DON WINSLOW: No Sympathy for Diplomats Who Won't Go
It is Aug. 14, 1943.
You are in the military and receive orders to report for transfer to the American units that will storm the shores of Normandy.
Because you know it will be a dangerous mission and that many lives will be lost, you tell your company commander: "Hell no, I won't go."
It is in the middle of the Vietnam conflict and as an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, you are ordered to Saigon for a tour of duty. Your wife and family have a decision to make. They can either stay home in their stateside dwelling or agree to move to a safety area such as Okinawa or Formosa, where you can visit with your family every eight weeks or so.
You're not happy with that scenario and tell your division chief that you thank him for his offer, but "I think I'll pass on the assignment."
Neither of these situations came up in World War II or in the Vietnam War, but a situation similar to those erupted in our State Department in 2007.
Having failed to find enough volunteers to staff our embassy in Baghdad, the State Department advised its Foreign Service officers that they will be ordered to duty in Iraq to fill positions that stand vacant.
No big deal, right.
When a Foreign Service officer passes the comprehensive exam with hopes of becoming a member of the diplomatic corps, he swears an oath to serve wherever the Secretary of State assigns him or her.
Like the members of the military, intelligence community, and other government entities, an agreement to join means an agreement to serve, no questions asked.
No one is forced to become a Foreign Service officer. Unlike the draftees of World War II and the Korean War who had no choice when they became members of the military, every member of the Diplomatic Corps willingly accepted the fact that every assignment overseas would not be in a plush location like Vienna or Copenhagen. They all knew that duty might mean living in Rabat or Nairobi or Damascus. And they all knew that life could be dangerous and disruptive while they were serving abroad.
Most who voluntarily joined the State Department, like their military and intelligence community brethren, did so because they wanted to serve their country. They knew their work was important and would hopefully make their country and others better places to live.
So to balk and resist assignments that, admittedly, are more dangerous than the norm, is really out of line.
At a town hall meeting held in Washington for State Department employees at which the new directed assignment policy was explained, one man insisted service in Iraq is "a potential death sentence." Think he would have gotten any sympathy from a World War II veteran who stormed the French coastline?
He added "any other embassy in the world would be closed by now."
I don't agree, but that has no bearing on whether a diplomat can be ordered to serve where needed.
Talking to some friends in Whispering Pines, I found little sympathy for the State Department officer who will gladly take that posting to Brussels but not to Baghdad.
"It's an example of today's 'me' generation," one village resident stated. "What's in it for me becomes more important than what's in it for us."
Another cited his own experience wherein government personnel in his time were assigned to a post and went. "Now, they are ordered to go somewhere and do so only after negotiating the terms of the tour and the sweeteners that they feel are their due for accepting the order."
Harry Thomas Jr., director general of the Foreign Service, reported there are 250 positions in Iraq that have to be filled in 2008. Only 200 have been filled to date.
He advised the diplomatic corps that, in the future, each officer will have to do one of three tours in a hardship post. There are "different conditions" today than in the past, he stressed.
I can understand the hesitancy of any officer to accept a posting in a dangerous location. But this comes with the job. It is part of the territory. And it is not a new phenomenon.
In the 1960s and 1970s, postings behind the Iron Curtain were trying, difficult, and yes, sometimes dangerous.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a tour in Bogota or Beirut or Tehran meant danger -- remember the Marine Barracks attack in Lebanon and the hostage crisis in Iran.
So, the current crop of officers fighting postings in Baghdad gets little sympathy from me. And it gets even less from many of my colleagues in Whispering Pines.
Contact Don Winslow by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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