Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"For what we are about to receive..."

The above noted fragment comes from a blessing that has been used (with variations) at mealtime for hundreds of years. I imagine that in its original un-ironic sense, this prayer was uttered at many a Thanksgiving table this past week. I remember it from reading the adventures of Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, and others as a half prayer/half joke uttered by seamen of Britain’s Royal Navy just before the guns of an enemy ship would send several hundred pounds of metal hurtling toward them.

In this ironic sense, it may have also been on the minds of the volunteers the State Department found for those 48 jobs in Iraq that need to be filled during the coming year. In case you hadn’t heard, members of the Foreign Service did step forward and volunteer for these positions. There probably won’t be anywhere near as much attention paid to this news as was paid to the report that the State Department had previously put the Foreign Service on notice that these positions would be filled by ‘directed assignment’ if volunteers were not identified. That means that the Department was threatening to send the ‘press gangs’ through the corridors in order to shanghai the required number of personnel. I am confident that from Secretary Rice down to individual Personnel Officers, the Department’s management is grateful that such extreme measures were not necessary (though we don’t yet know if any of the volunteers might now be able to discuss the merits and of water-boarding as a means of persuasion).

It is probably true that this would have been the first time since the Vietnam War that the Department would have filled positions via directed non-voluntary assignment. However, it is not the first time since the end of that war that the Department reminded Foreign Service employees of such a possibility. All members of the Foreign Service join with a stated commitment that they are available for assignment anywhere, anytime – worldwide availability. In reality, this commitment has not prevented some officers from spending little to no time outside of Washington, DC, or plum assignments in Western Europe. During my own thirty years of service, the Department made repeated efforts to convince personnel that the assignment process was fair and ensured that everyone had their share of both plush and hardship posts. When Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State, such an effort was given the unfortunate name of “GLobal Opportunity Program” and the officers thus selected to leave Europe for the underdeveloped world were christened “GLOP-ees.”

The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought to center stage the question of personal safety and security for Foreign Service personnel serving abroad. When I joined the Foreign Service in 1973, the Department had just lost two officers killed by Palestinian terrorists in Sudan. Those deaths brought to over 100 the number of names on a memorial plaque commemorating members of the Foreign Service who died while serving abroad. Those two officers, Cleo Allen Noel, Jr., and George Curtis Moore, are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Today there are two plaques in the C Street lobby of the State Department building in Washington bearing the names of 225 members of the Foreign Service who died while on service abroad. The related guidelines have changed since 1973 so the entries are no longer strictly chronological, but the plaques include the names of 71 individuals who died from 1973 to 2007.

The official U.S. government (USG) position on the protection of its diplomatic/consular personnel and facilities abroad is based upon international law and on the agreements that govern diplomatic and consular activity, which make it clear that their security is the responsibility of their host governments. However, while the USG will rarely say so publicly, the protection provided by host governments has frequently failed in the face of terrorists or of angry crowds of their own citizens.

The Department of State has taken and continues to take steps to protect its employees and its physical plant or facilities, as well as the sensitive information to which it has access. The Department’s Division of Security, or DS, did not exist in 1973 in the robust incarnation that it presents to the world today. The Department also requires all personnel going abroad on assignment to undergo several days of security-related training before they leave. However, DS cannot provide bodyguards for every employee abroad, and the question of issuing personal firearms to American diplomats for self-defense is so surrounded with questions of legal liability, international law, host government laws, and the terrible international public image it would create that the possibility is never even seriously raised.

The Departments of State and Defense (DoD) had repeated discussions over my own 30 years’ service about the possibility of using military personnel to provide security for State facilities and personnel abroad. The response has always been, and I believe continues to be, “No,” other than the ongoing and highly successful Marine Corps’ Embassy Security Guard program. DoD rightly argues that it does not have sufficient personnel for such duties, that most military personnel are trained for combat not for security duties, and that such added duties would draw military personnel from other critical missions and duties.

The facts of the matter are clear. The Foreign Service has always been a career accompanied by real risks and confronted by some very real threats. This is even more so in this 21st Century world. It is up to the individual to recognize this and decide what to do about it, including considering the possibility that this not a career they wish to pursue. For its part, the Department’s management is obligated to discuss the risks and threats frankly and fully with all personnel and potential employees; to take every practical precautionary measure to assure the safety and security of Foreign Service personnel while still allowing them to pursue their duties effectively; and most importantly that means the Department must ensure that every member of the Foreign Service is adequately trained and prepared to confront the threats – both real and potential - with every possible chance of success. Those sailors I mentioned at the beginning of this blog fully recognized that their given (if not chosen) trade entailed serious risks including injury and even death. Their half-jesting prayer was an acknowledgement of the realities of their world and a declaration that they would meet those challenges head on. As even Defense Secretary Gates recently acknowledged, the United States is in greater need than ever of the skills, talents, and dedication of its Foreign Service than ever in its history. What the members of the Foreign Service need from us is the moral, physical, and fiscal means necessary to enable them to effectively work as their service to the nation takes them in harm’s way. “For what we are about to receive….. “

Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Lest We Forget - - "


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Carl Sandburg (1918)
Private, 6th Infantry, Spanish-American War


In the place to which I go,
Better men than I have died.
Freeman friend and conscript foe,
Face to face and side by side,
In the shallow grave abide.

Melinite that seared their brains,
Gas that slew them in a snare,
War’s inferno of strange pains,
What are these to them who share
That great boon of silence there?

When like blood the moon is red;
And a shadow hides the sun,
We shall awake, the so-long dead,
We shall know our quarrel done,--
Will God tell us who has won?

Ron Lewis Carton
Lieutenant, The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry


Soldiers never do die well;
Crosses mark the places--
Wooden crosses where they fell,
Stuck above their faces,
Soldiers pitch and cough and twitch--
All the world roars red and black;
Soldiers smother in a ditch,
Choking through the whole attack.

Ernest Hemingway, Paris, 1923
Ambulance Driver, Red Cross, World War I

Mesopotamia (1917)

They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave;
But the men who left them thriftly to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave:

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide---
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To confirm and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us—their death could not undo—
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

Rudyard Kipling
Father of Lieutenant John Kipling, The Irish Guards,
lost at the Battle of Loos, 1915

Friday, November 2, 2007

“If You Know Of A Better ‘Ole…”

For those who don’t recognize it, the title above comes from a British cartoonist of the First World War, Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, and was used for what is probably his most famous cartoon. The cartoon pictures a shell hole in no-mans-land on the Western Front, in which two British soldiers have taken shelter from the still ongoing artillery barrage over their heads. One soldier is apparently responding to the complaints of the other by advising him that “If you know of a better ‘ole, go to it.”

This First World War reference seems apt as we approach November 11, originally the Armistice Day ending that conflict which we now commemorate as Veterans’ Day. That war is also on my mind because I recently read Stephen O’Shea’s outstanding “Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I.” The author’s description of his walking tours of the Western Front battlefields and his accounts of what originally happened there brought home again in an especially strong way the truth that we apparently learn nothing from history.

At this time in 1917, British and French forces were just winding up their costly Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. Russia was confronted with the revolution that would take it out of the war and lead to the failed experiment that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Italy was reeling from the successful Austro-German offensive that was the battle of Caporetto (aka Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo) that would cost it 40,000 killed and wounded and a further 275,000 prisoners as they retreated. This offensive rescued Austria-Hungary from the collapse that had seemed imminent after the Italian success of the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo in late summer, a collapse that was in fact merely postponed until 1918. The United States had only been in the war for just over six months by this time, and its forces in France would not see serious combat for almost another six months.

This year, November 11 falls as we are half way through the fourth year of the conflict in Iraq. One aspect of life inside the Washington DC beltway is the abundance of institutes, think tanks, and policy advocacy groups focused upon every subject imaginable (and a few I would have never imagined). Remember ‘the surge’ in Iraq? In August, it seemed that it was all that the news media, Congress, and these think tanks could focus upon. Now the greater danger seems to be of a Turkish ‘surge’ into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish PKK forces, an ironic echo of the one bright spot for the Allies some ninety years ago when Allenby defeated Turkish forces on October 31 at the Third Battle of Gaza/Battle of Beersheba (the latter battle recounted in the excellent Australian film “The Lighthorsemen”).

But in the wake of General Petraeus’ and Ambassador Crocker’s successful defense of the surge and the ensuing drumbeat regarding reduced U.S. casualties, everyone in Washington seems to have gone in search of that ‘better ‘ole’ in the form of some other issue such as immigration, including many of the politicians seeking election or re-election. The Washington Post recently featured a story on the developing plans for the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq proposed to begin at about the middle of next year. However, I can’t help but wonder if the simultaneously reported decline in U.S. casualty rates and in attacks on U.S. forces might reflect decisions by the competing Iraqi militias to hunker down in their own ‘’oles’ and wait for the real contest for the control of Iraq that could begin as the last U.S. soldier is walking up the ramp of this generation’s homebound ‘Freedom Bird.’ Score one for the White House, it seems, or at least score one for those who haven’t left the White House in search of their own ‘better ‘oles’.