by Gwen Clare
Having agreed to identify favorite selections from the Foreign Service Life section of this journal, I first had to set the parameters. Reading every offering didn’t seem the way to start. Since many current readers might well have read selections from recent years, I chose to limit myself to those written before 2006. That settled, the next decision was the picking of a country or region. Others, in the past, have preferred, naturally, to look for those accounts of life in the region where they had served.
I decided, instead, to start with a look at what others wrote about a country I never had the chance to visit, much less serve in, but, nonetheless, had inspired me to become a diplomat. Much in the news now for unending war and violence, Afghanistan originally drew me into the Foreign Service.
Or, rather, it was James Michener’s account in Caravans of a first tour consular officer in Kabul sent to rescue an American woman abducted by an Afghan chief. Could there be a more exciting career or a more fascinating country? This book, published in 1963, came out just as I was about to enter college and was beginning to seriously consider what would be my life’s work.
It was Mike Hornblow who actually went to Kabul on his first tour, and, while his experience did not approach all the daring do of Mark Miller’s tour, I really enjoyed his piece from November, 2005. I was particularly pleased to read that all officers in the Embassy carried Michener’s work.
I did not make it to Afghanistan, but I did study Russian and majored in international relations, entering the Service in 1967. I didn’t serve in Russia either, but, after a first tour in Portugal, headed off for Latin America. I did, however, get to speak to Michener when I invited him to go on a STAG tour of Latin America. He didn’t go, but his wife would have approved had he been able to make it, since STAG stood for the Short Term American Grantee program.
Hornblow’s is not the only piece about Afghanistan that I recommend. Gordon King’s July 2002 description of his arrival for his first posting in Kabul makes riveting reading. While Mike had been worried about a possible nosebleed arriving at Kabul’s airport 16 years later, King faced a challenge just getting to post. Since Afghanistan had no commercial airport or commercial plane service—or paved roads—in January,1950, King and family were to travel to Kabul in a International Carry-All van—as part of the weekly pouch run to Peshawar.
It turned out bad weather in Afghanistan meant that King’s wife and infant son remained in Peshawar while King and an Embassy officer made the trip over the forbidding Khyber Pass through a howling snowstorm, following in the path of trucks which had broken down or tumbled over the edge.
By now, I was hooked on the dangers of driving in Afghanistan so my next read was the April, 1999 account of Carl Fritz as he recalled an 1953 overland trip by Jeep to Kabul while employed by the U.S. Technical Cooperation Mission (TCM) in India. When the American Ambassador in that country noted someone had ordered many unnecessary Jeeps, his offer to supply a neighbor led to a team of eight Embassy and TCM employees driving seven Jeeps to Kabul. Like King before him, the road there led from Peshawar through the Khyber Pass. The Fritz account made it clear that not much had improved in road conditions in the intervening three years. It is a good read.
I seemed to have run out of stories about Kabul, but since both road trips had started from Peshawar, it seemed time to move onto the December 2005 account by Jane Coon of her visit there while posted to Karachi on her first tour. While Michener had drawn me to the area, Coone’s muse was Kipling. But even in rose season and with Kipling’s romantic tales in mind, Coon, faced with the reality of life there, realized how far from home she was as the local scene began to lose some of its luster. It was restored later while hiking in the lush Swat valley when she and her companion come across two roughly dressed and turbaned men carrying rifles who appeared very menacing until the account’s happy ending.
Next was Ed Peck’s charming piece from February 2000 where he showed how, particularly in small consular outposts, one can do the wrong thing for the right reason, and all will live happily ever after.
Given that my selections all related to an apparently simpler time in this now troubled region, it was time to move onto what continues to cast a shadow over today’s Foreign Service reality—evacuations. Not surprising, of these 7 personal recollections spanning the globe from Caracas in the mid 60’s until 2001, Pakistan figures twice. The collection is from the April, 2003 issue, and I strongly recommend it for a flavor of what Foreign Service life is today. All seven are well done, but it was Judy Chidester’s account of the advice she had received early in her career of what to do in the event of attack that prompted gales of laughter.
Here it is:
I well remember being told… to read the evacuation plan. It went into great detail about how the Marines would back up through the embassy in case security was breached, ending up in the Communications Office. We could "use the bar from a bar lock safe to protect ourselves or hide under a desk or behind a cabinet and hope not to be detected."
Clearly, Chidester merited a second selection. I was not disappointed. Her September, 1998 five can casserole recipe for social and kitchen emergencies brought back memories of commissary provisions, the active employment of the can opener, and simpler times.
That’s it for my favorites, but I encourage all to pick a country and see where it takes you as you wander through the archives.
First Post: Kabul: Reflections Thirty-nine Years Later by Mike Hornblow (November 2005)
On the Road to Kabul by Gordon King (July 2002)
Overland by Jeep to Kabul by Carl Fritz (April 1999)
First Post: Before the Afghan War by Jane Abell Coon (December 2005
Doing the Wrong Thing for the Right Reason by Ed Peck (February 2000)
Crises and Evacuations: Personal Stories
We're Number One by Eli Flam
It’s a Small World by Pam Anderson
Evacuating Nha Trang by David Adamson
Starting Off with a Bang by Kyla J. Seals
Adversity Brings People Together by Judy Chidester
Evacuation from Sanaa, Yemen by Bill Stewart
A Curious Definition of Hardship by Julie Gianelloni Connor
Crises and Evacuations: Adversity Brings People Together by Judy Chidester (April 2003)
Five-can Casserole: Foreign Service recipe for social emergencies by Judy Chidester (Sept. 1998)