Let Us Not Be Quiet

Revisiting Remarque before peace eludes

My copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is a tattered thing. The cover, already coming apart in brittle pieces, fell off entirely as I read. It was appropriate to the fate of narrator Paul Baumer to see that cover come away.

It is the father of all modern war writing (though it disdains fathers).

It gives us the Lost Generation in its rawest form. It came out about the same time as A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Remarque seems to have tapped the same narrative vein as Hemingway. Is it the standard voice of those who witnessed firsthand the horrors of WWI; or is it the standard voice of all warrior-writers? Mailer, Heller, Tim O’Brien, Kevin Powers write with the same wry tension when they write of the Second World War, Vietnam, the most recent war in Iraq.

Heller is far windier than the others, so it surprises me to think that so much of Catch-22‘s invective can be found in Remarque. It is invective born of rage at the military as an institution, at institutional blindness writ-large.

Remarque’s first big battle comes in Chapter 4. The next big battle—bigger than the first—is recounted in Chapter 6. In between, the reader is introduced to Corporal Himmelstoss, the squad’s chief tormenter, and it’s no mistake the chapter opens with the difficulty of crushing lice. Killing each separate louse is a tedious business when a man has hundreds. The little beasts are hard and the everlasting cracking with one’s fingernails very soon becomes wearisome.

Thereafter Himmelstoss, chief military louse, makes his appearance. He taunts the squad about responding to his authority. But Himmelstoss is a man from camp and his authority is viewed as vapid. “Stand up there, bring your heels together when your superior officer speaks to you,” Himmelstoss orders Tjaden. The soldier waves him off. “You take a run and jump at yourself, Himmelstoss.” Himmelstoss is a raging book of army regulations. The Kaiser couldn’t be more insulted.

The only peace that comes of this exchange is that the command comes down light on Tjaden and gives him open arrest. Baumer and Kat sneak off, pillage a goose, and bring him the roasted meat. Himmelstoss is soon crushed like a louse, shown for the coward he is during the great battle that rages next.

Remarque aims his barbs at the military’s institutional rigidity and ignorance time and again. On home leave Baumer fails to salute an old major and is forced to practice the protocol. It enrages him. What does the major know of sacrifice? The military hands out new uniforms in time for the Kaiser’s inspection—then collects them again when its over. The military sends fresh recruits with no training, and two companies are mown down by a single airman. What do they know of cover?

My copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is in tatters. It is well read. It is a well-read copy with lines like these underlined: There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best—in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly… They ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress—to the future… While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.

As I read All Quiet on the Western Front these past two days Remarque’s strong prose consumed me entirely. The story is timeless. So many have read this book, yet still our current leadership would tear down the very institutions dedicated to preventing similar stories from being re-lived—the State Department, USAID, the Peace Corps—to build up a store of arms and creative means for killing our fellow man.

How has a book so well-read managed to be so poorly taken into account?

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

Marine Security Guards at 70

The Marine Security Guard program this week celebrated 70 years protecting U.S. diplomatic missions around the world. Happy Fourth of July to the Ambassadors in Blue.

Two books covering their service, one non-fiction, the other fiction:

Greg Matos’ Shattered Glass—The Story of a Marine Embassy Guard… recounts the December 2004 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. How did it feel to be the Marine standing Post when five heavily armed terrorists stormed the compound, killing and wounding colleagues in the course of an hours-long siege? How did it feel to be responsible for protecting scores of U.S. and foreign diplomatic personnel serving the United States at a time when anti-American sentiment had reached new heights, thanks to the invasion of Iraq and protracted insurgency that followed?

And this: The 2nd World War had Catch-22. The War on Terror has 2 Pumps

In Two Pumps for the Body Man 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.

Diplomatic Security

This trailer from the film America’s Diplomats shows how our diplomatic security personnel train for the worst case scenario—from protests and threats to bombings and outright assaults on our missions overseas. Their storied bureau turned 100 this year.

Learn more about the daily grind of our DS personnel in Two Pumps for the Body Man, a noir cop tale set on the front lines of the War on Terror.

Peter Van Buren–We Meant Well

Van Buren’s book 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.

The screech of mortality hangs overhead.

PVB

This is not diplomatic writing. This is not a dissent-channel cable from the front line of the war on terror. Politics and controversy inform the narrative all right, but enough has been said already about those elements, the irony, absurdity, politics, problems in general with breaking people’s stuff and paying hundreds of billions of dollars to fix it up all over again.* These things anger me, but I’m not wasting time on the things in Van Buren’s account that make me mad.


Views expressed on this blog are my own & don’t necessarily reflect the views of my employer


Rather, the prominent reflection I find in the shine and high polish here is one of humanity. Beyond Van Buren’s blackest humor, his sharpest eye, is the writing itself: engaging, emotionally charged, expressive of faith in humanity and country. Without a trace of jingoism, Van Buren gives us a patriotic lament—for a nation led down the blind path of destruction, for a nation victimized by this blindness. It is equally a lament for the human souls forced to slog this unnecessary march.

The rest

The Departed–Ten Years After

The opening column in this month’s Foreign Service Journal is a timely and moving reminder of friends and colleagues killed ten years ago in a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. American Foreign Service Association President Robert J. Silverman writes:

The Foreign Service has taken more deaths in the line of duty, on a percentage basis, than has the U.S. military officer corps, and none of us more so than our Diplomatic Security colleagues. Since Diplomatic Security was formed in the closing days of World War II, 93 of its personnel have been killed in the line of duty, including local guards and contract employees. The majority have died in the last 10 years in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

2004-12-07_jeddah_foyer_600On December 6th, 2004, I huddled with my colleagues beneath the hardline visa counter at the U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah as a siren screamed overhead and five terrorists planted bombs and sprayed gunfire across our compound.

Today, I want to recall my dearest friends who lost their lives (not to mention the many who survive with wounds—scars both physical and emotional). The departed remain unsung patriots, cut down in hot, brutal fashion while serving the United States:

Imad, who several times took me in hand on his own time to guide me through the complicated process of buying a truck in Saudi Arabia. Gregarious, helpful, selfless, Peace be upon him.

Basheer, who smiled from the day he started working with us in general services. His generous gift of a vase from India sits prominently in my family home. Cheerful, energetic, Peace be upon him.

Romeo, who kept my international line working so I could call home and talk to the woman who would later become my wife. Quiet, efficient, professional, Peace be upon him.

Ali bin Taleb, noble Chauffer, Peace be upon him.

And smiling Jaufar Sadik, the Sri Lankan Local Guard Force (LGF) member. In a letter to Commentary Magazine, a former U.S. Consul General in Jeddah wrote of him:

Without protective cover, Sadik bravely returned fire from three terrorists who entered the compound of the consulate general. It was he… who killed the terrorist leader and prevented further carnage. Moments later, Sadik himself was killed by a fourth terrorist who came from behind and shot him fatally in the head.

Peace be upon him.

jeddahFor more detailed reading about what happened that day, and the months leading up to it, several accounts are now available. Greg Matos’ Shattered Glass—The Story of a Marine Embassy Guard is a non-fiction account by the Marine standing Post when the terrorists stormed our compound. An essay by Political Officer Heather Kalmbach, present that day, appears in the 2011 third edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy. In fiction, satire rules the narrative of Two Pumps for the Body Man, which explores the things that can go wrong in protecting our diplomats overseas.

My Thoughts on Uranus

I’ll admit it—I’m a bureaucrat. A federal bureaucrat. I’m not some fancy ad-man in a pinstripe suit on Madison Avenue.

Still, I know a thing or two about language. And when I see lousy wordplay in advertising, it bothers me.

Take this insurance ad, targeted at the dreary, browbeaten federal workforce (it’s on a bus stop right outside my dreary gov’t office building).

Untitled

Peace of mouth? Is that supposed to be a play on “Peace of Mind?” Because it’s not. There’s no such thing as Piece of Mouth or Peace of Mouth. This ad makes no sense. And it makes me feel so sorry for the model or actress or dreary gov’t bureaucrat who probably had no idea they were going to use her smiling image for such uninspired advertising.

The only way the Peace of Mouth campaign works for me would be if GEBA (the Government Employees’ Benefit Association) advertised a plan for proctology and called it “Peace of Ass”. But what do I know, I’m just a dreary federal bureaucrat with dreary insurance options for my peace of mind.