A Study in Leadership
by Norvell B. DeAtkine
The subject of this commentary, Ambassador Lewis Dean Brown, died in May 2001 at the age of eighty. He was a combat infantryman during World War II who received a battlefield commission. His career in the Foreign Service spanned the period 1946 to 1975. Among his senior assignments was U. S. envoy to Senegal and to Jordan, and deputy under secretary of state.—Ed.
This story begins with my last assignment as a foreign area specialist in the U. S. Army. I had completed my study program at the American University of Beirut and was on orders to be assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Washington. As was customary, my last visit was to Israel to avoid the problem in the Arab world of having an Israeli visa in my passport. My wife and I were visiting our assistant army attaché in Israel, Tom Pianka, when I was told that Major Bob Perry, our assistant army attaché in Jordan, had been murdered by Palestinian thugs. They had come to his home and gunned him down in front of his wife and children. DIA reacted promptly by reassigning me as his replacement. I returned to Beirut and prepared for the assignment that was to be one of the most rewarding of my twenty-six-year military career.
As I entered the Amman airport terminal in late June 1970, I was confronted by two visa control and customs checks: one manned by Jordanian officials and a second by a group purporting to represent the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). This situation reflected the political environment throughout most of the Hashemite Kingdom. Two governmental authorities coexisted in an uneasy and confrontational posture. Most of Amman and a large slice of northern Jordan was controlled by various guerrilla/terrorist (fedayeen) factions. The Jordanian liaison officer told me that in order to get to his home in the Ashrafiyah district of Amman he had to change into civilian clothes to avoid being harassed, or worse, by youths in his Palestinian neighborhood. This was after weeks of assuring me that there was no such thing as a Palestinian-Jordanian antagonism, a fiction I see still maintained by some authors writing on the 1970 conflict.
I soon discovered, however, that the ambivalence of the political situation was but a minor concern compared to the chaotic situation within the U.S. Embassy. The previous American ambassador had been declared persona non grata by King Hussein some time before (in May 1970) and the embassy itself was leaderless. Those next in charge, for whatever reason, did not have a firm grip on the situation. I do not remember ever having more than a cursory meeting with senior members of the embassy after my arrival, nor was I briefed on the situation.
The dependents having already been evacuated, I lived with my boss, the defense attaché, for the first two months. I vividly recall during that time the daily anxiety in which we lived. Every day there were rumors of the impending collapse of the regime, evacuation operations, and an incessant drumbeat of threats against us Americans through the various Arab news media. With no guidance coming from the embassy, I, along with others devised my own escape and evasion plan should we be overrun.
Our fears multiplied as the days passed. Major Perry had been murdered and during the next two months two American women were raped, one embassy official was abducted and beaten, and a sergeant from the attaché office was also been taken from his car at a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) roadblock and held in a cage for several days. Numerous American-owned automobiles had been stolen by the self-appointed fedayeen gangs that roamed much of Amman. Their usual technique was to simply come to the door of a home and demand the keys to the car.
Every trip to and from the embassy was an excursion into anxiety as the various PLO factions vied for fame and control in Amman. We were constantly stopped at fedayeen checkpoints. Fourteen- and fifteen-year-old members of the youth group Ashbal manned roadblocks and scrutinized our identity cards in a leisurely and insolent manner before waving us on. Their weapons were loaded and it was obvious these kids knew little or nothing about handling weapons. Even scarier was the fact that this was the era of the seventies, in which all over the world a “revolutionary” could acquire instant fame simply by killing an American.
I had served a tour in Vietnam prior to my assignment in Jordan and despite some dicey moments there, I had never experienced the feeling of isolation and fear that I experienced in those early days in Amman. The rudderless embassy became a chamber of dread. The execution of our foreign policy was a distant secondary concern to the instinct of self-preservation. It was an atmosphere of every man for himself.
After weeks of intermittent warfare, with numerous truces agreed to by both sides, only to be broken only hours later, it was obvious even to a casual observer that the rank and file of the Jordanian army was embittered by the contempt shown them by the various fedayeen “cowboys.” These latter roamed the streets of Amman in Toyota trucks mounting machine guns. The Jordanian regulars were further embittered by the way individual soldiers and officers were subjected to intimidation. As in Lebanon later, the conduct of the Palestinian armed elements turned much of the local population, including a segment of the Palestinians themselves, against them.
At some point we were summoned to stay in the embassy. On 18 September in the early morning hours, after having been given the green light to attack by the ever cautious and very reluctant King Hussein, a massive military operation began to clear Amman of the Palestinian organizations. As a number of Royal Guard officers told me later, the king was basically told by the army, enlisted and officer, that the army could no longer be constrained and the king could choose to be with them or against them.
It was at this point that Ambassador Dean Brown arrived. Instantly by force of his presence, take-charge attitude, and simply his people-oriented personality, a new atmosphere pervaded the embassy. The tired, ineffective or health impaired immediately were sent home to the United States. Everyone knew immediately that the expected standard of performance was excellence. He talked to all of us one on one and even more importantly, he also listened. As a military guy, I particularly appreciated his style in these discussions. He was direct, got to the point quickly, and was not one for long theoretical discussions or for halfhearted, tentative suggestions. His usual manner was one of listening for about five minutes, with an “unh hunh” delivered as he acknowledged each point you made. You knew you were talking too long when the “unh hunh’s” began to be delivered after every sentence in staccato style. It was the signal to get on with it.
After only a few days embassy personnel representing the various organizations usually engaged in turf wars were working in a rare spirit of cooperation and mission accomplishment. We were a team. And what a team it was! There were Foreign Service people such as Bob Pelletreau, Hume Horan, and Pat Theros, as well as CIA people like Bruce Jackman (now deceased) and many others, to include stellar professional people at the clerical level. Pelletreau was the consummate professional, Hume Horan the most talented Arabist I met in my thirty-year love affair with all things Middle Eastern. His recitation of Arab poetry to his Arab guests was always a special occasion. Pat Theros was the engaging, always enthusiastic, and special sort of person with whom people from all classes and stations in life felt comfortable.
But it was Bruce Jackman, an ex-marine and probably the most patriotic and dedicated American I have met in my life. I have always remembered him with special admiration. A no-nonsense, pragmatic professional with a self-deprecating and wry sense of humor, he was the sparkplug of the embassy during the crisis.
The embassy was in the Jebel al Weibdeh area of Amman in those days, a largely middle class Palestinian neighborhood. It became a target for small arms and mortar attacks; the sturdy stone structure survived intact except for the windows, all of which were shot out. In fact the mortar rounds landing on the roof made little more than small indentations. They did, however, riddle the water tanks on the roof and with the city water no longer flowing, a major problem surfaced, providing another lesson learned. Food, of which we had plenty, can de done without for a long time, but not water. It was in this regard that we all appreciated the courage of Bruce Jackman.
He and I (he much more than I) took turns going out with the embassy marines to nearby homes deserted by their occupants to obtain water. A number of exciting events occurred during these excursions. On one occasion our marines ran into a group of heavily armed fedayeen in a deserted house who were there for apparently the same reason. The marines did not identify themselves and the fedayeen did not ask. It was a peaceful encounter. All of us were armed with M-1 carbines (it was a somewhat comical sight to see all the embassy folks wandering around the embassy with a weapon). Probably the carbines would have been of little use against a determined attack, but like prayer, they had a comforting effect.
During this period Ambassador Brown was always present talking to everyone, telling jokes. One could hear his infectious laugh throughout the embassy. He achieved some small degree of celebrity status by traveling to the palace in an armored vehicle to present his credentials to the king. It seems strange now, but during this time of being basically a prisoner in a small, beleaguered embassy surrounded by trigger-happy fedayeen, I do not recall ever being in doubt as to a safe outcome. I credit it to the caliber of the staff and especially the ambassador.
As we were now a very small group in the embassy, no one stood on ceremony or position. As relatively junior personnel we were able to know and see much more of the workings of the various organizations and information gathering. In particular, I remember reading messages from King Hussein to Golda Meir, messages with the extravagant praise and usual hyperbole asking for Israeli aid. (It appeared at the time that the Syrian invasion of the north, coupled with uncertainty concerning the Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil, would end the Hashemite rule.) Whatever the final truth of the Israeli part in keeping the Syrian air force on the ground, there is no doubt that the Bedouins of the Jordan army knew who their friends were. I vividly remember being stopped at a Jordanian army road block by a group of soldiers; when I identified myself as an American, the soldiers began to shout “aisha Golda Meir.” The enemy of my enemy is indeed my friend.
This conflict had a profound effect on the society of Jordan; it created a Jordanian nationalism where before there was simply tribalism or various forms of Arabism. We had a small detachment of Bedouin guards around our embassy who remained fiercely dedicated to our defense. Each morning as the news about a Syrian invasion seemed to be getting worse, with the “Voice of The Arabs” from Cairo spouting vitriolic anti-Jordanian propaganda and even the BBC voicing decidedly pro-Palestinian views, the soldiers would get up and stand at attention as Amman Radio played the national anthem. As I observed this morning after morning, the “artificiality” of Jordan as expressed by so many political writers of that era was put to lie. I remember one of the loyal guards was wounded and brought into the embassy, where he was bandaged by our personnel. Shortly thereafter he insisted on returning to duty with his platoon.
The loyalty of our local employees in the midst of this conflict probably deserves more recognition than it received. My departed boss’s Seluki dog, which was caged on the top of his house, became frenzied with fear during a fire fight and escaped. The Jordanian cook braved small arms and machine gun fire to chase it down and bring it back. The ambassador’s chauffeur drove through Syria in a very unsettled environment to get to Beirut and give waiting wives a personal account of what was going on in Amman. My own driver saved me from a very bad time or worse when he did a Hollywood style 180-degree turn to avoid a PFLP roadblock that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. This same driver, in the period prior to the all-out war, had been taken captive by the PFLP and severely beaten. In one of the ironies of this conflict, later it was disclosed by Jordanian intelligence that he was working for Yasser Arafat’s Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine (Fatah) and had drawn sketches of the military attaché’s office. A Palestinian family man with many children, the driver lived in a Palestinian area. Like so many other people caught up in this war he was a victim. He only wanted to protect his family and survive. One morning some time after the conflict had ended, I came out of my house to find him literally on his knees begging to be reinstated in his job. I asked the security people in the embassy if it could be done and the answer was a “no.” I have always regretted that I did not do more to get him rehired. Drawing a sketch of an office is a small transgression to keep yourself and family alive.
As the conflict moved out of Amman the city came alive, like a people released from a death sentence. The restraints of the Islamic society were temporarily ignored. Young Jordanians, especially the girls, deported themselves in a manner that would be classified as brazen by current Islamic standards. Night clubs sprang up and there were parties every night.
Released from our cloistered world, we military folk in the embassy were particularly boisterous in our new-found freedom. Invited to a party outside the capital by a well-to-do Jordanian playboy, we partook liberally of the Jordanian national drink (at the time, Scotch). After reaching a state of exaltation — and after firing our host’s inventory of weapons from the balcony of the flat, sending the local inhabitants, still jittery after months of fighting, diving for cover — we began our return trip to Amman. Going through a Palestinian section of Amman, a U. S. Air Force officer who was driving managed to sideswipe a number of cars on both sides of the road; we all found this to be hilarious, like playing an Amman version of bumper cars. Unfortunately, upon returning to the embassy we were told Ambassador Brown was looking for us. We instantly sobered up.
Upon being ushered into his office, we still had on our clothing shards of glass from the shot-out windows. The ambassador directed us to be seated. Then for what seemed forever, he just peered at us over his eyeglasses. He then said he had received a number of phone calls from irate citizens concerning “terrorists” driving an American embassy car smashing automobiles along the road. We confessed. After another prolonged silence, he simply dismissed us, expressing the hope that we had learned something. We had. We had not known the phone system was functioning again.
It was indicative of the caliber of people we had at the embassy at that time that this American Air Force officer was the same individual who selected the site for the massive American airlift of supplies during the still-active phase of the war. He and I were sent out with a Royal Jordanian Air Force helicopter to find a suitable area to bring in the C-141’s due to the fact that the airport at Amman was still receiving mortar fire. I remember this colonel sticking a penknife in the ground to ascertain the suitability of various mud flats for the resupply mission. He finally decided on the infamous Dawson Field, which renamed Thawra Airport by the fedayeen had been the landing area for three hi-jacked commercial airliners. We again renamed it, this time Raja’iyah Airfield (that is, “Reactionary,” a favorite pejorative term used by the “progressive” Arab regimes at the time). The airfield served us and the Jordanians very well.
As I remember, Ambassador Brown had given us a mission-type order to the effect “find a place for the planes to land.” This was the sort of confidence in subordinates that one sees so rarely in any organization. It was that trust that inspired people to do things they thought themselves incapable of doing.
The ambassador himself played as hard as he worked. In particular, I remember one party at my house in which, among other events, one of the Jordanian special forces officers while dancing dropped his pistol, which went off sending a round ricocheting off the concrete walls. Later as I walked the ambassador to his car, I asked if he could drive home all right as he did not have his driver. He assured me he could. In fact he claimed he could drive home in reverse—which he proceeded to do. I watched in amazement as his headlights, shining in my direction, gradually disappeared in the night.
For some months after the war, we enjoyed free and easy access to the Jordanian officer corps. I established some very close friendships with a number from the royal guard regiments and special forces. In fact, my house became the center of entertainment for a number of these officers, who would bring along their girlfriends. They carefully explained, however, that these were “Christian” girls from Madaba. We had many picnics in the desert, with the primary events being drinking Scotch straight from the bottle, firing weapons, and telling war stories. Upon reflection, it seems miraculous that no one was accidentally shot, particularly in that one of the favorite sports was to rappel off a cliff while your inebriated hosts shot automatic weapons aimed at either side of you. Ambassador Brown, observing one of these exercises, commented he thought it would be a splendid idea to incorporate it as part of the Foreign Service entrance requirements.
Alas and alack, all good things come to an end. I received a new boss, fresh from commanding a brigade of armor at Fort Hood, Texas. A bachelor, he informed me that he did not like parties and funneled all his representational money to me. This windfall, combined with my own funds, enabled me to throw grand affairs with a full complement of Greek flight attendants working for Royal Jordanian Airlines, thereby luring large numbers of Royal Jordanian Air Force pilots to my soirees. The scale of my parties was so large as to lead some of my Jordanian guests to hint darkly that I was more than just a lowly Army major, a suspicion I did nothing to dispel. I had learned early on that any association with a muhabarat (secret police) organization accords one considerable prestige. As the “legal spy,” as I was called by General Sharif Zayd bin Shaker, I was able to extract bits of fascinating information from my many guests. Unfortunately, I so enjoyed the parties that very often the next morning I couldn’t remember what I had learned.
Gradually life returned to normal. The families returned. Parties became more sedate. The Jordanian authorities once again imposed restrictions on which officers could attend our parties, resulting in our seeing the same old tired faces of “safe” officers at every social function. Some of my own previous freewheeling activities were scrutinized, as well. My new boss was skeptical of my claim that playing squash with the shapely Jordanian English news TV announcer was actually contributing to the intelligence-gathering business, and my wife had some reservations as well.
I have returned to Jordan several times since then, but as a North Carolina writer said, you just can’t go home again. The girls are covered up, the Scotch is imbibed in strict privacy, the embassy is a fortress, a visitor has to be escorted everywhere therein, every door is coded for entry, and people in next-door offices communicate via email.
I learned many things during my tour in Jordan, but among those lessons is the necessity to emphasize the leadership role of an ambassador, particularly his responsibility—not just for the execution of U. S. policy — but for the welfare of those working for him. This is something I try very hard to impart to my military students, who at some point will be working as part of an embassy country team. Obviously from the subsequent career of Ambassador Brown as something of a permanent trouble-shooter, he has to be considered unique. But I personally believe his example of leadership in Jordan should be a case study at the Foreign Service Institute, as well as in military institutions responsible for political-military instruction.
The author heads Middle East studies at the JFK Special Warfare School, Ft. Bragg, NC. A graduate of West Point with an M.A. from the American University in Beirut, Mr. De Atkine retired in 1985 after twenty-six years in the US Army.