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 http://www.afsa.org/plaquelist.cfm 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….. “