In 1972, I was flying a helicopter just south of the DMZ (the demilitarized zone), a line that separated North and South Vietnam. On that mission, my aircraft was not configured as a gunship.
Instead, my assignment that day was not to fight, but to observe the battle below and report what I saw. Unfortunately, what I saw was tragic. The North Vietnamese kicked our butts. Not only did we lose a number of aircraft, but many men lost their lives.
Tough Questions Unanswered
Back in the pilots' ready-room aboard an aircraft carrier, the debriefing began. Most of us were shaken and our spirits were low. Seeing fellow pilots shot down and men dying leave memories that can never be forgotten.
Once the debriefing was over, my commanding officer asked if there were any questions. Raising my hand, I asked, "Sir, why do their Vietnamese fight harder than our Vietnamese?"
Without waiting for his reply, I continued, "We have the most powerful military on earth. We have B-52 bombers pounding the enemy with 1,000-pound bombs. We have fighter jets dropping napalm on them. We have tanks. We have Navy battleships with 16-inch guns pounding them. We have squadrons of Army and Marine Corps helicopters armed with rockets and machine guns providing close air support. The North Vietnamese don't have much, and yet they keep coming and keep fighting."
There was a long silence in the room. I suspect some of my fellow pilots had similar thoughts. Being Marine helicopter pilots, we had a bird's eye view of the war that few others had.
"We're the richest nation on earth," I continued, "North Vietnam is one of the poorest. We give the South Vietnamese the best military support in the world, yet they're losing."
The silence continued. My original question -- "Why do their Vietnamese fight harder than our Vietnamese?" -- was never answered.
Fighting Not to Lose
Back in 1972, we all knew the Vietnam War was over. We knew the U.S. was looking for a way out. We were no longer fighting to win -- we were fighting not to lose. That made it made it almost impossible to keep fighting.
You may notice similarities with what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan today. There are three lessons from 1972 I believe are relevant to the world today. They are:
How powerful the human spirit is.
Flying over the North Vietnamese in 1972, I was stunned at how fiercely they fought. We had all the modern weapons, but we couldn't beat them. Their spirit was unstoppable.
Today, when I hear fellow Americans complaining about their own lack of money, or how they can't afford to invest, or how middle-class America is having a tough time, I'm reminded of the North Vietnamese soldiers taking on the richest country in the world. If you've lost your spirit, even living in the richest country in the world can't help you become rich.
It's tough to negotiate from a position of weakness.
It was only after the U.S. recognized we had lost the Vietnam War that we agreed to sit down at the so-called "peace table." Today, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still rage, we're doing the exact same thing. In war or in business, it's disastrous to negotiate from a position of weakness.
Don't let someone else run your life.
During Vietnam, defense secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson called the shots from Washington rather than listening to the men on the front lines. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we have the same problem.
President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and former defense secretary Rumsfeld, all men without combat experience, are calling the shots from Washington. They're not listening to their generals with Vietnam experience, generals such as Colin Powell. It appears that our leaders place little or no value on experience.
The Spirit to Succeed
The same sort of misguided leadership occurs in the world of investing. Today, there are millions of workers who put trillions of dollars in the hands of mutual fund companies even though many of these companies have horrible track records.
Many fund managers can't even beat the S&P Index. Yet, in spite of their poor investment record, many of these managers are paid billions of dollars in bonuses -- bonuses paid for with the sweat and toil and hopes and dreams of workers.
Personally, I would rather manage my own money than let strangers control it and my future.
In 1972, I saw many young soldiers lose their lives due to incompetent leadership in Washington. Today, millions of workers' retirements are at risk due to incompetent leadership on Wall Street.
But I also witnessed the power of the human spirit while flying over Vietnam -- a spirit stronger than the mightiest military power in the world, and one that beat the richest country in the world.
Today, I see the same spirit in the world of global business. America is still the richest country in the world, but countries like China and India are coming on strong. It's estimated that China holds nearly a trillion dollars of America's debt, which is more than enough to destroy our economy.
Play to Win
Financially, there are three classes of people. The rich are those who play to win. The middle class plays not to lose.
For the middle class, financial security is more important than financial opportunity. Ironically, today there's far more financial opportunity than financial security, yet the middle class still seeks security.
The third group, of course, is the poor, who often work very hard yet have lost the spirit to compete in the world of money. Without spirit, it's tough to win financially, even in the richest country in the world.
I resigned from the Marine Corps and flying in 1974, even though I loved them both. I quit because I no longer wanted to fight for peace. Instead, I believe we can build a more sustainable peace by working for prosperity. Instead of playing games of winners and losers militarily, why not work for solutions in which all sides win financially? After all, in business, it makes no sense to kill your customers.
In closing, I believe that as the scarcity of oil increases, so will the fighting. To me, scarcity in a world of abundance means opportunities for solutions. As the saying goes, "An eye for an eye makes us all blind." Instead, I ask we work for peace and prosperity -- for all sides.