Diplomatic Casualties

The morning of December 6, 2004, five heavily armed terrorists stormed the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

I remember loud pops from the AK-47s and the muffled thud of improvised explosive devices; I remember hours hunkered under a desk and a scramble for protection when the Marine called “Gas!; I remember crouching through our corridor, being locked in a vault, the safe haven filled with hammering and grinding of sensitive material. I remember hours of this.

I remember the phone call, the wailing when we learned of our first casualties.

I remember the debris where bullets pierced our windows, smashed the concrete walls, shattered televisions. I remember the blackened doors, the pockmarked glass. I remember the sweating Marine standing guard at the rear hatch, hours after a heroic dash from his burning barracks to the weapons room inside the Chancery.

I remember: Five consulate employees dead. Ten severely wounded.

The United States was engaged at the time in the War on Terror. Before that, Iran and Beirut, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi (19 years ago this week). Since then Sana’a, Peshawar, Ankara. Benghazi. So many others.

Are these sacrifices forgotten? We serve without arms, promoting America’s interests in dangerous places. We serve, but are poorly served. Our casualties, our sacrifice, our service, all are belittled. All demeaned. All, by some, forgotten.

We knew that we were patriots long before a survey told us so.

Wines from Hungary

I had a good time interviewing photographer and author Brian Neely some months back. His book, A Wine Filled Year, explores in photos and text the vineyards and wines and wine-making process from across the Hungarian countryside.

The American Foreign Service Association was kind enough to post the exchange.

I confess my opening is stilted (this is what happens when you ask a writer—whose preferred mode is solitude rather than discourse—to play a speaking role) but Brian livens it up with a tour around Hungary’s wine regions and some of his favorite photos in the book. The conversation flows a little more naturally at minute 14:10, where Brian’s book becomes more than a trip through Hungary to serve as a trip through time.

Wine aficionados can connect with Brian here.

Chain Your Muse

Matthew Palmer's Enemy of the Good explores 'values complexity' even as it provides the reader with an entertaining page-turner.I heard this gem last week, sound advice to anyone who bleeds ink: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

The man with the chain is Matthew Palmer, novelist and Foreign Service Officer, speaking at the American Foreign Service Association to promote his fourth book, Enemy of the Good.

His remarks at our diplomatic safe haven in Foggy Bottom were brief, funny, and informative. Best of all, they left me reassured that somebody’s out there telling the American people what it is we diplomats do for our country.

While his main objective as an author is to entertain, Palmer’s latest thriller also carries lessons in what he calls ‘values complexity.’ To paraphrase, the American diplomat’s job is more difficult for the fact that we stand for everything, that we must choose between morality and compromise, that the U.S. interest in, say, an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, may compel our diplomats to look past the human rights abuses of the local regime.

This isn’t cynical. It’s the job. We stand for a lot of things that get in the way of the other things we stand for.

Look inside Palmer’s work to see how it plays out. He’s an engaging writer and an entertaining speaker, happy to dole out tips when asked. On how he manages to write convincing female characters, he takes a page from George R.R. Martin: ‘I’ve always thought of women as people.’

Ask him why Enemy of the Good is dedicated to his wife.

Palmer doesn’t write to preach but to entertain. He takes Le Carre’s view that the reader doesn’t want reality but a facsimile of reality. This he gives. He gives the reader a story they care about not because of plot but because they care about the characters.

Writers, travelers, expats, overworked people everywhere who fancy themselves scribblers can sit up straight and get to work wherever they are, even in the last row of a 15-hour flight to Bishkek, toilets running over and two heavies parked beside them: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

Writing isn’t precious. Writing is writing. Chain your muse.

Diplomats and Terrorists

When it comes to terrorism, the enemy can't kill us if our institutions kill us first.

Last month American Diplomacy included my review of Ambassador James R.  Bullington’s Foreign Service Memoir, The Road Less Traveled. The book recounts a career that began with the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam and took the author to Burma, Chad, Benin, and Burundi, where he served as Ambassador, and Niger, where he served from 2001-2006 as Country Director for the Peace Corps. Or, as he likes to call it, ‘Hard core Peace Corps.’

Also tucked away in American Diplomacy’s  collection of Foreign Service despatches and reports on U.S. foreign policy was an excerpt from Two Pumps for the Body Man (New Pulp Press 2016).  Set in Saudi Arabia, the satire does for American diplomacy what Catch 22 did for military logic:

The enemy in the War on Terror can’t kill us
if our institutions kill us first.

In the excerpt, lead diplomat Vanna Lavinia contemplates the various threats to her career, including ineptitude, obsequiousness, and direct challenges to her authority. Given these impediments to her sanity, Vanna seems to miss the biggest danger of all as she represents the United States on the front line of the War on Terror.

It’s here, if you’d like to read it and let me know what you think. Review copies of the novel are available through my contact page.

Expeditionary Diplomacy

The otherwise respectable American Diplomacy, which publishes ‘Foreign Service Despatches and Periodic Reports on U.S. Foreign Policy,’ included my review  of of Ambassador James R. Bullington’s Foreign Service Memoir, The Road Less Traveled, in the latest lineup.

The memoir recounts a career that started in expeditionary diplomacy for the State Department during the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam and some of the fiercest early battles of that war, and took the author to Burma, Chad, Benin, and Burundi, where he served as Ambassador.

‘…The trim black passport issued to American diplomats has a hefty corollary in James Bullington’s big black memoir. The passport confers access and status on the bearer in a foreign land. The memoir demonstrates why such access and status are vital to promoting U.S. values and interests. More important, the narrative reveals such access and status to be privileges earned rather than rights granted.’

As a corollary to this, I’m including a lightly annotated excerpt of Ambassador Bullington’s oral history for the American Diplomatic Studies and Training oral history project. The excerpt focuses on Bullington’s service as Peace Corps Country Director in Niger (2000-2006) and some trouble he had during the 80’s getting diplomatic pouches into Burundi thanks to—shall we call them large?—seed packages requested by the Peace Corps. Read here.

American Diplomacy is published in cooperation with the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences and its Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense and with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

More Foreign Service Fiction

The latest release from ex-Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren, author of controversial Iraq reconstruction expose We Meant Well, is set during World War Two. We may find ourselves in 1940s Japan, but Hooper’s War aims its barbs dead-center at the contemporary conflagrations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The men and women in Hooper confront the complex ethical decisions of war, torture, drone-like killings, and the aftermath of moral injury and PTSD. This is an antiwar novel for people who enjoy a good war story—think Catch-22. Sometimes funny, sometimes deadly serious.”  —Peter Van Buren

Hooper’s War is fiction, but if it reads anything like We Meant Well the mission will stick to you like the sweaty dust of reality itself:

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People stands shoulder-to-shoulder with many other great war books. The food is bad and the environment gritty. The Colonel’s in charge; body armor’s strapped on; everybody piles into helos or Humvees to leave base. A young soldier, comrade torn by hot shrapnel, ignores the bloody gristle staining his cheek to stop the damn bleeding.

Throughout Peter Van Buren’s story, the screech of mortality hangs overhead.

Full review of We Meant Well.

New Foreign Service Fiction

After 20 years on the diplomatic beat ex-Foreign Service Officer Matthew Palmer has released his fourth tradecraft thriller: Enemy of the Good.

U.S.–Kyrgyz relations are at a critical juncture. The U.S. is negotiating the details of a massive airbase that would significantly expand the American footprint in Central Asia, tipping the scale in “the Great Game” among Russia, China, and the United States. The negotiations are controversial in the United States because of the Kyrgyz regime’s abysmal human-rights record. The fate of the airbase is balanced on a razor’s edge.

Second-generation Foreign Service brat Kate Hollister is assigned by the U.S. Ambassador—who also happens to be her uncle—to infiltrate a pro-democracy movement responsible for sabotaging the regime. Washington has taken an interest in the movement, and her uncle knows Kate has an in—many in the movement were high school classmates of hers.

It soon becomes clear that nothing about Kate’s mission is as it seems.

One Year on the Beat

A year ago this week I put Jeff Mutton on the beat.

Assigned to keep America’s diplomats safe in Saudi Arabia, he proved a tough match for tyrants as well as terrorists. He endured vacuous conversations during diplomatic soirees and survived quack psychiatry at the hands of State Department shrinks. He introduced us to a secretive government entity known as Fourth Branch. He helped the man with no lips from the office that wasn’t there collect intell to support the War on Terror, even when there wasn’t any.

Happy birthday, Jeff! Here’s a list of top ten things that haven’t happened in the year since your story was revealed:

10. Two Pumps hasn’t been used as fuel for any book-burnings.
9.   There are no known fatwas on the author’s head.
8.   The story remains uncorrupted by Hollywood.
7.   There are no reports of this book being sold without a cover.
6.   About the cover: Two Pumps‘ only bad review was an insult to the jacket.
5.   About reviews: No 0- or 1-star insults!
4.   Saudi Arabia hasn’t declared the author Persona non-Grata.
3.
2.   The author has avoided slick-road car-wrecks and fan captivity.

And, the #1 thing that hasn’t happened in the year since Mutton’s story was revealed

1. No Oprah Book Club controversies! Thank you, Oprah!

Foreign Service Blogs (II)

Discovering more blogs kept by Foreign Service Officers, old and new, from DC to Bucharest, from cat-lovers to chess masters.

Cross Words

Among the most interesting aspects of this blog is the lack of a lapel pin declaring the author a Foreign Service Officer. Instead we see a chess enthusiast and writer of fantasy and science fiction. Currently set in Nassau, Bahamas. What’s it like to raise talented musicians as part of your Foreign Service family? Ted has answers.

Notes From Post

Posts from one of our most recently sworn-in U.S. diplomats covering the beginning of A-100 training in Fall 2016 through Flag Day and Swearing-In last month. Come October—after Portuguese and Consular training—the posts here will shift focus from D.C. to Praia, Cape Verde.

Rob Joswiak: American, Veteran, Diplomat

Another from the same class, same timeline, and similar prognosis—soon to be proficient in Portuguese and posting from Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Sadie Abroad

Posting from Beirut for now; after the summer on to studying Bahasa Indonesia before taking up an assignment at the U.S. Consulate in Surabaya, Indonesia.

Tabbies in Tow

In their own words: A couple and their tabbies give up the comforts of everyday life to move into the unknown world of life in the Foreign Service, presently in Bucharest, Romania.

Previous posts in this series, by Foreign Service Officers and about the Foreign Service.

Foreign Service Readings

Continuing a short list of blogs and independent websites offering an insider’s view of U.S. diplomacy steeped in experience. Not  officialdom. I previously posted this Foreign Service blog list.

https://diplopundit.net

Opinionated and often edgy, DiploPundit has no official connection to the U.S. Department of State. It wades into leadership issues, Foreign Service realities, international current events, and other developments in the foreign affairs community. Updated daily the blog is the brainchild of Domani Spero, an obsessive compulsive observer, diplomatic watcher, and opinionator who monitors the goings on at ‘Foggy-Bottom’ and the ‘worldwide available’ universe—from Albania to Zimbabwe.  Continue reading Foreign Service Readings