Memo 02.26.2021 4 minutes

Stand for Our Virtues

U. S. Marines conduct training near At-Tanf Garrison

An address delivered February 10, 2021.

Editors’ Note

The following is a speech delivered by G. David Bednar,  a private investor and former Marine Infantry Officer, to a group of retired and active duty Marines in the New York area. We present Bednar’s words here as a reminder that, in his memorable phrasing, “the brave, independent mind is essential to organizations of all sizes.”

Thirty years ago, I sat in your seat. Since, I have done many different things, including earning two degrees from Harvard and working at prestigious banks on Wall Street. But I value nothing more than being a Marine. No amount of money provided the joy of leading Echo 2/7 to the top of Lost Cannon Peak at Bridgeport; nothing was as momentous as speeding through the burning oil fields for Kuwait City; no pride compares to looking at the Iwo Jima Memorial and knowing you own a tiny piece of it. 

When a Harvard graduate is convicted of insider trading, it’s just news. When a Marine dishonors the Corps, its personal—like family. For decades I have known a former 0341 (Marine mortar man) who has been an LA Country Sheriff’s Deputy for 25 years. He is a very hard man. The first time I saw him betray emotion was when he shared his son’s graduation photo from Recruit Depot San Diego. Two of my sons are Marine Option ROTC. I sent them his picture with advice they have heard before: Marine Corps leadership is the greatest responsibility before it is the greatest honor. Lives are at stake, as are other things just as important.

At firms like Goldman Sachs I worked with smart, competitive people. They are experts at identifying possessions of value and driven in their pursuit. But when conversation there turned to my time as a Marine, I often noted something like regret, perhaps even jealousy. These masters of attainment sensed something even greater in the title of Marine.

Why do these people, and our society, look up to the Marine Corps? The answer is simple: because of its values. Through two and a half thousand years of recorded history the greatest glory a man could achieve was on the battlefield. The Spartan Hoplite, the bowman at Agincourt, and the Marine at Belleau Wood were esteemed for the same reason. Back home, theirs was the seat of honor. Today, our society celebrates nothing more than tolerance; it cultivates relativism, even cynicism. But these are “negative” virtues; they don’t require or celebrate admirable action as much as they mandate doing or believing nothing at all. They are hollow, lacking nourishment for the human spirit. No amount of indoctrination can change man’s soul: what it is, what it needs. 

The Marine Corps celebrates very different virtues. Honor, excellence, accountability, integrity, commitment, discipline, respect for tradition, and courage, the king of virtues. Some call these values “old”; the wise call them “proven.” A man named Oliver Wendell Holmes gave the Soldier’s Faith Speech in 1895. He was an extraordinary man, a Supreme Court Justice and veteran of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry in the Civil War. This unit took some of the highest casualties in a war of unusual carnage. Wounded three separate times, he lost many friends. Despite his hardships, he spoke of a need in mankind: “The man of the future may want something different,” he said. “But who of us could endure a world, although cut up into five acre lots, and having no man upon it who was not well fed and well housed, without the divine folly of honor?”

Our society flees discomfort, to say nothing of danger. As you know, the Marine Corps specializes in discomfort! It runs to danger! We hear calls to ban football in our country because it’s too dangerous. Here is another observation from my life: the activities from which I derived the most satisfaction—football, mountain climbing, and being a Marine—all required strapping on a helmet. Two hundred years ago a very wise man named Goethe said, “the dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” America is forgetting a human truth that the Corps has not: the greatest things are always the hardest things. 

Institutions across America are buckling. Many in leadership positions in business, education, and government act on coercion and fear, not on what they believe. This is a warning to the Corps. Our inheritance is not guaranteed and must be earned every day. The brave, independent mind is essential to organizations of all sizes. In a world of crumbling standards, appreciate the blessing of membership in an enterprise unwilling to betray itself in forced compromise. 

The essence of leadership is seeking and achieving what is thought impossible. At some point, every Marine is assured this experience. It tempers us like a sword, making us stronger. How many of our countrymen have missed the benefit of this hard but invaluable lesson? When the Corps faced extinction, the commandant refused to plead: the value of the Corps spoke for itself. “The bended knee,” General Vandergrift said, “is not a tradition of our Corps.” 

The USMC has been defending America for 245 years. The nation has never needed us more. Our marksmanship and tactics, yes, but even more our values. Marines don’t BS each other. Many of us have faced a choice between what we are allowed to say and what we really believe. I have never seen so much fear in the home of the brave. This is a threat to the freedom that is the soul of America. 

As Americans, it is our right to speak the truth. As Marines, it is our obligation. The USMC is one of the most diverse organizations in the world. We were leaders in breaking down racial and ethnic barriers. As in the teams I played on in high school and college, ethnicity is totally irrelevant to what matters: winning. The Corps does not divide based on immutable superficialities of skin color; we unify in a shared mission. Marines are shades of one color: green. When I see a Marine, I see a sister or brother. Racial division, like a virus, dooms teams, units, and nations. Marine Corps values are its antibodies. 

Everyone here raised their hand to stand at the front of a line 330 million people long, to be the “tip of the spear” for our country. If you don’t believe in America, you are in the wrong place. But I am here to assure you that you are in the right place. I have been a citizen and student of our nation for 55 years. I have traveled and lived around the world. Like the Marine Corps, America sets for itself the highest bar. 

Our nation has often fallen short. But America has never stopped fighting to improve and uphold the highest ideals; we are a noble work in progress among nations. The more I know our country, understand its place in the world, its striving, its failings and glories, the more I know America is the greatest modern political achievement on earth. She is worthy, if anything is worthy, of the sacrifice asked of Marines.

The Marine Corps is a fighting force, but even more a fighting spirit. We have jets and artillery, but our values are our greatest weapons. We don’t just have a history: we stand watch as guardians of an unmatched tradition. These things make us Marines. Without them the title is just another word and the dress blues are just another uniform. Be courageous. Speak the truth even if you are the only one who will. Preserve, nurture and spread our virtues in a land where they are scarce. America needs leadership, and that means it needs Marines.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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