A Boy Scout of color held the door for me at a Dunkin’ Donuts near Asheville last week. He might have seen how tired I was, or he might have just been a good scout. A man inside noticed the Boy Scout’s good deed. “Arrgh,” he said. “That’s not the way the world really is—is it?”
The man was about my age and wore a gray ECU sweatshirt with a purple and gold Pirate logo and a red Trump 2020 cap. He was big but looked soft—bloated rather than fit. If he kept his nose to the grindstone, his back looked like it never left the recliner. He smiled a tight collaborator smile and gave me a pirate wink as if we were old buddies—old Pirate fans.
I pondered what the Pirate fan said about the way the world is. Thanks to the Boy Scout, I reflected on whether it’s better to have leaders that are mostly Boy Scouts or mostly pirates, and what the balance between them should be in our military and country.
At the start of the decade, we had a Scout in the White House (or as close to it as any politician is ever likely to get). A decade ago, President Obama was a young father and married to the same woman for over 20 years. It was the first of two remarkably scandal-light terms. He never called foreign leaders nicknames. He spoke in complete sentences, and except for a controversial commutation of Chelsea Manning’s disproportionate sentence in his last week, rarely intervened in the pursuit of military justice.
At decade’s end, we have a president that serves as if he’s captain of Queen Anne’s Revenge or the Black Pearl. He hasn’t struck the stars and stripes from the ship of state and raised the skull and crossbones, but he’s getting close. He’s on his third marriage and has paid off an adult entertainment specialist. He has refused to turn over his tax returns, even has said not paying taxes makes him “smart.” His lawyer has asserted he can’t be charged with a crime because he’s president. He uses pirate nicknames like “Rocketman” and “Nervous Nancy” and “Sleepy Joe.” He ordered his crew not to cooperate with Congress, has termed the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution “phony,” and is dismissive of the impeachment inquiry.
Disturbingly, our pirate president also seems to have a disdain for military justice. Back in May, he issued a pardon to Michael Behenna, convicted of murdering a naked detainee. This month he intervened in the case of a Navy Seal, convicted of posing with a corpse and pardoned two servicemen of murder. To get convicted of murder in a military court is a really difficult thing to do. A commander-in-chief meddling in military justice is governing like a pirate captain applying his own flexible pirate code. (Those familiar with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise understand pirates are not bound by the law; they have a code, and even that is “more of a guideline.”)
Regarding the executive interventions in military justice, Congressman and USMC veteran of four Iraq deployments Seth Moulton wrote in TIME:
“He’s saying he knows better than the honorable people who formed the juries that decided these convictions. And he undermines the entire Uniformed Code of Military Justice, the laws that the people who volunteer to serve in the military agree to follow.”
Executive sanctioning of war crimes also might signal a dangerous shift in the balance between Boy Scouts and pirates within the military. Our military is feared because of the unparalleled US arsenal and respected because of the discipline of servicemen and women. Most servicemen and women, including leadership, tend toward the well-trained, resilient, disciplined. Thankfully, there are more Boy Scouts than pirates in the ranks.
I wish my ECU Pirate friend well. There’s a little pirate in everybody. As we enter the next decade, I hope we don’t strike the stars and stripes, raise the skull and crossbones, and identify ourselves as a “Pirate Nation.” We need more people who aspire to Scout’s Honor, and who keep themselves “physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight”—who “help other people at all times.” We need more Boy Scouts, particularly in leadership. That might not be how the world is, but it is how to make it better.