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.

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.

The Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade

I want loyalty, I need loyalty

No writing has influenced my work more than Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Not the Bible. Not the Constitution. Not even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is a pretty great book and should be thrown full force at anyone who tries to ban it.

I wrote my first novel, Two Pumps for the Body Man, under the deep influence of Catch-22. I wrote it to oppose tyranny. I wrote it in response to the maddening bureaucracy all around me. I wrote it to protest a blind march to war in Iraq because of an attack that originated in Afghanistan.

Part of that project died with the natural lapse of the Bush-Cheney era, the Rumsfeld snowflakes era, the Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby era. The book had yet to be published and already, with the passing of the forces behind the so-called ‘War on Terror’, it had become irrelevant.

Or had it? After 52 years, has Catch-22 become irrelevant?

One of the more scathing passages from that classic relates to the headlines today. In The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, Captain Black has all the men in the combat squadron ‘dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them’ and ‘bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long’ even as they suit up and prepare to fly into anti-aircraft artillery.

“The important thing is to keep them pledging,” he explained to his cohorts. “It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ means….”

…“Of course, it’s up to you,” Captain Black pointed out. “Nobody’s trying to pressure you. But everyone else is making them sign loyalty oaths, and it’s going to look mighty funny to the F.B.I. if you are the only ones who don’t care enough about your country to sign loyalty oaths.”

In the final version of Two Pumps, the idea of an oath to loyalty is whittled down to a few lines in a passage about secrecy. Two junior officers are asked to sign declarations of loyalty, discretion, and, finally, the SDDTS Clearance Waiver Non-Disclosure Form, which is a meaningless form that doesn’t exist, mainly because Super Duper Double Top Secret Clearances don’t exist.

As far as I know.

But loyalty exists. It’s a return on trust. And those who want it, those who need it, must first earn it.

*Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.
-Johann Heinrich Heine

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.

In Flight Entertainment for POTUS

What are Trump & Co. reading as they wing their way to Saudi Arabia tonight?

Two Pumps for the Body Man!

This black comedy set in Saudi Arabia does for American diplomacy what Catch 22 did for military logic: The enemy in the War on Terror can’t kill us if our own institutions kill us first.

Jeff Mutton walks the diplomatic beat protecting American officials in Saudi Arabia. An expert with guns and knives, grenades and rockets, he’s survived assaults and sieges, stabbings and chokeholds, car bombs, carjackings, criminal hits, and countless other enemy threats. But instinct tells Mutton the menace he now faces dwarfs all these killers combined. The fool!—his foot fetish has him in hot water again.

Part soft-boiled noir, part literary satire, Two Pumps for the Body Man is an unserious look at a serious situation, a grim reminder that no matter how high the barricade, how sharp the razor wire, there is no front line to the War on Terror. And the enemy is everywhere, even within.

Available in print and electronic versions from New Pulp Press through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online vendors. Review copies available upon request.


 “A wonderfully wacky consular bash in a place called The Kingdom, a nightmarish place straight out of Catch-22 where bureaucrats use very acronym under the sun… haywire bureaucracy at its finest.”
                                  -Robert Bruce Cormack, You Can Lead a Horse to Water    
                                                                         (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)

Coming Out Ahead

I just bought a dozen Cadbury Creme Eggs at nine cents apiece. $0.09!

Now, to Malta!

“I don’t buy eggs from Malta,” he confessed… “I buy them in Sicily at one cent apiece and transfer them to Malta secretly at four and a half cents apiece in order to get the price of eggs up to seven cents when people come to Malta looking for them…”

“Then you do make a profit for yourself,” Yossarian declared.

“Of course I do. But it all goes to the syndicate. And everybody has a share. Don’t you understand? It’s exactly what happens with those plum tomatoes I sell to Colonel Cathcart.”

Buy,” Yossarian corrected him. “You don’t sell plum tomatoes to Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn. You buy plum tomatoes from them.”

“No, sell,” Milo corrected Yossarian. “I distribute my plum tomatoes in markets all over Pianosa under an assumed name so that Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn can buy them up from me under their assumed names at four cents apiece and sell them back to me the next day at five cents apiece. They make a profit of one cent apiece, I make a profit of three and a half cents apiece, and everybody comes out ahead.”

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!

Author Event Made Easy

You may attend this author reading in your PJs.

That is all.

The Foreign Service v Zach Galifianakis

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) included this discussion of  Two Pumps for the Body Man in their new Digital Exclusives series. Unlike the great Between Two Ferns, the AFSA studio had only one bamboo to offer. Lean budget times, I guess.

AFSA writes:

Foreign Service Officer Ben East brings to the table a satirical look at diplomatic service in the Middle East in his neo-noir, Two Pumps for the Body Man. The novel follows Jeff Mutton, a diplomatic security agent who must deal with an outlandish boss, hidden government agendas, deadly threats, and a unique personal affliction. East also takes time to explain how parts of the book were heavily informed by his own harrowing experience in Saudi Arabia as his consulate was attacked.

I’d Rather Be Writing (or maybe talking about it)

ferns

The American Foreign Service Association filmed a few short clips featuring my reflections on Two Pumps for the Body Man, the inspiration behind the novel, and my thoughts on the writing process. It isn’t exactly Zack Galifianakis Between Two Ferns (more like Some Guy and Bamboo) but I hope viewers will enjoy it when it becomes available.

afsaWhile the footage gets some much-needed editing, I thought I’d share the text of one short segment now. Here’s how I framed my thoughts on the novel writing process (because I’m a writer and not a TV personality, the film version is unlikely to measure up to the prepared remarks).


My novels get written in one of two ways. There’s the linear way, from start to finish, and then there’s the other way. The linear way itself takes two forms: either I’ve laid out some kind of synopsis or outline from the very beginning and tracked closely to it, or I’ve freewheeled it chapter by chapter, letting the story find its own way into the world. The linear model seems to be neater, quicker, and more coherent—but not necessarily the most satisfying.

The other way, the way Two Pumps was written, was like working on a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces scattered all over the floor and the house and moved from house to house and country to country over the ten years it took to complete and publish. The job was to join disparate episodes, to shave this piece and build that one, to seek and identify episodes from years ago and connect them seamlessly to material written last night. The process was slow, cumbersome, and the trajectory of the narrative—even the primary point of view—didn’t emerge until years later.

Though tedious, and sometimes self-defeating—two steps forward, three steps back—the process was rewarding.

My only other thought on the novel writing process is that it’s as much about sitting down with pen and paper or keyboard and monitor as it is about state of mind. For me the so-called process is really a reaction—both inherent and trained through discipline—to experience. Do the people, places, events, details, etc., reach you only in the moment and as part of the world in which they actually occur? Or do they come at you with a richer, displaced value, something best discovered later on, in the attic?

The state of mind more fit for the novelist is the latter.

Beyond all that, the writing process is simply a numbers game: how many minutes and hours can you make yourself do it? But as my oldest fan tells me, that’s a question of discipline. Not process.