a title on the door or a rank on your shoulders then you will never lead very much, very well or very far. The people you want to follow you must see not just that you are tough and brave and competent. They must see that you care about them and their needs, and that you are following a pole star brighter than your own ego. They need to see a moral context.

It's not easy or risk-free to develop a moral context. It takes time, reflection and hard work. It's worth it. I told you that it turned my life around. It also didn't hurt my career. I became the youngest full colonel equivalent in the Foreign Service. I quit only because I was by then marching to a different drum.

Since then I've been broke, shouted at, sued and ridiculed. I've also, through the Giraffe Project, helped create hundreds of models moving others into service, and schools programs that help young people build lives of courage and compassion. Through books and speeches, I've helped others make a difference on serious problems all over the world. I've helped settle a major strike in Canada, bring warring parties together in the Sudan and resolve some big environmental battles in the Pacific Northwest, where I live. I'm not here to blow my horn, but I want you to know that this man here, this flawed man, is changing the world with his life. I work very hard and there are trials, but there's also an energy, a passion, a deep satisfaction of being in the right place at the right time. I wouldn't give up this life for anything.

Not long ago I went back for a reunion at my high school in Tacoma, Washington. Nearly all my classmates were leading comfortable lives in business or the professions. They worried about the stock market and college tuitions for their kids. To be honest, I was bored to death. Except for one man. His name was Tom Noble. He'd been the class dunce, the butt of our jokes. He'd also for 30 years been directing a social service agency in the worst area of Tacoma and he'd just started a controversial needle exchange program. He was fascinating. He spoke with the charisma and energy and peace of mind of a person who had truly found his calling and answered it with everything he had.

The poet Mary Oliver asks this question, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" This is the most important question any of us will ever ask ourselves. "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

I say-challenge yourself to develop a moral context as a vital part of your character and of your life. Challenge yourself to act, not just with courage but with compassion, to be of service, to let your life be and become as meaningful as it is meant to be.

All content © 2015 John A. Graham. All rights reserved.