Skip to main content


A State Department “town meeting” last October, at which many Foreign Service Officers expressed strong resistance to the possibility of being required to serve in Iraq, received much national media attention. Although volunteers were eventually found to meet the needs in Iraq for this year, debate continues about “forced assignments” of diplomats to war zones. In an American Diplomacy editorial ( /1012/ed_fsduty.html)), the journal’s editor opined that FSOs resisting Iraq assignments should “stop whining and do your duty.” Our associate publisher, in another editorial ( /0103/cott/cotter_rigors.html), was less judgmental and stressed some longstanding issues that contribute to current assignment difficulties, but nonetheless concluded that “all Foreign Service employees accept the terms of their employment which include willingness to serve wherever assigned.” We are pleased to present the view of a third retired FSO in this essay, which was originally published in the February 2008 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, and is used here by permission. He finds that the “king’s shilling” is debased currency in today’s State Department. — Ed.

Guest Editorial: Taking the King’s Shilling
by David T. Jones

We all need to go to the C Street entrance of the Department of State. We need to look again at the Memorial Plaques on the east and west sides of the lobby and review the names associated with our generation-ago venture in Vietnam (33 on the east side; seven on the west). They range from the still-renowned John Paul Vann, made famous as one of David Halberstam’s “best and brightest,” to those who were known only to family and friends.

In so doing, we need to appreciate again that taking the “king’s shilling” sometimes incurs personal liability, requiring us to go places we would not otherwise serve. For a period in the late 1960s, every unmarried entering Foreign Service officer who had not already undertaken military service was assigned to Vietnam. These officers were primarily detailed to the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program. CORDS operated in the provinces to support local officials in their campaign to win hearts and minds. Perhaps today one might call them Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

By 1971 or 1972, it was clear that the war was lost. Even those who believed in the effort to defeat communism and feared the prospect of toppling dominoes throughout the region sensed that was the case. The inspiration taken from John F. Kennedy and reinforced by his assassination, to “bear any burden” and “pay any price,” had dissipated. National elections had rendered a clear verdict that the price was now too high, the burden too heavy. And while the consequences of defeat were unknowable, they were deemed endurable.

Globally, U.S. prestige was at a low ebb. We were excoriated in the global media and denounced at the United Nations; our support for Israel during and after the 1973 war resulted in an Arab oil embargo and rupture of relations with most Arab/Muslim states.

This animosity was somewhat tempered by the reality that, at least within NATO’s realm, U.S. forces remained vitally necessary to shield Western Europeans’ national independence and even survival from Soviet/Warsaw Pact hostility. But the French were sardonically amused at the Americans’ inability to do any better in Indochina than they had, while most “neutrals” leaned left toward socialism and viewed free markets as archaic or corrupt.

Domestically, President Johnson was reviled (“Hey, hey, LBJ; how many babies did you kill today?”), and President Nixon fared little better. The Department of State was hardly a snake pit of dissent over Vietnam policy, but senior officials largely ignored the dissent that was voiced or paid no more than lip service to dissenters’ demurs. Does any of the foregoing sound familiar?

Yet even though they knew, or at least believed, that the U.S. effort in Vietnam was futile, those assigned there continued to take up the cudgels.

By April 1975, when helicopters were rescuing the last desperate refugees from the top of Embassy Saigon, some 58,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces and 40 Foreign Service personnel had died over the course of the Vietnam War. The societal results of that defeat are still echoing within the persistent divisions of the boomer generation. The dominoes didn’t (all) fall, but the genocidal massacres within Southeast Asia and vast population dislocations were abiding results of our participation and the nature of our withdrawal.

Bitter Parallels
Iraq is not Vietnam, to be sure. Not even forgotten history is doomed to repetition, but one can readily identify some parallels that already are bitter in the foretaste. Our rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 (unless you are into conspiracy theories) was based on hideously erroneous intelligence. The consequence of this failure will redound for decades within the intelligence community. As the most recent National Intelligence Estimate about Tehran demonstrates, who dares argue with the same conviction about the consequences of a hypothetical Iranian nuclear program as was done for the putative existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

Admittedly, our secondary objective in Iraq, after having discovered no WMD, is noble: the creation of a stable, multiethnic democratic state to serve as a catalyst for democracy elsewhere in the region. Indeed, it is an objective potentially more compelling that the reflexive anticommunism of the 1960s — even if the current president as its spokesman is less evocative than JFK.

But we have failed in Iraq. Now that we have fought there for longer than in World War II, the U.S. population no longer believes we can achieve even limited success within an acceptable timeframe given existing force constraints. Indeed, we voted to accept defeat in the 2006 election (and will affirm that decision next year in the presidential election).

Current domestic politics are an exercise in maneuvering to affix blame and responsibility on the other guy or gal. Implicitly, Americans are willing to accept the 21st century’s version of the domino theory: greater sectarian slaughter; a “balkanized” Iraq in multiple pieces coincident with regional war; even a resurgent state sponsor of terrorism. Indeed, it is not hard to visualize our multimillion-dollar Baghdad embassy ablaze as helicopters vanish into the distance with the last of our Marine guards aboard. If the burning twin towers of 9/11 were one bookend for an era, the destroyed embassy would be another.

Should something less horrific eventuate — e.g., the “surge” works, sectarian violence declines (if only because of semi-voluntary ethnic cleansing), and the various political Sunni-Shia-Kurdish “horses” learn to talk — that will be fine, but Americans won’t bet their Social Security checks on a sanguine outcome. The decline in domestic debate reflects casualty reductions, not any perception that “exit” is no longer the proximate objective.

As our bottom line, we will claim that we eliminated an odious dictator — and take satisfaction in the likelihood that Iraq will never have WMD. Or we will shrug that we led Iraqis to democracy, but they declined to drink. Either way, we will let historians do the cost/benefit analysis.

Debased Coinage
For the Foreign Service, it is brutally clear that the king’s shilling is debased coinage in today’s State Department. When, at one point in the autumn of 2007, 98 of 106 midlevel slots were reportedly unfilled in Baghdad, the Foreign Service rank and file said, “Hell, no, we won’t go.”

Or, at least, we won’t go voluntarily.

The wide circulation of a satirical “New FSO Exam” that suggests anyone with Arabic-language skills will be immediately accepted — and equally immediately dispatched to Iraq — suggests a widespread attitude change within the Foreign Service. The last generation “drank the Kool-Aid,” but this generation has learned that “fool me twice, shame on me.” In their eyes, not only don’t those in charge know best, but they are dunces. Indeed, so far as Iraq is concerned, at this juncture, all of the “boy scouts” who genuinely believed in the mission have already served there. And the careerists who viewed Iraq as a ticket in need of punching for the upward trail already have their T-shirts and have moved on.

So far as the rest of the Service is concerned, the bribes to serve in Iraq are not large enough, the implicit promises of professional preference are not assured, and the mission looks like a failure with which they have no desire to be associated. Consequently, for the first time in my professional memory, the specter of directed assignments has been bruited about. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists that meeting this need is a top priority but career professionals have their doubts.

In the midst of the controversy, AFSA President John Naland issued a riposte to those outside the department critical of Foreign Service attitudes. He mounted a statistical case to demonstrate that State is pulling its weight, noting that our personnel strength is tiny (there are more members of military bands than State Department diplomats), widely dispersed among 267 embassies, consulates and missions, and largely assigned overseas — many of them hardship posts. That is all true, yet the response falls into the “protest too much” category.

Obviously, beneath the perception that we are not pulling our weight — a view reinforced by the desperate maneuvers to fill unattractive slots with even marginally qualified candidates – there is an underlying reality that we must appreciate. Frankly, many FSOs believe that they are the equivalent of finely honed daggers being used to chop wood. Despite the fact that worldwide availability is a prerequisite for joining the Foreign Service, we want to take the government’s shilling but spend it in places of our choosing.

It isn’t news that individuals want to eat their cake and have it, too. Nor is it a case of “man bites dog” that few people will blithely go into harm’s way if a detour is available. But what is news is that an ostensibly disciplined profession has so comprehensively rejected its leadership.

In the end, the Foreign Service reflects U.S. society and does so now far more than in the past. Even the armed forces are expressing barely muted resentments over the systemic and individual stress of repeated Iraq assignments. We all need to appreciate the stringent new limits on our nation’s ability to project power and endure punishment under ambiguous circumstances.

Our losses in armed forces and diplomatic personnel are less than a tenth of those who died in Vietnam. If our practical societal limits are now approximately 4,000 military personnel killed in action (albeit all volunteers) and three Foreign Service personnel (likewise, all volunteers), we will have to re-tailor our foreign affairs objectives to meet the cloth that is available.

But so far as the Foreign Service is concerned, the Vietnam past is not the Iraq prologue.End.


David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service officer, is a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy as well as to the Foreign Service Journal.

Comments are closed.