What is good judgment? Where does it come from? How do we teach it – so that America in 500 years is still the “shining city on the hill,” rich with understanding, animated by ideals, filled people of courage, and a beacon for humanity? Maybe a Vietnam veteran named Bill … offers a way forward.
I hear the critics: America is filled with people who err, like all the world. Americans are flawed, our history marked by backsteps, even if risk and reward, sacrifice and loss, hope, and action define us.
Critics overlook America’s profound role in human history and our belief that one individual – with courage, confidence, and self-reliance – can make all the difference. We are a combination of hard-fought victories and the courage to keep trying. That is what makes us different – our legacy of resolve, resilience, and unfailing faith in the possible.
Critics ignore America’s role in human development, beginning with our Constitution – which puts trust in the People. It is the global model, adopted by hundreds of nations, our Bill of Rights translated into 51 languages.
Critics forget America represents the vanguard of human advancement in science and technology, medicine to moon missions. America is defender of freedom – for freedom’s sake. Four million mobilized to save Europe in World War I, 16 million in World War II. At home, we defend the individual’s right to risk, fail, and recover, to think, speak, worship, and defend the right.
But good judgment does not come from government, or even conditions permitting its development. Good judgment comes from a more personal place. It comes from deep learning – and teaching. If we lose that, we lose it all.
Good judgment comes from learning how to make tough decisions – sometimes fast. It comes from caring until caring happens without thought. It comes from selflessness, the ability to see one’s life through the eyes of others. It comes from stopping the madness, listening to conscience, steering into hard decisions – and acting. That is the crucible, the place where good judgment is forged.
Bill is a friend, a Vietnam veteran. He is a man of faith, father of five, onetime Eagle Scout, like son and grandson, achievements he treasures. We worked together in Baghdad, but Bill’s crucible was elsewhere.
On February 18, 1968, Bill was leading a platoon in Vietnam, two tanks, four Armed Personnel Carriers (APCs) headed from Lakhe to Phu Loi – when the platoon was ambushed. He knew the minute they rolled into an empty village, roadblock across Route 13, northeast corner of “the Iron Triangle.”
What would wash over him during an 8-hour battle – as the platoon held off 500 heavily-armed, dug-in North Vietnamese – was that the ambush was not intended for him. It was meant for a 300-vehicle American convoy carrying vital helo gas and artillery ammunition. Bill just got there first.
With no air cover, he ordered his men to “fire for effect” when fired on, then spun his two tanks, four APCs, and heavy trucks into a herringbone formation to face the enemy. They were soon engaged. While Bill’s courage in Vietnam later earned Silver and Bronze Stars, this day was his crucible – and it had nothing to do with stars.
In the heat of battle, face-to-face with enemy fire at 100 feet, five silhouettes emerged from the yellow dust. Bill’s 50-cal gunner turned to take them out, noise deafening. Half a dozen RPGs had passed within feet of Bill, one going through the empty 50-cal canister on which he sat.
Nothing was clear. Not fog of war, just intense battle. On impulse, Bill ordered the gunner not to fire. His gunner could not hear him. Bill grabbed a helmet and hit him, accidentally knocked him out. The five might be guerrilla VC – four women and a man, pole with big baskets across the man’s shoulders.
Bill made a sudden decision, ordering his driver “go.” They got to within yards of the enemy, spun the APC, combat drop of back ramp, and Bill jumped eight feet, no weapon, his gunner out – and pulled the five inside. Then they turned, APC retreated. It was a gutsy – arguably insane – act.
Why did you do it? “Just had a feeling they were civilians, had to protect them … I knew if my machine gunner wanted to shoot them, they would never get through other gunners … I had to get me out there, so my men would not fire…” Bill goes quiet.
“Foremost, in my mind was, no way I am going to let these innocents die.” I just listened. Here was the conscience of a good man in crisis, resolved to act, when everything else said that was insane.
“We got them inside … and I turned, asked what the hell was so damned important in those baskets? They were heavy, you know, had lids. They opened them, and in each was a little boy.” Bill does not get weepy, just says it.
Bill says it was “just basic human decency.” He admits war is about killing, and he did his share. “I just could not have my guys killing these people … these innocents.” That was five hours into the battle. What went through his mind? “My only thought was my guys are not killing these people …” What about risk? “I have my religion; I am not worried about death, never have been.”
Bill surprises. “I have relived that day … for years. The basic humanity of it was we thought we were the only humans out there. It took me years … to realize when we dropped that APC ramp, we were facing straight into them, they could see right in, knew I was unarmed, gunner down. They could see what we were doing … and they did not fire on us.”
He is quiet. “You know, it happened so fast, it could not have been an order to them … each must have known this was a human act, and … not to kill me.” Bill is a highly decorated veteran. He later volunteered for a second tour with the 101st Airborne, “just to keep as many alive as I could.” Once home, he raised a family of five, went to work for the State Department.
A man of convictions, humble, Bill still puts stock in humanity – in the goodness of humanity. He is a realist and an optimist, unabashed believer in America and our ideals. Knowing him 17 years, this is the first time I got the story out of him.
Bill is what faith, love, and patriotism really look like – and good judgment. How do we teach such things? How do we preserve the uniqueness of America into the future? The task is hard, like learning good judgment. But perhaps we start by thinking about people like Bill. For me I will never forget him. He is why optimism in America’s future is so warranted, along with pride in our past. God bless America.