Friday, April 18, 2008

On Danger and Directed Assignments

Twenty five years ago this week, the father of a childhood friend of mine was sent on a short TDY to Lebanon. And twenty five years ago today, he died when the American Embassy in Beirut was bombed.

He was not the first American diplomat killed in the line of duty, and he certainly was not the last. But he was someone I knew, and his death impressed upon me, near the start of my own career, the risks that all of us take in the service of our country.

Since then, I have seen colleagues I knew killed in Islamabad, Nairobi, and Dar, not to mention a couple of near misses myself (I was in the embassy in Nairobi, for example, a day before the bombing).

I have very little patience for those who dismiss the Foreign Service as being somehow less patriotic or less willing to serve than our colleagues in uniform.

I joined the Foreign Service in order to serve the United States. And in the course of my career, I have had guns drawn on me five times in anger, been attacked with a knife, had my office surrounded by an angry mob, and had my own home targeted for attack by Bin Laden.

This week, of course, the spectre of directed assignments was raised again in the press, and various media and blogs were filled once again with invectives against those FSOs who spoke out against such assignments in a meeting last year.

I have bid on Iraq positions, and would go if selected.

And I support, in general, the right of the Department to direct assignments, and to move me and my colleagues around as they see fit. For the good of the service.

On the other hand, I support those of my colleagues who oppose directed assignments to Iraq. I agree with many of the points they raised at that meeting. And I question whether directed assignments would actually be for the good of the service, or enable our embassy in Iraq to function more effectively.

I have served in difficult and dangerous posts. Nowhere near as dangerous as Iraq, but difficult nonetheless.

And I have seen people in such posts who really and truly did not want to be there. I have seen how their unhappiness has reduced their own efficiency and hampered the efficiency of others. I have even seen a few of my colleagues lose it completely, creating problems for the entire embassy, usually at critical moments.

Not everyone is cut out for a war-zone assignment, and to my way of thinking, forcing people to go would be foolish. Even those who, on paper, might seem to possess the skills that should see them through.

Moreover, despite a great deal of rhetoric and posturing, the State Department has yet to make good on many of its promises with regard to preparing FSOs for such service, or handling the inevitable consequences, such as a high rate of PTSD, in a fair, compassionate or even honest manner.

FSOs who return from Iraq with PTSD can still, for example, lose their security clearances as a result.

Its all well and good for those bloggers and journalists (and even some right-wing politicians) to compare FSOs to the military, to note that they take the same oath of office, and that they agree to be world-wide available. But it is important to note the differences:

Military personnel self-select for hazardous duty. Yes, they go where they are ordered to go, and would prefer not to get shot at, but let's face it, they joined the military knowing that the primary duty of military personnel is to fight. They willingly chose a career in which there was a very strong probability that, at some point in their careers, they would go to war.

Military personnel are well trained for hazardous duty. It starts on the first day of boot camp and continues throughout their careers. Even those with desk jobs train continuously throughout their careers for the eventuality of a deployment to a war zone.

And as for PTSD, the military recently eliminated mental health questioning from its security clearance procedures, exactly to prevent the possibility that a military officer would lose his or her clearance due to a service related disorder.

And yes, FSOs take the same oaths of office as soldiers do. So do postmen, tax collectors and United States Senators, none of whom share either the willingness nor the skill sets that the military possess to deal with the stress and danger of war.

And frankly, even the military is very careful to exclude from hazardous duty those officers who have not demonstrated the skills necessary to carry out a mission in the circumstances in which they are expected to operate. No one wants a "weak link" to place a mission, or American lives, in danger.

Iraq is a critical threat post, and more importantly, a post critical to our current foreign policy.

We want FSOs there who do their jobs well, and who are at least able to function with reasonable morale under a level of stress most FSOs never face.

There are many FSOs willing to serve in Iraq. And there would be more if the Department actually kept its promises.

And rather than twisting arms, or embarrassing the Foreign Service, I believe that keeping those promises, of adequate training, proper mental health care, and fair treatment of those who return disturbed, is the better way to go.


Digger said...

I have quoted and linked to this piece here:

Anonymous said...

And rather than twisting arms, or embarrassing the Foreign Service, I believe that keeping those promises, of adequate training, proper mental health care, and fair treatment of those who return disturbed, is the better way to go.

I fully agree but I'm afraid that twisting arms would become the norm in the foreseeable future here. Thanks for an excellent post.

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here: