Reviewed by LtCol Butch Bracknell
>LtCol Bracknell is the CMC Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Duty then is the sub‑limest word in the English language,” said Confederate GEN Robert E. Lee. “You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more; you should never wish to do less.” Lee’s conception of duty led him to resign his commission in the U.S. Army, where he was likely destined for great success, and to accept great personal risk commanding the army of Virginia and, later, Confederate forces. Lee’s place in history as a brilliant leader and tactician is assured after the passage of time, but by no means was it clear how history would regard him in 1861. Yet duty compelled him, the way it compelled scholar, Marine, businessman, and charitable organization founder Rye Barcott.
It Happened on the Way to War is Barcott’s story about duty—in fact, doubly so, as the author’s duty extended not only to his fledgling career as a Marine officer, but also as the founder and leader of a development nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the Kibera region of Nairobi, Kenya, Carolina for Kibera (CFK). It is an inspirational account for leaders young and old, military and civilian, government actors and civil society. Equal parts Three Cups of Tea, without the deception (Greg Mortenson, Viking Press, 2007), and One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick, Mariner Books, 2006), it is the story of the coming of age of a young leader who struggled to understand, balance, and reconcile dual callings—as a military officer preparing to lead Marines in combat and as an NGO founder and director, applying “soft power” to quell conflict and spur development in one of Kenya’s poorest and most desperate locales. It Happened on the Way to War is sufficient to vest faith in the “Millennial Generation”—a narrative about combining ideology with action and compassion with realism. The book is likely a model starting point for conversations about addressing the root causes of poverty, corruption, political nihilism, and conflict throughout Africa and the developing world—problems that can be solved, or at least mitigated, less by the application of military power and more by leveraging human solutions that capitalize on the inherent strengths of any society. Barcott’s CFK team identified those strengths and capitalized on them through faith, perseverance, and force of will. Barcott’s tale, which is less about Barcott than the people, events, and dynamics constituting the context of his personal journey, demonstrates the power of personal resolve and individual character, while acknowledging the effect of serendipity, mentorship, and partnership to effect change and achieve progress.
Would the world have noticed if Rye Barcott had never traveled to Kibera and worked with some trusted local leaders to found CFK? Probably not. But it did notice that he did, and that is one lesson of It Happened on the Way to War—good things result from personal ambition, vision, and hard work, in the right environment to achieve success. To be clear, Barcott suffered from no lack of opportunity—well-connected, insightful parents willing to guide him without paving the way with rose petals; faculty mentors at his university willing to link him to the wealthy, powerful, and well-intentioned; and Marine leaders willing to invest in him by providing opportunities and taking personal risk themselves. The distinction is that Barcott’s cohort contains a wide sampling of similarly well-resourced and connected persons whose calling in life is a German touring sedan, a gourmet kitchen, a second home, and extraordinary vacations. Rye Barcott leveraged his advantages to make a difference. His chronicle of partnering for success and driving results is a model for his peers, younger military officers, idealistic hippie do-gooders, wealthy benefactors and foundation check-writers, parents with high hopes for their own children, and anyone who cares much about the future of America and our world.
Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, Rye Barcott and I served together in Bosnia and on the board of directors of a Reserve Officer Training Corps alumni association, and I count him as a friend. But friendship is not why I put pen to paper, nor does it color my vision of him. I would admire him equally if I did not know him. Barcott’s book is important for leaders to read for a unique perspective on duty and service and as a window to viewing the new security environment. Moreover, Barcott’s vision, capabilities, moral courage, compassion, and rigorous self-discipline are characteristics one would want to find in a close friend, a respected stranger, or a young Marine leader. They are the characteristics that drove him to success as a student, Marine, and business executive and that enabled him, with the help of his partners, to turn a vague idea about strategies to mitigate ethnic conflict into a sustainable, locally led NGO that impacts thousands of lives and establishes a model for community-based relief initiatives throughout the continent and world. Now if only we could replicate his success elsewhere, over and over again.