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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Acclimation to a Foreign Country: Good Advice

During my training to become an Operations Officer, I asked one of the instructors, who I really admired, for some random advice.  First, let me share a bit about the instructor, to give you some insight into the occupation.  Frequently intelligence officers return after retirement, sometimes as an instructor or a part time contractor.  The stressful and confidential nature of the job obliges officers to develop a special bond with one another.  I have known people who never discussed their respective home lives, but who worked together in the intel community for years, and trusted each other without reservation.  Simply put, for many of us, our colleagues represented a second family.  For this reason, some officers find it difficult to retire without some regular connection to the old haunts.  And then there are those who will never retire (usually people who have forgotten to build a family outside of work).  Frenchy is a great example of an Intel Officer for life.  His real name is not Frenchy, but it does have geographic connotations.  I don't know if Frenchy is still with us; I hope so.  Excuse the clich√©, but the world will be much less interesting when Frenchy goes to his just reward.

Frenchy was born in the South Pacific to missionary parents, who just happened to be living in Djakarta when the Japanese swept through Dutch Indonesia in 1941.  Frenchy survived his infant years in a Japanese prison camp.  After the war, he stayed in Southeast Asia, and when he reached the appropriate age, he began working as a mercenary.  I believe he eventually ended up with the Foreign Legion, fighting the Viet Cong in French Indochine just before we came along.  Frenchy became involved with U.S. intelligence during the Vietnam War, and front that point on, was an instructor for Special Operations training.  A close look at his face belies his years, but he has the body of someone half his age.  He was always in the gym working out, and became an immediate favorite with the students.  Regardless of the exercise, he would insert himself into the "student body", so to speak, in order to respond to the honest fears and concerns of the students.  He was not one for storytelling, but we managed to drag a few fascinating tales from him.  In my mind, Frenchy was the epitome of the masculine ideal: confident, discreet, strong, loyal and honest.  Intel folks who read my blog have met countless "Frenchys" during their career.  In fact, the hallways of HQS are a living history, regardless of which direction you turn.  I learned everything I needed to know about life from the various characters I met during my career.

While walking to the chow hall one day I caught up with Frenchy and asked him an important question.  I asked if he could recommend a book that might best prepare me for my career overseas.  His response was thoughtful and direct.  "It depends on where you'll be serving, son".  Frenchy and I shared a passion for reading, which helped me to understand his response.  Frenchy said that for every place on the planet where people live, there exists a history.  And if a history exists, then a book about that history has been written.  "Know your environment, son.  Feel the culture and appreciate the traditions.  Learn as much of the language as you can, but most important, READ."  Frenchy shared a few of his personal favorites with me.  First and foremost, find a copy of the appropriate Bradt Travel Guide.  Bradt has truly filled a niche by providing travel books for some of the world's least hospitable and least accessible countries.  Now that Robert Young Pelton no longer provides an updated "World's Most Dangerous Places", the Bradt books are a Godsend.  Frenchy and I agreed wholeheartedly that anyone headed to an Arab country must not only read T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom", but should always have a copy nearby.  My first real experience working for the Agency overseas was in the Balkans.  He recommended "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon", which has become one of my personal favorites.  South Africa?  Anything by Nadine Gordimer or Alan Paton.  The key is to discover that one particular book which illuminates and educates.  East Africa?  Believe it or not, Isak Dinesen's tragic, fluid, beautiful "Out of Africa" still holds up just fine.  A tour in Moscow House requires a bit more dedication.  Something by Tolstoy, definitely, but avoid his later years when he was solely preoccupied with thoughts of mortality and religion.  I think "War and Peace" provides a glimpse of a European Russia that no longer exists.  For a look into the heart of the Russian people, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" might work.  Russia also requires reading Alexandr Solsenitsyn (anything), to understand the suffering that people endured, the xenophobia, and the strength that forms the bedrock of Russia today.

If you see a tour in Beijing in your future, let me recommend "Soul Mountain", by Gao Xingjian and "The Penguin History of Modern China", by Jonathan Fenby.  On your way to Mexico?  "The Course of Mexican History", by Michael Meyer, William Sherman, and Susan Deeds, is an absolutely outstanding scholarly accomplishment that manages to make sense out of the turbulent 1900-1920s.  Latin America has seen its share of tremendously gifted writers and poets.  But for our purposes, I recommend Isabel Allende's "The House of Spirits" and "The Motorcycle Diaries", by Ernesto Che Guevara.  No one should accept a post in Turkey before reading the engrossing "The Ottoman Centuries", by Lord Kinross.  It sits on a special shelf in my bookcase, next to "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon", and "Seven Pillars of Wisdom".  If you are leaving for Afghanistan soon, try and get a copy of "The Taliban" by Ahmed Rashid.  Originally written in 2000, it has been updated and includes a fair, balanced perspective on the Taliban and its motivations.  I cannot leave out "The Places In Between" by Rory Stewart, because it is the exact type of book I really enjoy.  Stewart provides page after page of beautifully descriptive prose on the geography and the people of Afghanistan.  As India begins to stretch her legs and assert herself as a world power, she will undoubtedly become of greater interest to the intelligence community.  Anyone wanting to learn a bit about the India people and the Indian experience, would be wise to read "The Idea of India", by Sunil Khilnani.  And for something a bit more inclusive of India's history, "In Spite of the Gods; The Strange Rise of Modern India" by Edward Luce is a great choice.  Personally, I love Indian mythology (well, I call it mythology; a billion people call it living history) and read as much as I can understand.

I can't envision the United State at odds with France, Germany, Spain, Italy, or any European country, so no reading advice needed for the EU.  Something that continues to fascinate me is the idea that the United States, utilizing either the CIA and/or NSA, has been spying on our European allies.  What an absurd thought.  What, exactly, do we want to know about Denmark that we can't find out through open diplomatic channels or from watching TV?  Heck, when I was in Euope, staying at some dumpy hotel, I learned everything I needed to know about Germany from the late night German porn programs that the hotel satellite dish manage to pick up (its no surprise that the hotel, dumpy as it was, always had its share of German businessmen).  As for the recent scandals and rumors that Angela Merkel had her phone tapped, I call bullshit.  We do not spy on our friends.

I hope this post will prove useful to someone.  I was lucky to have Frenchy point me in the right direction.  I love classical literature and I have been a prolific reader most of my life.  But sometimes it takes word of mouth to discover a truly insightful and helpful book.  If you are a State Department Officer, or a U.S. Marine detailed to an Embassy, or a soldier preparing for a tour overseas, take the time to learn about your destination.  It will make the experience all the more life-changing.  Making the effort also shows respect to your hosts.  When I am in Mexico I speak Spanish to the locals.  When I am in France, I speak French.  When its appropriate, I speak Afrikaans in South Africa.  If you have a bit of the language, don't be shy.  Any effort is appreciated (except in France; don't TRY to speak French.  Either do, or don't).  Most importantly, ask people about their nation.  Show an honest interest and you will make a friend quickly.  And whatever you do, please leave the "Ugly American" at home.

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