This point marks the end of the first twelve years, the nucleus and the core of my foreign service career. I was one year away from retirement eligibility, assuming 50 years old and taking my military time into consideration. But in fact there would be eight more years of service and a year, more or less, of administrative leave with pay before my retirement at the end.
The final eight years of my foreign service career were pretty stellar until the very end. We can compress it to a single paragraph. It began with assignment, in 2004, as special assistant to the Bureau of Administration Assistant Secretary and includes assignments as special assistant to the Under Secretary of Management, Arabic language training at FSI, deputy management counselor in Cairo, chief of staff in Baghdad, DCM and Charge d’affaires in Damascus, and NEA/RMA office director.
I summarized it all into this note I sent to a long lost prep school classmate:
I am one to talk. After Bissau, Luanda and Accra, I returned to DC to work East Africa issues. Then I took a job in Cairo. Cairo morphed into Baghdad. Baghdad morphed into Damascus. The Islamic civilization trifecta. I started to wonder how I would survive without hearing the call to prayer throughout the day! Finally I am back in DC. There is no call to prayer in DC, only the low frequency rumbling of the federal bureaucracy, grinding human souls into inanimate dust.
It all ends with my last assignment, 2011-2012, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Maghreb (North Africa), a position from which I was unceremoniously but conveniently, shamefully, ingloriously and inaccurately removed on December 18, 2012 as part of an over-zealous Department response to unfounded fears of Congressional fallout from the Benghazi ARB report.
Here is a note I wrote to my poetry group, The Breakfast Club, in late December, 2012:
“Dear Breakfast Clubbers: I thought about you all as I poured the second cup of french-pressed goodness and decided to share in this forum some life reflections. I have had a lot of free time since my dismissal at State on December 18. Still on the payroll, but with no desk and no secretary to order my life, I have been free to take long morning walks, hit the DC think tanks after breakfast, and work on writing projects in the afternoon. The passage of time has given me a clearer understanding of the whole administrative process that envelops me. It (this administrative leave period) was only supposed to last for a few days until Clinton could testify before Congress. But she got sick and had to postpone so my release was delayed until after her testimony, now scheduled for January 24.
My actual piece is this whole Benghazi drama is actually quite small. I was responsible for North Africa, but because Libya was so sexy, several more senior folks carved parts out, including people VERY well connected to the Clinton machine. Of course, they couldn’t be fingered, so it rolled down to me, unconnected me, in a most undignified and uncollegial way.
In a letter to the senior politicos who made this decision, leaked my name to the press, and executed this decision, I told them the way they treated and were treating me was shabby, thuggish and third worldly, and that I actually held the third world in a higher regard, having spent most of my career there. They didn’t like that. But my, wasn’t it poetic!?
The whole thing is further complicated because my small part has become a chink in Clinton’s armor, and, consequently, in Obama’s armor, since they both “signed off” on the findings of the Benghazi ARB, whose official unclassified report, by the way, mentions neither my name nor my position as deputy assistant secretary for the Maghreb. Unfortunately for me, any effort to extract me from this mess, to exonerate me, to clear my name, risks exposing Clinton and Obama managerial weaknesses, not to mention policy flaws that the political opposition would love to exploit.
The Clinton machine is focused on 2016, already. The Obama machine, as it has for the past four years, lacks any true foreign policy focus. This is Washington, baby. The buck never stops; it never even slows down. I have decided to share with the Breakfast Club, and any ModPoers who lurk therein, this inside view of Washington policy making.
I will get through this: they use tough, resilient material to make the Maxwells and Hairstons down in piedmont North Carolina. There will be poems written, and memoirs, and maybe even a slick movie. Yeah, a Spielberg slick movie. “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.” –Omar Khayyam. p.s. Keep up with the latest by occasionally checking out my poetry blog: http://poemsbyray.blogspot.com
People have asked me if my demise were somehow racially determined. I have never “traded” on my race. I never had to. I grew up in a very nurturing community, an “African village” of sorts in Greensboro, NC. We lived less than an hour’s drive from the farming and rural communities where my parents, and their parents, and their parents, and their parents were raised. All the way back to Great Grandaddy Caswell Maxwell and Great Grandmama Emily Weatherly and 2nd Great Grandaddy Frank Pritchett and 2nd Great Grandmama Hannah Weatherly and Great Grandaddy Dick Rankin and Great Grandma Mary and 2nd Great Grandma Harriot on Daddy’s side, and Great Grandma Sallie and Great Grandpa Tom and 2nd Great Grandma (Big Mama) Rhodie and 2nd Great Grand Papa Nelson and 2nd Great Grandpa Sonny and 2nd Great Grandma Mariah on Mama’s side and everybody in between all lived their lives and died right there in Guilford County, NC and Pittsylvania County, VA. The farms and plantations where generations of my enslaved ancestors lived and labored are also inside that one-hour radius. One could say, from a spiritual level, that I grew up under the watchful eye of multiple generations of African ancestors. It feels sometimes they are still watching over me. May they all rest in peace.
(Note: I didn’t consciously think about it at the time I was writing the paragraph above, but this listing of or calling on the ancestors is a practice steeped in African spiritualism. It’s a recurrent theme in August Wilson’s plays, esp. Gem of the Ocean, The Piano Lesson, and King Hedley II. End note.)
For me, doing the work was always sufficient, beginning in my village, then on the track and in the classroom at Woodberry and extending over a succession of submarines and ships where I proudly served and institutions where I studied. I never claimed victimhood nor projected guilt onto others. I am of African descent and my affirmation of my Africanness and my Americanness have worked out more to my benefit than to my detriment over the course of my life and professional career. Uniting me with my ancestors, both heritages have given me confidence and strength and developed in me a well-built internal honor code. I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors. I stand – on holy ground. That’s my opinion and has been my guiding principle. I have always been “black and proud.” But race in and of itself is a merely a social construct, plain and simple. Don’t forget it.
In 2020, we live in an extreme racially-charged atmosphere. In most election years we watch evidence emerge of forces that display and give rise to divisive tendencies in society. Politics reign. Stir up and excite the masses to get their vote. It seems more intense this year but that is because of widespread opposition to the government in mainstream and social media. Information warfare is being waged in every town and hamlet, in every city, at every internet node.
For better or for worse, the State Department and the Foreign Service do not exist in a vacuum. The same ills that exist in broader American society are normally distributed across all USG agencies and institutions, including the Foreign Service. To believe otherwise is being naive, if not intentionally dishonest.
That’s it, y’all. That’s all she wrote.
The next and final part (bonus) highlights the twelve months I spent in Iraq in a thoughtful and perhaps philosophic way. Sit back, pop some popcorn, and enjoy!
Addendum #1: Benghazi Quartet
“Many others did go and there was a sacrifice, of what shall we, a sheep, a hen, a cock, a village, a ruin, and all that and then that having been blessed let us bless it.” – Gertrude Stein, Idem the Same – Let Us Describe
The Queen’s Henchmen
request the pleasure of your company
at a Lynching – to be held
at 23rd and C Streets NW
on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 –
just past sunset.
Dress: Formal, Masks and Hoods –
the four being lynched
must never know the identities
of their executioners, or what/
whose sin required their sacrifice.
A blood sacrifice –
to divert the hounds,
to appease the gods,
to cleanse our filth and
satisfy our guilty consciences.
Arrive promptly at sunset –
injustice will be swift.
There will be no trial,
no review of evidence,
no due process, and
Dress warmly –
a chilling effect will instantly
envelop Foggy Bottom.
Total impunity at the top.
A kangaroo court
in a banana republic.
Refreshments will not be served
because of the continuing resolution.
And the ones being lynched?
Who cares? They are pawns in a game.
Our game. All suckers, all fools,
all knaves who volunteered to serve – us.
And the truth? The truth?
What difference at this point does it make?
In case of inclement weather,
or the Queen’s incapacitation,
the Queen’s Henchmen will carry out
this lynching – as ordered, as planned.
2. The Wizard of Oz
The wicked witch of the East?
The old, decrepit, ancient East?
House fell on her ass during the storm.
Feet all shriveled up.
That witch ain’t going nowhere!
Ain’t gon bother nobody!
But the wicked witch of the West?
The new, modern, amoral West?
She’s alive and kicking.
Causing all kinds of trouble.
Done signed a deal with the Wizard –
the lying Wizard.
Dorothy has her hands full with those two.
And the lion ain’t got no courage.
3. Trapped in a purgatory…
“The top of the pyramid – the organization is composed of Technologists who only pretend to have power, although they are only actors in the theater of mirrors. When the mirror is broken they die, because the internal drive of their actions vanishes.” – Svetislav Basara, The Cyclist Conspiracy
Trapped in a purgatory
of their own conceit…
The web of lies they weave
gets tighter and tighter
in its deceit
until it bottoms out –
at a very low frequency –
It may be just
a matter of perception –
they can’t undo their wrongs
for fear it’d undermine their
perceived authority –
an authority they think
they require to stay in charge.
Yet all the while,
the more they talk,
the more they lie,
and the deeper down
the hole they go.
There’s nothing I need
to go back to –
nothing to re-litigate –
nothing to defend –
and certainly nothing to prove
to the unworthy.
Just wait….just wait
and feed them rope.
4. Man and the expanding universe: art
moral courage dies
and corruption’s stench prevails –
lies erase the truth –
my LinkedIn friends keep endorsing me
for Government. But me and Uncle Sam
are a shrinking universe. I’m leaving
the troop that errs, the team that lies,
leaders who destroy lives for sport, as art –
themselves a crime, a sin, a plague. Farewell.
Addendum #2: They got it all wrong on Benghazi
“You are taking this all too personally, Raymond. It is not about you, it is about Hillary Clinton and 2016.”
Those words were uttered by the State Department ombudsman in January 2013 in an apparently well-intentioned attempt to simultaneously admonish and console me. Her assessments probably were right, but when you are run over by the bus it is difficult to appreciate that it was swerving to avoid somebody else.
The attack on our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 and the resulting deaths of four U. S. government representatives were horrific. The American people deserve a complete and accurate account of those events. However, the investigation conducted by the State Department’s Benghazi Accountability Review Board (ARB) into the events was woefully incomplete and consequently misleading. Perhaps most importantly, the ARB failed to interview a number of key officials who had a direct role in decisions regarding Libya. Among the officials not interviewed by the ARB were three high-level political appointees: Thomas Nides, Deputy Secretary of State and the official with overall responsibility for management of Department resources in Libya; Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs and the Department’s point person for ensuring (to the extent possible) appropriate employment of the thousands of US-provided shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles in Libya; and Ben Fishman, the National Security Council (NSC) Director for Libya.
Also limiting the ARB’s investigation was the fact that the Board, despite its claims to having unfettered access to documentation, experienced – perhaps unknowingly – the same problems gaining access to emails, memos and similar materials that Congressional committees later faced. The Board’s difficulty in gaining access to information was not accidental, it was by design. When the ARB issued its call for documents, the executive directorate of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) was placed in charge of collecting all emails and other relevant documents. However, once the documents were gathered and boxed, a select group of NEA staffers spent a weekend in a basement operations center pouring through the entire collection. I was not invited to that after-hours endeavor, but I heard about it and decided to check it out on a Sunday afternoon. There, one of the staffers from NEA’s Office of Maghreb Affairs explained the operation to me. “Ray,” she said, “we are to go through these stacks and pull out anything that might put anybody in the NEA Front Office (i.e., Assistant Secretary Beth Jones or Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) Elizabeth Dibble) or the 7th Floor (State Department short-hand for the Secretary of State and her principal advisors) in a bad light.”
A few minutes later, in walked Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to Secretary of State Clinton, and Jake Sullivan, another trusted Clinton advisor. When Cheryl saw me she snapped, “Who are you?” Jake explained, “That’s Ray Maxwell, an NEA DAS.” She conceded, “Well, OK.” A few minutes later I voted with my feet and returned home.
Despite its claims to being independent, the ARB was anything but. Sworn Congressional testimony revealed that ARB co-chair Admiral Michael Mullen made phone calls to Cheryl Mills to report on the fitness of a potential Congressional witness who had been interviewed by the ARB. When questioned about that September 2013 testimony, ARB co-chair Ambassador Thomas Pickering said he would not have “said that.” His response was carefully parsed diplo-speak. What he did not say was that he would not have “done that.” Because of the casualness of the remark that Admiral Mullen made and the oblique reference Ambassador Pickering made to it, we have every reason to believe that communications between the ARB and the Secretary’s staff was on-going during the ARB process. Even if contact occurred only that one time, that is NOT being independent.
Despite claims to impartiality, several officials involved in the Benghazi ARB, and in the overall damage control process following the events of September 2012, had possible tracks to cover from previous fatal attacks of U. S. diplomatic facilities, specifically the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998. In the 1998 East Africa bombings, 224 lives were lost, including those of twelve Americans. Susan Rice, currently President Obama’s National Security Advisor and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 2012, was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in 1998 and consequently in the direct chain of command that declined then-Ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell’s request of additional security funding. ARB co-chair Thomas Pickering was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in 1998, also in that chain of command. Dick Shinnick, a member of the Benghazi ARB committee, in 1998 was then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s Executive Director. Current Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy was the acting Under Secretary for Management in 1998. I remember those officials and their positions in 1998 because I was a watch stander in the State Department’s Operations Center in 1998 and was on watch the night of the bombings. No-one was held accountable in 1998, which generated increased pressure to assign responsibility and name names after the Benghazi attack.
Lest we forget, our facility in Benghazi was not a consulate. That would have required Congressional approval and direct funding. In fact, the U. S. government presence in Benghazi was not primarily a State Department operation at all. It was, as has been reported widely in the media, a CIA operation. Did the ARB question why the CIA did not provide better security? Was anybody from the CIA held accountable? Was anybody from the CIA even interviewed by the ARB? No, no and no.
Finally, the ARB report completely let Congress off the hook, assigning no specific blame to Congress for the security funding decisions it had made. Almost certainly, this aspect of the ARB report was specifically designed to persuade members of Congress to find the report’s findings palatable. It worked. The chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the time of the report’s release focused solely on the status of the four people named in the classified section of the report. “Why can’t they be fired?” she asked. “What is being done to discipline them?” she demanded. Never did she ask, “Did they receive due process?” Or even, “Are we sure the findings are correct?” State Department political leadership played Congress like the hard-to-tune viola I played in my youth.
Let’s face facts and call the Benghazi ARB by its proper name. It was a disgrace. It perpetrated a disservice to the memory of the U.S. officials who lost their lives on September 11, 2012. The ARB inquiry was, at best, a shoddily executed attempt at damage control, both in Foggy Bottom and on Capitol Hill. I am confident that history ultimately will judge the ARB report to be a flawed product and will conclude that the entire ARB process, unfortunately, was little more than an exercise in misdirection and political theatrics.
Addendum 3. A Pawn in a Damage Control Exercise – February 10, 2013
I was a pawn in a damage control exercise, nothing more and nothing less. It took me several weeks to arrive at that conclusion, but acceptance is only the final stage of loss and it took me these seven weeks to arrive at that final stage.
To tell this story properly, we must go back to Madrid, and to early August, 2011. My wife and I were on a two-week long bus tour of Portugal and Spain. En route to Madrid, my IPhone battery died. Too many photographs of castles and cathedrals. As soon as we arrived at the designated hotel in Madrid I started a battery charge. An e-mail appeared from the NEA Assistant Secretary, Jeffrey Feltman.
Never mind. It’s all too insane to even be believable…
Upon return to the U.S. in late August 2011, I reported to the Near East bureau (NEA) and assumed the Maghreb deputy assistant secretary (DAS) position I had not sought instead of the Bureau of African Affairs deputy executive director position I had been sought and been assigned to. Libya was high on the list of US foreign policy interests at the time, in fact, at the very top of the NEA list of priorities. Now, does anyone think that the State Department and the US Government would all of a sudden entrust the totality of Libya policy making to a newly-minted DAS, a management officer who had just weeks before been making preps to take the AF/EX deputy executive director position? Does it make sense? Really? Of course not. It would have been the height of Department managerial incompetence to have done so.
The principal deputy assistant secretary (PDAS) told me she would maintain the lead on Libya, since she had covered it in the month since DAS Sanderson’s departure in late July and also covered it from the European perspective in her previous position as EUR DAS. Special envoy for Middle East transitions William Taylor would carve out a major share of Libya governance and assistance business. PolMil (PM) bureau assistant secretary Andrew Shapiro would have a major slice of Libya policy with weapons transfers and MANPADS. Counter-terrorism (CT) director Dan Benjamin would carve out the huge counter-terrorism slice. I would be left with the remainders: regional issues and border issues. Economic (EB) under secretary Robert Hormatz and Energy assistant secretary Carlos Pascual would cover Libya’s large energy and finance sectors. (Note: there is no intention here to locate or divert the responsibility for Libya to other offices, but to demonstrate the diffusion of responsibility throughout the building. End note.) In short, I would be concentrating my time on the other countries in the Maghreb, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Western Sahara. I remember feeling just a bit put off by the whole scenario, but I knew from experience there was no success to be achieved in fighting that particular type of turf battle. So I let it go.
I came late to the game, and the office director for the MAG office had long before established the practice of the daily phone call to post. I understood clearly that he was looking to pad his evaluation with Libya stuff in order to get promoted across the senior threshold and wanted to maintain ownership of that daily phone call. Everybody does that. I told him not only would I allow it, but I would make sure that, through the EER process and the award process, I would do everything possible to make sure he got promoted in the 2012 cycle. My only request was that he brief me on the contents of the calls and copy me on his e-mails to the assistant secretary and the PDAS. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. No real cause for alarm.
Many events happened in the Maghreb over the next year. I maintained my focus on Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Western Sahara, visiting all three countries where we had posts, making stops in Germany en route on each separate trip to consult with AFRICOM colleagues. Over the course of 16 months we pulled off successful strategic dialogue events in Washington with all three countries. With the exception of the injured Libyan fighters hospital visit to Boston for treatment, the disposition of Qadafi family members in Niger and Algeria, and a series of meetings on border security I led that affected Tunisia and Algeria, I steered clear of Libya issues. Everything had been carved away and parceled out. It wasn’t my turf. “Let Libya embellish their EER’s,” I thought to myself of all those people who “owned” various slices of Libya. (If I were a lawyer, I’d find a way to subpoena EER’s and award nominations to see who took credit and who got performance pay for “doing” Libya.) I would suffice myself with doing the best job I could with what countries I had left, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Western Sahara, work closely with the desk officers and the MAG staff, and develop relations across the building and in the interagency on those country’s issues. And there was plenty to do. (Note: I never visited Libya as DAS. I transited the Tripoli airport in December, 2007 on a personal trip from Cairo to Dakar. Nor did I ever attend international meetings regarding Libya. The NSS had a Libya director, Ben Fishman. Most, 99% of Ben’s interactions were with the MAG office director and the NEA PDAS. None of this is news, everybody in the Libya business can attest to anything mentioned here. End note.)
In December 2011, after being courted by a functional bureau and actually flirting with the idea of leaving NEA to take a PDAS position, I decided I would remain in NEA but retire in the summer of 2011 to explore pursuits outside of State. I had over thirty years of service and I was over fifty. It was time. I spoke with then A/S Feltman and PDAS Dibble about a July departure, which later morphed into a mid-September departure. In July I submitted my paperwork and was paneled for the October 2012 Job Search Program and a final retirement date of November 30, 2012. I negotiated with the front office my final day in NEA as September 21, 2012.
We got reports, early in the day on September 11, 2012, that the embassy in Cairo had been attacked by protesters. Later in the afternoon, we started receiving reports of attacks on the compound in Benghazi. Then there was a lull in the reports, a weird, eerie lull, followed, late in the evening, by reports that an unidentified communicator had been killed, then by reports that he had survived the attack, then reports that he had in fact been killed. The acting assistant secretary, Beth Jones, called EUR first, because Sean’s family was in the Netherlands. Then she called the embassy in The Hague. Ultimately, the DCM at the embassy in The Hague made the call to inform the family. Details on Chris remained very sketchy throughout the early evening. But by 10 pm, we started to fear the worse, that something awful had happened and we would never see Chris again. I went home just after midnight.
Friday of the following week, September 21, 2012, was my final scheduled day in the NEA bureau. I went into PDAS Liz Dibble’s office early on Monday, September 17, 2012. I told her that the bureau and the North Africa office were in a state of total disarray because of what had happened in Benghazi. I told her I had some career plans, but nothing that couldn’t be postponed, and that if the Bureau needed me to stay on the job, I was willing to stay. She said she wanted to consult with Beth first and would get back to me. I saw her again around 10 am that same day in the corridor. She said she had spoken to Beth and asked me would I please stay. I agreed to stay until the next Job Search Program cycle in March, 2013.
Once the Accountability Review Board (ARB) was established, I started seeing my former boss Dick Shinnick in the corridors. I had worked for Dick when I was a special assistant to the Under Secretary for Management in 2005. We also knew each other from my days on the Watch (1997-1998) when he was S/EX executive director. On one particular day, a couple of weeks prior to my interview, I saw Dick at one of the elevator banks. “How is the ARB going?” I asked him. Dick said, “Ray, the ARB is not getting very much context from the interviews. When you come up, try to provide some context.” I said, “You know I don’t have much to do with Libya, but I will try to provide what context I can.”
A couple of weeks later, on November 20 to be exact, I arrived at work in the morning and discovered an 11 am ARB interview had been placed on my Outlook schedule. So I went. Alone. Without an attorney. I never received the letter that says you can bring an attorney (we did receive such a letter for the group interview on October 4) and couldn’t have arranged for an attorney in a day’s notice anyway. Following up on Dick’s request, I attempted to provide “context” to the discussion that we had. The non-disclosure agreement the ARB had me sign precludes any further discussion of what was they asked me and what I responded. It ended after about an hour and a half and I went back to my office. At that point, I had no idea I was on anybody’s hit list. In fact, I don’t think I was.
December 18, 2012, was the day the ARB Report was released. I came back to my office after lunch and there was an e-mail from acting assistant secretary Beth Jone’s OMS that I should meet with Beth at 2 pm. I went to her office at 2, but she was late getting back from a 7th floor meeting, so I returned to my office. I got a call around 2:20 that Beth was ready to see me, so I went to her office. She invited me in and closed the door. She told me the ARB report had been released and that it was not complementary to the Department, to NEA, or to me. She said the PDAS, Liz Dibble, was reading the classified report in the SCIF, and that she had not yet seen it. Then she said she had been instructed by Cheryl Mills to relieve me of the DAS position, that I was fired, and that I should have all my personal belongings out of the office by close of business that same day. She said Liz would identify a place where I could keep my things temporarily, and that I could stay in the Bureau as some sort of senior adviser. She said the Bureau was going to take care of me and that I didn’t need to “lawyer up.” Those were her words.
I waited in my office to hear from Liz on the temporary office space. No phone call, no e-mail, no face darkened my doorway. At 6:30 pm I put my few personal belonging in one of those paper grocery bags, departed the building, and started the walk home. The bag tore before I reached my building, and my belongings spilled out onto the sidewalk. Luckily, a neighbor passed me on the street and offered to return with a box.
I later learned that folks on the seventh floor scrambled that day (Tuesday, December 18) in preparation for both the release of the report and the Thursday congressional testimony by Deputy Secretaries Burns and Nides. They feared a strong congressional backlash if they didn’t name some names of people they could say were responsible for security lapses in Benghazi. To avert that backlash, Tuesday night The Department of State leaked my name to the press, along with the names of the two DS agents. Then the spokesperson officially confirmed our names the next morning. The unclassified report did not name names or identify positions, it only identified the NEA and DS bureaus. So if it wasn’t in the ARB unclassified report, I concluded it must have been State who leaked the names.
The cloud caused by the immediate negative press coverage in mid-December had a one silver lining: my inbox overflowed for several weeks with hundreds if not thousands of emails and Facebook posts expressing outrage and support, from sitting and retired ambassadors, from former bosses and subordinates, from FSN’s at posts where I had served, from FSO colleagues the world over, from old girlfriends, old Navy shipmates, relatives, foreign diplomats with whom I have served, and many, many others. I remain deeply grateful for those expressions of outrage and support.
I was an expendable pawn in a damage control exercise. No more, no less. The person or people from the 7th floor who ordered my removal didn’t know me from Adam. They knew nothing about me or my work. They didn’t have the courage to call me up to the 7th floor, face me, and ask me to fall on my sword and/or take one for the team. Until I see the classified report, I will continue to doubt they even had the evidence to remove me. There was no due process as required by law and custom. There was just a purported 7th floor need for a scapegoat and the unbridled ability and capacity to act overzealously, impulsively and with impunity. What is truly unfortunate is that my scapegoating and removal resolved none, not a one, of the NEA or Department managerial deficiencies identified by the ARB.
More poems from the period
Sonnet #37 Return of the Muse – Cairo, Egypt
your spirit left me long, long years ago
your presence left me longer. I forgot
the forms, the rhythms of your loveliness,
the peace and calm you brought me, the silence
and the loneliness we shared. I lost track,
misplaced the way back, through the years, of all
you taught me about words, and songs, and notes,
and rhymes, and meter, and measure…and love.
Oh daughter, oh sister, oh spirit, deep,
who sent you back to me? What force or power
conjured you up and breathed into you life?
And why? Why here and now? And to what end?
It matters not. I worship at your feet.
I hear and I obey; I write, I write…
Cairo, Egypt August 2006
Sonnet #38 – Damascene Sonnet
You lose some things you cherish as you pass
Through life’s transitions. Letters you received
May not survive a flood — first drafts of poems
You wrote get lost in shipments — coffee mugs
Disappear, book collections may not stay
Intact when divorce or death part the waves
Of time. Friendships and associations
You thought would be there in your grayer years
May only survive a season, or not —
And reasons for a friendship come and go
Like tides that flood and ebb and flood again.
The things that last a lifetime, then, are rare
And few, and even random….so enjoy
The fleeting now, breathe deeply, smile freely.
Damascus, Syria July 2009
Sonnet #39 (without punctuation)
We mourn the setting of a brilliant star
Who blazed a path for many, then burned out
At first he sang sweet songs of puppy love
He later sought through song to heal a world
His passions lifted us before his fall
As children we adored his boyish ways
We grew, became adults with his success
As men and women we thought we knew his pain
His stardom overswept us like the dust
That sweet melodic voice became a rasp
On our subconsciousness, his call to heal
Was crowded out by bills and laws and hate
And so we mourn a man who paid the price
And hope that lesser lights will now suffice
Damascus, Syria July 2009
I spent a leisure afternoon
at Galleria Borghese
and saw some human faces —
carved in stone —
that gave me pause…
There was Bernini’s David, biting
his lip in keen determination
to land five smooth stones
on his chosen target. And I recall
that lip-biting determination
’cause I have bit that lip once or twice…
And Pauline Bonaparte, resting reflectively
on a mattress of marble
whose flowing wrinkles and
living indentations showed the
slight weight of the subject
in dynamic detail.
And look, there’s Daphne fleeing Apollo,
preferring to turn herself into a tree, rather
than live the life of an object
of passionate pursuit.
Apollo, uncaring, feels her heart
still beating as her flesh turns to bark,
as her arms become branches.
And Hermaphroditus, lying in repose,
hiding her passion and her bisexed parts.
And finally, perhaps Bernini’s greatest
work of art — Aeneas and Anchises.
Sadly, I recognize homeless Anchises’ look of worry.
And sadly, I know Aeneas’ burden
as he flees the ruins of his native city.
Sadly, so sadly, I know these faces.
“Leges sine moribus vanae” (Laws without morals are useless.)
– Horace’s III.24 (Book 3, Ode 24)
At the Bremerton cottage
I smell the fragrant dried flowers
in the bathroom, the cat litter box
the cool breeze off the bay,
the perfume from the secret box…
I enter the cave slowly, carefully –
thick foliage, vines cover the entrance,
cutting me, beckoning me…
inside is warm and humid.
a small stream trickles without sound…
a soft whisper –
an earthquake, slowly, carefully gathers –
another whisper –
a volcano erupts – hot molten lava
from deep within floods the cave
in wave upon wave
upon wave of motion.
then all is Still –
Notes from ModPo week 7
I know you only exist inside my head –
And you only have a presence inside my soul –
I know you don’t live
Around the corner at Western Presbyterian
Or across the street at St. Mary’s Episcopal
Or twenty-three blocks away on Capitol Hill…
But it is good to have you around now and then,
to take the blame, to absorb the praise…
A cat named Jesus walked the earth,
turned some water into wine,
fed a big crowd with a few loaves of bread,
showed some dudes how to catch fish
and become fishers of men…
But the government killed him, just like it killed Martin…
like it killed Malcolm, like it killed Medgar…
The government can kill whoever it wants,
whenever it wants, ’cause they don’t buy that
“thou shalt not kill” bullshit –
One more thing before I let you go, Lord.
Maybe two more things:
Look, Lord, I’m not talking to you because
I want or need a heaven, or a homeland,
or a nirvana, or any other type of guarantee
that people claim they get from you…
Because I know, Lord, you only exist
inside my head –
And you only live inside my soul –
And any other representation
of you is a big con game
run by Big Con Men.
ModPo prompted flashbacks…
The three of us returned to the barracks
after a late Saturday night dancing to loud reggae
at a smoky club in downtown New London
called Cool Runnings.
The sun was rising – it was almost time for breakfast.
I played Mahjong – to kill some time –
with the Chinese Wave
who spoke with a really deep Bostonian accent –
While her roommate, Annie, from Boligee,
carefully read my palms and
told me my fortune with playing cards –
I recall my fortune and Annie was gentle
and sweet, but I can’t remember
the Chinese Wave’s name.
Notes from ModPo Essay #4 preps
I was afraid to taste this aleatory madness,
fearful its oracle might reveal too much
about me to me
But after some deliberation
and some introspective encouragement
I said to myself, “what the heck?”
A large part of survival is the will,
the audacity, even the courage
simply to be.
Notes from ModPo week 9
The coffee table is stacked with poetry books:
All my ModPo favorites: Niedecker Armentrout
Dickinson Tolson Whitman Stein
Sun Ra Kaufman WCW Koch the Last Poets
My wife says if I bring another book into this apartment
She will scream
Then we will scream together, in harmony
Or at least in unison
And that is against the Co-op Rules!
The Chevy Chase Branch of DC Public
Library has the best ModPo collection.
You check them out on-line and they ship
the books down to the West End branch.
Only takes three days.
UIBC (United Institutional Baptist Church)
A purgatory of my own conceit and choice –
wherefore a Mephistopheles?
The first half of shahada got it right:
There is no small-g god.
In the Baptist church where I was raised,
between the end of Sunday School
and the start of the 11 o’clock service,
the old ladies in big hats sang the songs of old.
We would giggle and call them slavery songs
But we listened, and sometimes, we sang along.
You know the storm is passing over,
They sang in low tones and in flat notes…
There’ll be nooooo moooooore weeping….
Nooooo moooooore weeping
Noooo mooooore weeping over me…
And before I be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave
And I’ll go home, home to my Lord, and I’ll be free…
They sang in high notes and sharp tones…
That’s alright, that’s alright
That’s alright, that’s alright
As long as I know I got a seat
in the kingdom,
They sang without scales
They sang without any lyrics you could read
They sang from their hearts
They sang from their souls
They sang words and hopes and dreams
passed down from a dark despair.
They just made shit up.
thinking about the news some more…
These folks who “do” the Muslim world,
learn Arabic, groove with the locals,
become a part of that word/world.
They convert to Islam
or Islam converts to them.
They declare shahada
or shahada declares them.
those who actively convert
have some sense about the whole thing.
some balance, some equilibrium;
but those who are passively converted
take on all the sins and stains of the faith.
religion is nothing to play with. akhi.
marry four wives…
stone the fornicators and adulterers…
slay the disbelievers and hypocrites…
cut off the hands of thieves…
silliness, I tell you.
This news is silliness, all.
My Feet Spoke to me…
One day walking home from work
My feet spoke to me. They said:
“Ray, we don’t want you sticking us in your fancy
brown custom-made dress shoes from Portugal.
They are tight, and our toes can’t move around freely.”
“OK,” I said, “let’s try
an older pair tomorrow,
something more worn,
more broken in.”
My feet said,
“OK, but if we don’t like it, you won’t like it either.”
I said, “OK, tomorrow we will wear the ECCO’s,
the Baghdad ECCO’s that are well-worn and broken in.”
The next day my feet apoke to me again. They said,
“Ray, we don’t like the ECCO’s either. We discussed it
among ourselves and decided we want the brown leather
Saucony’s, you know, the running shoes.”
I said, “but I can’t wear running shoes to work with a Suit.”
“If you don’t, we won’t like it. And you won’t like it either.”
So Sunday night I cleaned up
the Sauconys and gave them
a good buffing with cream polish.
Monday morning my feet were smiling!
The sacrificial lamb
The sacrificial lamb
accrues a certain
amount of honor
from the flock and
a sort of bureaucratic
Those who are dragged
kicking and screaming
to the slaughter have
a most ignoble and forgotten end.
If I were a sculptor
If I were a sculptor
I’d carve in stone
The face of my beloved
I’d sand the surface
Of the stone
To smooth perfection
Because art should represent life
As it is, and as
It ought to be
But I digress
At a moment when discipline
And precision are most required…
I’d chisel her perfectly
Centered nose, on her perfectly
With care and concentration
I’d reproduce the mystic
Contours of her forehead
I’d round out her chin
And save her lips
Then I’d compare
Her sculptured features
To my own
A grotesque genetic mixture
Of master and slave
Of Native and Negro
My weathered face
Burned to a deep hue
I’d ask her:
Is black still beautiful
My African queen?
My Goddess of the Nile?
Or has that fashion changed,
That style gone out of style?
But I digress again –
And I am not a sculptor
I am a poet
And these words are
All I have to preserve
In time, for time,
The beauty of my beloved
December 21, 2012
Facebook status update
Dear friends, dear faithful friends
a luta continua
in this very public initiation
into the sacred rites of the pantheon
of bureaucratic martyrdom.
A Luta continua, e Vitoria é certa
I hear my fellow poets
their pens and keyboards buzzing
memorializing these moments
in song and verse.
Ah! The Beloved Community!
God bless you all
on this, the shortest of days,
the longest of nights,
the winter solstice.
Something is at work
Something is at work
in the Spirit World!
I can hear the rumbling
in the lower heaven
and the upper regions:
a dis-ease, a troubling of the waters.
Will the two worlds intersect?
Will separated forces re-combine?
Will there be an intercession
to correct a gross injustice?
Facebook status update
a farewell kiss to Decembers,
to old jobs and titles,
to liars and betrayers.
“You’ve got to be strong
when things go wrong/
just tell him the words goodbye/
and throw him a kiss,
yeah baby, a farewell kiss.”
January 1, 2013
Prologue and beginnings Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq