September 22, 2014

Charlotte, North Carolina

Had to stop in and see Rye Barcott in Charlotte. Rye’s a former Marine Captain I’ve gotten to know the past few years–he and his friend, former combat surgeon, Dr. Dave Calloway are two of the most impressive young veterans I’ve met. Unfortunately, Dr. Dave was off in Jordan, helping to set up medical facilities in refugee camps, which is the sort of thing Dr. Dave does in his spare time–and so I asked Rye if he could put together a group of his friends to talk politics. “The only requirement,” I said, “is that they can’t all agree with each other.”

“No problem,” Rye replied…and he did put together a semi-rowdy group, some of them former military, most of them fledgling entrepreneurs, a couple were traditional liberals, a couple were Libertarians, one was a Republican operative, the rest were mostly searching. We met in Charlotte’s Midwood Smokehouse, the home of excellent barbecue, but not a site conducive to quiet, reflective conversation. So we declaimed our thoughts, some more enthusiastically than others.

The gist of the politics was that they were dissatisfied with baby boomer style politics; there was some talk about an independent third party. I tried to draw them out, find out why they thought everyone was so jaded, what their generation might do differently. No grand ideas emerged, but there was one very smart explanation from a 34-year-old entrepreneur named Justin Cunningham. “People expect to get just exactly what they purchase in this sophisticated consumer society, and usually they do,” he said. “Politicians are marketed like products. They market themselves through ads on TV and radio. And so people expect to get precisely what they think they’re paying for. But that’s impossible. Politicians are humans; there are always going to some things you like and others you don’t like so much about them. It’s a recipe for disappointment.”

It’s also, I believe, a real opening for a mildly courageous–or just clever–politician to lower expectations and raise them at the same time. The prototype is the late Ed Koch, mayor of New York, who once said, “If you agree with me on 9 out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”

Inevitably, the veterans present turned the conversation toward the shoddy treatment of their peers and the possibility of more war. “I see us going off again, without a real commitment from the politicians or the rest of society,” said a former Marine Captain. “There are so few of us who actually go off and do the fighting, how do we get the rest of society involved? That’s why I like the idea of a draft, even though our commanders don’t. But we have to find some way for the rest of society to have a stake in our mission.”

A big, persistent question–and an old unpopular answer was blurted from my mouth, unbidden: “What about a war tax? What if we had to pay for the costs of the war, separately from the rest of our taxes, in real time?”

The former sergeant seemed to think it was a good idea. I would have loved to see George W. Bush propose it in 2003, when he took us into Iraq. It would be interesting to see what happened if Barack Obama proposed it now that we’re kind of going back.

A final word on Rye Barcott. He joined the Marines because he was a humanitarian. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, he started a charitable organization that linked the university with an infamous slum–Kibera–in Nairobi, Kenya. He started soccer leagues in the slum and health facilities. You can read all about it in Rye’s book, It Happened on the Way to War.

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