Be a man of principle. Keep your word. Live with integrity. Be brave. Believe in something bigger than yourself. . . . Teach. Mentor. Give something back to society. Be a good friend. Be humble and be self-confident. . . . Appreciate your friends and family. Become the greatest husband and father ever.
Reading these words without attribution, one might reasonably guess they were the writings of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor whose “Meditations” are included in any worthwhile collection of the great works of Western Civilization. But these are actually the words of a man of humbler—if no less noble—origin. Douglas Zembiec was a major in the U.S Marine Corps.
Like the emperor, he kept notebooks filled with thoughts that reflected his ambition to live a meaningful life. Among those many recorded aphorisms we should not be surprised to find such maxims as “Serve your country” and “Fight for what you believe in.” Such aspirations are common among those in service to their country. And ideas such as “Lead from the front,” and “Conquer your fears” are typical of young officers.
But it was on the battlefield Douglas Zembiec proved that he could wield the proverbial sword as well as the pen, that his notebooks were not mere philosophical musings, but a personal doctrine that guided his actions when faced with life-and-death decisions. With combat tours in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Zembiec became a respected leader of Marines.
But in 2004, while leading an assault in the Jolan district of Fallujah, then-Captain Zembiec cemented his reputation by standing on top of a tank to direct fire while insurgents rained rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire down from surrounding rooftops. Like Aurelius—who is known to history as one of “the good emperors” and was admiringly called “Philosopher King” by his contemporaries—Douglas Zembiec’s actions in Iraq earned him a title of his own, bestowed by those who had seen him in action. Zembiec became known as the “Lion of Fallujah,” a name derived from an interview in which he described—not himself—his men as having “fought like lions.” He also told reporters that “ten million insurgents won’t even begin to fill the boots of one of my men” and “there is no greater honor than to lead men into combat.”
And Zembiec continued to lead men in combat. But on his fourth tour in Iraq, while leading a force of Iraqis he had helped train, the lion was felled by small -arms fire in a Baghdad alley.
A 1995 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, his funeral service was conducted in the chapel, the same one where he had attended Mass as a midshipman and where he had wed his wife, Pamela, just two years before. A constellation of stars glittered in the pews as at least 15 generals came to pay their respects. But Zembiec would likely have been more impressed by others who had also come to pay tribute to a fallen warrior—many of his “lions” came, some from great distances. One, Sergeant Major William Skiles, who had served as Zembiec’s first sergeant, said “There is no one better to go to war with.” As one officer in attendance later commented, “your men have to follow your orders; they don’t have to go to your funeral.” Aurelius, who had written “men exist for the sake of one another,” would have smiled.