The Pentagon, Crystal City, Virginia. Thursday, 9:46 a.m. ET.
A tall, lanky man left the Pentagon’s Metro entrance and ambled across the vast parking lot, beneath the highway bridge, and across Army-Navy Drive to his office building in Crystal City.
People knew him by several different names. His wife called him Mike. His friends from a twenty-year career as a fighter pilot knew him as Buster, a tongue-in-cheek homage to an episode involving an inadvertent sonic boom and dozens of broken windows. And he was Mr. Charles to the eight hundred people in the Department of Defense’s Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Warfare program office under his charge.
But in the most important circle, he was known simply as Stalwart.
Stalwart had left the Pentagon meeting deeply satisfied. Things in the Pentagon’s Mobile Anti-Satellite Targeting System Program were a mess. Nobody seemed to have any sense of what to do next. Nobody but he, that is, and he kept his thoughts to himself.
He loved opacity. Fog was so much more useful than clarity. It allowed him to declare confident certainties to the murmuring bureaucrats who were castrated by their own timidity. Forever in search of decisiveness, an exotic bird in the fatuous forest of any large organization, the pencil pushers fell all over themselves to fall in line behind him. He was guidance and shelter.
But that was not to say he was a charlatan. Quite the opposite, really. A natural strategist, he could easily see and articulate simple connections between complex things.
He stood out enough already, but a confusing environment – and military weapons development programs were anything but straightforward – made him appear godlike next to his counterparts, whom he dubbed the self-herding sheep. Many such sheep worked for him. And he worked for a few himself. The latter provided nearly endless entertainment as they struggled to masquerade his trademark clarity and vision as their own. The former were a bovine nuisance. He delegated only those things he didn’t care about. If a task was important, he did it himself.
In this way, he manipulated the Machine. When he chose to advance a cause, major or minor, his skill and personality allowed rapid movement through layers of grinding bureaucracy. But there were many serious issues that he simply allowed the befuddled bureaucrats to bludgeon with their ineptitude. He did this because the system deserved it, and so did the system’s perpetrators. Even the sheep.
Especially the sheep.
He was a patriot in the truest sense. He had long ago taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The Constitution, he believed, represented man’s highest organizational attainment, the best mechanism yet devised to balance the benefits of collective effort with man’s innate freedom. It wasn’t perfect, but Stalwart believed it was worthy of defense.
But the Machine had manipulated and twisted that oath, slowly substituting loyalty to an insipid self-serving organization in place of loyalty to the liberties enshrined in the Constitution. He had the vision to understand the difference.
With that vision came the clear belief that the great governmental bureaucracy, the lumbering parasite of public treasure, was itself functioning at odds with the Constitution. This was a hard realization, from which there could be no retreat for a man like Mr. Mike Charles, Co-Director of the ASAT program.
His adoption of this belief was a byproduct of his insatiable curiosity, which took him to the dark corners of the institution; there, buried beneath bromides and false assumptions, he found gleaming fragments of reality. He gradually pieced these fragments together.
What he learned had demanded action.
The final piece of the puzzle had been the hardest for Stalwart to place. Something had nagged at him, a vague, inchoate perception that something significant was amiss. He had the sense that it was right in front of him, maybe even clubbing him over the head, yet he couldn’t quite place it.
He was right. It was something enormous, glaring, pervasive, and with a prominent public face. Yet it was also absolutely secret.
It started to click into place for Stalwart when he accidentally heard a sentence uttered on television by a thoroughly marginalized congressman and erstwhile presidential hopeful. The hapless politician meant well, but was relegated to crackpot status because of his predilection for publicly disagreeing with what the mainstream considered to be self-evident economic truths.
The politician felt that many of the commonly revered economic precepts most people believed weren’t in fact true, and were, instead, little more than unexamined dogma. The poor fellow just couldn’t speak in public without harping on currency inflation as an insidious and dishonest method of wealth redistribution. His time on the national stage was brief, and since his decisive defeat in the most recent primary, every picture shown of him seemed to have captured his face in a strange, cartoonish contortion. His name didn’t help: “Arvin Duff” didn’t roll off of most tongues without a snigger.
Stalwart made it his practice to studiously ignore the politics staged for public consumption in the news media. But he was trapped in a clinic waiting room, his ears assaulted by loud, compressed audio from a cheap television tuned to the “Inside Washington” segment of the high-pitched right-wing daily news agency.
He felt his annoyance growing with each salvo of anti-left invective that invaded his senses. He wasn’t annoyed because he leaned left—he was long past picking sides in the Kabuki Theater otherwise known as American politics, and he thought there were sufficient idiots in both camps to make “None of the Above” the only viable choice. He was just irritated because he was forced to listen.
At half past one, Stalwart had asked the receptionist sardonically whether she knew what time his one o’clock appointment would begin. He had smiled at her to take the edge off his sarcasm, and she muttered an officious apology for his inconvenience. Politely, he had made it clear that they were within ten minutes of losing his appointment and his patronage. He didn’t have anywhere in particular he needed to be, but he had decided that he was finished waiting. Life was short.
His message delivered, Stalwart had been on his way back to his seat in the waiting room when Arvin Duff, the crackpot anti-inflation guy, appeared in a television interview. “In 1933, the US government banned the ownership of gold. It was punishable by ten years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine,” Duff’s nasal voice squawked.
Could that be true? The US had banned the ownership of gold? We—the United States of America—had forbidden American citizens from owning . . . gold? Assault weapons, vicious animals, and nuclear weapons he could understand. But gold?
One might expect something like that from Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China, but never in his life would Stalwart have guessed that the United States government, bastion of truth and justice, would ban the ownership of a precious metal. It seemed so . . . out of character.
His curiosity was piqued, and Stalwart had turned to his smart phone for answers. As he waited for the browser page to load, he found himself thinking that someone must have lost his mind temporarily and instituted this bit of one-off governmental quackery, only to be corrected by more clear-thinking successors. How could it be otherwise?
But he was wrong. By executive order number 6102, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had banned the ownership of gold and ordered that all bullion, coins, and gold certificates be surrendered to the US Treasury no later than May 1, 1933, for which citizens were to be compensated $20.67 per troy ounce.
Eight months later, Congress passed the Gold Reserve Act of 1934, which outlawed the ownership of gold by any US citizen anywhere in the world. This law also arbitrarily raised the price of gold to $35 per ounce, almost doubling the value of the confiscated gold that by now had accumulated in enormous quantities in the national treasury.
The government had taken all of the citizenry’s gold, and then, months later, had arbitrarily declared the gold it had confiscated to be almost twice as valuable.
In effect, Stalwart mused, the government had scooped up all the gold, then declared the dollar to be half as valuable by comparison. A chilling thought.
The law remained in effect until 1977. Forty-three years was too long for temporary insanity, Stalwart thought.
That realization just over a year ago had marked an inflection point for Stalwart. Over the following year, he had slowly gained the insight and resolve that would ultimately lead to action.
His fellow bureaucrats had a name for the kind of action he took.
The elevator took Stalwart to the top floor of the mid-rise office building. He stepped past the secretaries and into his large office, with its incredible view of the Washington Monument, and settled in for a long afternoon of meetings.
He also prepared for some other activity, the kind that could never be put on a calendar at work.