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Stand Up To The Bullies

If you want to change the world… don’t back down from the sharks.

The water off San Clemente Island was choppy and cold as we began our four-mile night swim. Ensign Marc Thomas was matching my sidestrokes one for one. With nothing but a loose-fitting wet suit top, a mask, and a pair of fins, we swam hard against the current that was pushing southward around the small peninsula. The lights of the naval base from which we had started began to fade as we made our way out into the open ocean. Within an hour we were about a mile off the beach and seemingly all alone in the water. Whatever swimmers were around us were cloaked in darkness. I could see Marc’s eyes through the glass in his face mask. His expression must have mirrored mine. We both knew that the waters off San Clemente were filled with sharks. Not just any sharks, but great white sharks, the largest, most aggressive man-eater in the ocean. Prior to our swim, the SEAL instructors had given us a briefing on all the potential threats we might encounter that night. There were leopard sharks, mako sharks, hammerhead sharks, thresher sharks, but the one we feared the most was the great white. There was something a little unnerving about being alone, at night, in the middle of the ocean, knowing that lurking beneath the surface was a prehistoric creature just waiting to bite you in half. But we both wanted to be SEALs so badly that nothing in the water that night was going to stop us. If we had to fight off the sharks, then we were both prepared to do so. Our goal, which we believed to be honorable and noble, gave us courage, and courage is a remarkable quality. Nothing and nobody can stand in your way. Without it, others will define your path forward. Without it, you are at the mercy of life’s temptations. Without courage, men will be ruled by tyrants and despots. Without courage, no great society can flourish. Without courage, the bullies of the world world rise up. With it, you can accomplish any goal. With it, you can defy and defeat evil. Saddam Hussein, the now former president of Iraq, sat on the edge of an old Army cot clad only in an orange jumpsuit. Having been captured by U.S. forces twenty-four hours earlier, he was now a prisoner of the United States. As I opened the door to allow the new Iraqi government leaders into the room, Saddam remained seated. A smirk crossed his face, and there was no sign of remorse or submission in his attitude. Immediately, the four Iraqi leaders began to yell at Saddam, but from a safe distance. With a look of contempt, Saddam gave them a deadly smile and motioned them to sit down. Still fearful of the former dictator, they each grabbed a folding chair and took their seats. The screaming and finger-pointing continued but slowly subsided as the former dictator began to talk. Under Saddam Hussein, the Baath Party was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Shia Iraqis and tens of thousands of Kurds. Saddam had personally executed a number of his own generals whom he felt were disloyal. Although I was positive Saddam would no longer be a threat to the other men in the room, the Iraqi readers were not so certain. The fear in their eyes was unmistakable. This man, the Butcher of Baghdad, had for decades terrorized an entire nation. His cult of personality had drawn to him to followers of the worst sort. His murderous thugs had brutalized the innocent and forced thousands to flee the country. No one in Iraq had mustered the courage to challenge the tyrant. There was no doubt in my mind that these new leaders were still terrified of what Saddam might be able to do–even from behind bars. If the purpose of the meeting was to show Saddam that he was no longer in power–it had failed. In those brief moments, Saddam had managed to intimidate and frighten the new regime leadership. He seemed more confident than ever. As the Iraqi leaders left, I instructed my guards to isolate the former president in a small room. There would be no visitors, and the guards in the room were ordered not to talk with Saddam. Over the next month, I visited the small room every day without speaking, I motioned him back to his cot. The message was clear. He was no longer important. He could no longer intimidate those around him. He could no longer instill fear into his subjects. Gone was the gleaming palace. Gone were the handmaidens, the servants, and the generals. Gone was the power. The arrogance and oppressiveness that had defined his rule had ended. Courageous young American soldiers had stood up to his tyranny, and now he was no longer a threat to anyone. Thirty days later, I transferred Saddam Hussein to a proper military police unit, and a year later the Iraqis hanged him for his crimes against the nation. Bullies are all the same; whether they are in the school yard, in the workplace, or ruling a country through terror. They thrive on fear and intimidation. Bullies gain their strength through the timid and faint of heart. They are like sharks that sense fear in the water. They will probe to see if their victim is weak. If you don’t find the courage to stand your ground, they will strike. In life, to achieve your goals, to complete the night swim, you will have to be men and women of great courage. That courage is within all of us. Dig deep, and you will find it in abundance.