Sunday, June 8, 2008

Why We Don't Just "Soldier Up"

There is a TV show I like called "House." House is the last name of a TV doctor who is brilliant and relentless in his efforts to diagnose the rare and unusual medical conditions that are brought into his life each week.

His intelligence and experience enable him to see things that are not always evident to the hospital administrators, or even to other doctors, and his relentlessness causes him to do things that the administrators do not want him to do. Like order costly tests when there is little evidence that the condition they test for exists. The tests, of course, always confirm what House has already intuited. House has once again saved the patient's life.

In every episode, the hospital administrators are infuriated, and tell House that he is not a team player. Not following their rules. Not getting with the program. Which is that the hospital is a business, in the business of making money, and avoiding lawsuits, and House can't simply waste money or violate protocol chasing every hunch on the off chance that he might save a life.

House, on the other hand, suffers from the delusion that the hospital is in business to save lives. And that the oath he took to save lives means that he is supposed to save them. And he saves them.

If the Washington Times, the second largest newspaper in Washington, were to review "House," they would say this:

"House forgets who he works for. He doesn't understand the terms of his employment. Why doesn't he get another job?"

It is easy for most viewers of the show to understand that House is doing his job, and doing it well. Few would side with the idea that a doctor should do only part of his job, in order to cost his boss less money.

The reason that most viewers side with House is that every viewer has a pretty good idea of what it is that a doctor is supposed to do. And nearly every viewer has personally benefited in some way from what it is a doctor does.

The second annual "let's bash the Foreign Service because of statements made in what was supposed to be a frank and open town hall meeting" festival has begun, and among other the things, the Washington Times has printed a truly disgustingly ill-informed editorial, which is nicely dissected and exposed in the blog "Consul at Arms."

The Times' editorial does not even correctly identify the Director General by his correct title, referring instead to an earlier position he held (although, in fact, during the town hall meeting he did act more like the executive secretary than the DG, I must say.) If the author can't even get the titles straight, that says a lot about the lack of effort that went into writing this drivel.

But the drivel is less important than the fact that enough people believe it to enable the Times' senior editors to want to publish it under their name.

The facts, of course are these:

The concept of directed assignments is not new. It has existed for decades. Every Foreign Service Officer knows that the Department can choose to send them anywhere it wants to.

Directed assignments have never had to be used to staff Iraq, or any other war zone in my memory. Enough FSOs have volunteered for Iraq that there has been no need for directed assignments, and it does not appear that it will be necessary this year either.

What really bothers the Times editors, however, is the idea that there are some FSOs who do not want to go. Although there are enough volunteers to staff Iraq, there are some who do not want to go there. And those FSOs had what the Times editors consider the "unbecoming" gall to actually express their opinions to State Department leadership at a town hall meeting.

They actually told their bosses what they thought, at a meeting that was supposed to involve a frank and open exchange of ideas!!!!

Putting aside the fact that there are enough volunteers to fill our embassy in Iraq, how dare anyone in the employ of the State Department put their own personal safety over our wartime objectives in Iraq?

Why, the Times wonders, do these people simply not "soldier up"?

Well, the short answer is that FSOs are not soldiers, and the Department of State has a great many other priorities besides the war in Iraq.

Yes, we are a country at war.

Yes, Iraq is a very high priority country for current foreign policy.

But we do have embassies in every other country with which we have diplomatic relations, and they need to be staffed too.

The Foreign Service is not the military. We do something completely different. We have a completely different mission to perform for our country.

The official Mission Statement of the State Department is to "Advance freedom for the benefit of the American people by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, Reduce widespread poverty and Act responsibly within the international system."

In plainer English, the State Department has a worldwide mission to advance American interests by promoting peaceful resolution of conflicts; supporting and encouraging governments that respect their citizens; providing aid that enables people of other countries to survive disasters and improves their health, education, and economic situation; assisting American citizens overseas; promoting understanding of the United States; and helping combat destabilizing influences. We promote American trade, we help Americans who find themselves in trouble, and we promote understanding of America through cultural and educational exchange.

That is a different mission than that of the Department of Defense.

The mission of the Department of Defense is "to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country."


I did not write that. It is the official mission statement of the DOD.

So why don't people understand the difference?

Because unlike doctors, and soldiers, we do not directly touch the lives of many Americans, at least not in ways they can see.

Nearly every American has a relative who has either served in the military, or is currently serving. There are certain age groups in America in which nearly everyone of that age has either served or seen most of their friends serve.

The military is visible in every American city and on every college campus, and in many high schools as well. And we have numerous holidays to honor them. Including National Donut Day, which was last Friday, and honors the Salvation Army "Donut Ladies" who brought home cooked meals and donuts to the boys at the Front during WWII.

In contrast, unless they travel overseas, or work in a business that does business in other countries, or have a business that depends on foreign tourists or foreign skilled workers, many Americans simply never think about the State Department at all.

And when they do, apparently, they do so in the context of something far more familiar to them, and often painfully personal. Military service.

If my son, my daughter, my husband, my wife has to go to Iraq to risk their lives for their country, why can't those cowards in the Foreign Service?

Do they consider their lives more precious than that of my son?

No, we do not.

But we do have a choice. And that choice is much, much larger than "either serve or quit."

We can fulfill the mission of the State Department, and serve the American people, and do the jobs we were hired to do, in one of the 270 other embassies and consulates that are not in Iraq.

Unlike the military, and particularly the military of your youth, or of your father's days of service, our normal assignment system is based primarily on individual preference.

We are not usually assigned at the discretion of our leadership. They have the right to do so, but it occurs very rarely, and only when necessary.

There is a reason for this, and it has to do with more than personal safety.

We serve America best by being experts in certain subject areas. We speak foreign languages. We know foreign histories and politics. We are able to move easily in foreign cultures. We can interact with counterparts in foreign governments.

Believe it or not, though, very few of us can do all of those things in every country on earth. Few of us speak more than three or four foreign languages. Many of us are experts on one culture, or one part of the world, and not on others.

The skills required of a soldier are roughly the same no matter where that soldier is sent. While it may be helpful for a soldier to know the local language or be familiar with local customs, it is not an absolute requirement.

For those who are serving in the armed forces, service in Iraq is the fulfillment of everything they are trained to do. Their job, their real job, is to fight America's wars. And service in a war zone is the price they must pay for their training, and their peace-time employment, whether they want to go there or not.

There are many FSOs, experts in Arab countries, possessing of some military experience, able to speak Arabic, for whom Iraq is also the ideal post. The post that makes the best use of their skills, for the benefit of the American people.

For many other FSOs, however, service in Iraq would be a waste. Not of our lives, but of our skills. Forcing us to serve in Iraq would take us away from postings where we could use one hundred percent of our skills, and where those skills would most benefit the American people, and force us to go to a post where we have far fewer skills to contribute. Where we are less able to serve at the level we might serve somewhere else.

So, given that Iraq has been, and will continue to be filled by volunteers, many of whom possess directly relevant skills and abilities, why not let those who have other skills and abilities serve where they are more useful?

The Foreign Service is not the military. And comparisons to the military are ill-informed.

It is unfortunate that our leadership has not stepped up to clarify that fact.

It is appalling when the second largest newspaper in our nation's capitol is incapable of telling the difference.