Regarding Memorial Day

My earliest memories of the holiday we observe this weekend are set in Winchendon, Massachusetts. My sisters and parents and I would get together with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. We went to Great Aunt Jean’s house for a big cookout. Hot dogs on the grill. Baked beans. Watermelon. It was a day for family, food, and fun.

There were reminders of other reasons that the day was important. Across the street from Aunt Jean’s house was a park, and in that park was a tall pillar with a statue on top of it. On the morning of Memorial Day a column of bent old men in uniforms covered with badges would march across the park, form up around the pillar, and fire rifles into the air after a long moment of silence. I didn’t understand what it all meant. At age six I knew it had something to do with a war, but there was watermelon to eat and cousins to play with. I didn’t spare much thought for the ceremony.

As I grew older I learned more about Memorial Day. I learned that it originated after the Civil War, when our country needed a way to collectively grieve the generation of young men who never returned home from the battlefield. I learned that those old men in the park were veterans of two world wars, and that they marched and fired their rifles in honor of friends who never came home from Europe, or North Africa, or the Pacific. I became friends with men and women who fought in wars, and lost friends. The more of the world I saw the less abstract the celebration became.

This year I have just finished reading a book that continues to break down the wall of abstraction surrounding what Memorial Day means. “The Dust of Kandahar: A Diplomat Among Warriors” is the journal that Ambassador Jonathan Addleton kept during his yearlong posting in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was senior civilian representative for the U.S. Embassy in Southern Afghanistan, living on base, working closely with military commanders, and traveling around the region on helicopters to meet with contacts.

Ambassador Addleton writes vividly and engagingly, communicating the frustration of working in Afghanistan at that time, the loneliness of being thousands of miles from family, the camaraderie and community that is found in unexpected places, and the general ugliness of war. He reports standing for countless ramp ceremonies, watching as the remains of young service members are carried onto a plane to begin their long journey home. He shares their names, and what he learns of their lives cut short and families left behind. He brings a three dimensional reality to the headlines we all read, of soldiers, airmen, and marines killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. He poignantly reminds us that the lost are more than names printed on a page or carved on a wall. They are men and women with hopes and dreams, spouses and kids, likes and dislikes, and that their journeys have now come to a sudden and violent end.

This exploration of the tragedy of war takes a sharp turn to the personal when he describes the horrific events he experienced on April 6, 2013. He describes how his convoy is en route to deliver books to a school, and how they are hit by a car bomb. Ambassador Addleton survives, but his translator Nasemi, Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff, Staff Sergeant Christopher Ward, Sergeant Delfin Santos, and Corporal Wilbel Robles-Santa do not. The reader feels the terror of the moment. The confusion and shock that Addleton feels as he processes what has happened in the hours and days that follow. The deep grief that sets in and colors his remaining months in Afghanistan. His words are breathtakingly honest, and at times painful to read, as he wrestles with what has happened.

Our observations of Memorial Day are often filled with the images and stories of increasingly distant conflicts. The Civil War. The World Wars. Korea. Vietnam. This book reminds us that war, and the tragedy it brings, are far from distant memories. Men and women have paid the highest price that service can ask of anyone, and they have paid it recently and painfully. This book helps us to remember them.

This book also helps us to understand that war robs life from many kinds of people. Yes, there are the tragic losses of those in uniform. But there are also the losses of those who did not wear uniforms or carry guns, but who also paid the ultimate cost for their work. Indeed, there are two walls in the lobby of the State Department bearing the names of 248 of my colleagues, including Anne Smedinghoff, who never got to come home.

Image result for state department memorial wall

There are also the survivors, who come home bearing the often invisible scars of their experiences. They have heard the explosions, smelt the smoke, and held the hands of the dying. They have been forced to ask questions that most of us will never have to, and paid a price that is difficult to understand.

So as we enjoy a long weekend soaked in the early summer sunshine, let us spare a moment or two for memory. For those killed, both those wearing uniform as well as civilians. For those who return home, but bear the at times unbearable weight of memory of the horrors they have witnessed and the colleagues they have lost. Let us not forget them. And let us enjoy our hot dogs and watermelon, as they would surely want us to.

P.S. I think “Dust of Kandahar” is an important read, both for my Foreign Service colleagues who have served in Afghanistan and those who are thinking about serving PSP, as well as for anyone who is interested in learning more about what America’s work in the world looks like on the ground. I can’t praise this book highly enough.


Regarding Road Trips…

I am on the road again. I look across the vast Chihuahuan desert plain that surrounds the highway. The view of the distant mountains is warped ever so slightly by the thickness of the bullet proof glass through which I look. Two days of travel. 460 miles from Juarez to the State Capital and back again. Me and a driver in an armored Chevy Suburban. Three work meetings. One public presentation on visa procedures. Three excellent meals. One very comfortable hotel. It’s a work trip, like so many others I have been on over the years, yet also very different.

In the Peace Corps I would truck across the Dominican Republic however I could (buses, hitchhiking, regular hiking, motorcycle taxis) to meet with other volunteers, give presentations, or work on projects. I would sleep wherever I could afford. Guest rooms. Foam mattresses on floors under mosquito netting. Public rooms in hostels, with six other guys, under a squeaky fan, taking Benadryl to sleep when the heat became unbearable. I would eat what I could find, be it roadside fried chicken or home cooked beans and rice. Schedules were flexible. Sometimes meetings would happen three days late. Sometimes the rain would postpone everything indefinitely. Everything was improvised and slow moving, against the backdrop of palm trees and Caribbean sunrises.

Flash forward to my time in Northern Wisconsin. I would still go on frequent trips for meetings. The means of transportation was a scratched up used Toyota SUV (that I still drive to this day). I would trek to every corner of Oneida County, and often across the State, through great pine forests and picturesque farm communities. I would meet with colleagues or groups of community members who were interested in what I had to say. We would talk about broadband Internet infrastructure. Attracting young people to rural communities. Job creation. Sometimes snow would get in the way, but it took a real humdinger of a blizzard before I would stay at home. Meetings needed to happen. Fried fish and diner food fueled these meetings, and I would sleep in budget motels, if I wasn’t driving through the night to get home.

It all feels quite different from how I now find myself traveling. I’m in a big private vehicle, with time to do work during the drive because I am not the one driving. I wear a suit and carry a BlackBerry. Meetings start on time. I stay at a big swanky hotel with a view of the whole city. The driver knows all the best restaurants in town. It all feels a bit strange. I’ve been on these trips several times now, and I’m still not quite used to or comfortable with it. I’d be happy and eager to ride a bus or stay at a hostel. That’s more my style. But the reason for most of these trappings has to do with security. I remind myself that a U.S. Diplomat can’t wander anonymously through the countryside or city in a region that is (sadly) still home to a fair amount of violence. I need to travel in a way that protects the security of myself and the mission, which means going in the vehicles and staying in the hotels that the rules dictate. I may not be totally comfortable with it, but it is part of the game.

But I’m also reminded that there is much about this travel that is consistent with the way I used to do things. I am still doing my best to bring answers to people who have questions. I am still listening to what they have to say, and going back to my office to figure out how to integrate it into future work. I’m still relating to people who are different from myself. Still telling silly jokes to make PowerPoint presentations more interesting. Still hoping to make the world better, one little road trip at a time. And I’m still buying food by the side of the road. The driver might know about the fancy places, but he’s also expert in where the best roadside quesadillas are too. I might be wearing a tie, but my love for street food, and the conversation that comes with it, hasn’t gone anywhere.