Argo and me — the back story

I started to describe why Argo struck me as brilliant and almost unendurable, all at once, but that’s silly. Just drop everything and go.  For such a full-throttle, gripping, movie-goer’s-movie, it has depths that linger — certainly at this house.

I haven’t been writing for a while.  Even before the September 11th attacks in Benghazi, with the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, I’ve been reading, almost every day, reports from a world that I am intimately connected to, yet necessarily apart from, our Foreign Service.

Most of my friends know that the most far-flung of the three daughters joined the Foreign Service just over three years ago.  She began working in Bogota, came back to D.C. this Fall for training as a Consular Officer and when that’s finished, she goes to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  With, of course, her husband and their three cats, the Tabbies.

At the same time that I followed every test, every setback and surge forward on her blog, I began to browse over at the Tabbies’ lower right-hand column, where she lists other FS blogs she follows.

They are the damndest mash-up imaginable: blogs so dense with acronyms that I don’t venture across their threshholds; ones fuming at a bureaucracy that seems to make things harder, not easier, and ones with pretty imaginative examples of coping calmly with what you and I might see as staggering obstacles.

Among all these voices — who’ve become my unvarnished, behind-the-scenes FS reporters – I’ve come to think of Life After Jerusalem by “Digger,” as the most straight-talking, passionate, intelligent and vibrant guide possible to the core of Foreign Service life, by one of the very best writers for the job. Very frankly, she’s my hero.

Digger is in no way neutral. In Jerusalem she served under Chris Stevens, not yet a full-fledged Ambassador, yet virtually functioning as one at that post.  If you read Digger’s piece in September, “Who Chris was to me,” you’ll get a picture of the man that only a co-worker could draw. Those memories end with Digger’s clear as a bell definition of foreign service; it cannot be bettered — and in this context it may bring tears to your eyes, too.

And this was her entry for October 14th:

It has been just over a month, but the attacks on our embassies and consulates and the deaths of four diplomats including one friend are never far from my mind. And the dangers friends continue to face continues to worry me.

The politicizing of this situation, however, including the blame game going on, is infuriating.

That the very people who have repeatedly slashed our security budget would then try to find scapegoats within the State Department, the people who have tried their best to “do more with less,” is unconscionable.

We know we sign on for dangerous tasks when we join the Service. It is a risk most of us gladly take for the privilege of serving the country and the feeling that we get to make a difference and help keep America safe.
*                            *                       *
Since I last posted on this topic, there have been a couple good pieces I wanted to share with you on what we do and the choices we make to do it.

Most riveting among those pieces is this one, from another blogger who writes as Four Globetrotters. She’s a Foreign Service Officer at post in Tunis with her 3 kids and this excerpt following is her first-hand, hour by hour account of an attack on their Embassy, Sept. 12, 2012, a hairsbreadth after the deadly Benghazi raid. The Tunis attack, which got scant attention in our press, counts as a “relatively minor” event (FS families safely evacuated, no lives lost.)  Among its other qualities, her account gives some of Argo’s most terrifying moments the context they deserve:

All employees are ordered to the safe haven. Everyone dutifully files in, deposits their cell phones since the safe haven is a phone-free zone. Reports continue to come in. The motor pool is on fire. The rec center is on fire. The employee parking lot is on fire. Protesters are on the roof of the Chancery. We immediately begin to do what we know to do. Destroy classified. I hear the sound of sledge hammers pounding away, comforted to know that my colleagues are destroying the classified material. The sound of the hammers echo through the Embassy, making the walls vibrate. Find out that sound isn’t coming from within. The protesters are at our windows and are intent on getting in. They are attempting to set fire to the Chancery, dousing the building with gasoline and setting it on fire. My mind flashes back to the images from Benghazi, just a few days prior. I visualize the caskets of my dead colleagues on board the C-130 in Tripoli.

A faint smell of smoke begins to waft through the safe haven, where I’m sitting with 103 of my colleagues, some of whom are panicking and crying. I’m trying very hard to project calm and confidence. The fire alarm goes off. Someone decides to go get everyone’s cell phones so we can start calling our loved ones. I sent three quick emails from my blackberry — to my ex-husband: “In safehaven. People are on the compound, on roof. Tell the kids I love them so much. If the worst happens don’t let them forget me.”, one to my parents and my sisters, and one to my very special person. I’m worried sick about my motor pool team, stuck in an outside building.

Compare this account with what director Ben Affleck was able to create on a vastly magnified scale, as he staged the takeover of our Embassy in Tehran in 1979 by radical Islamist students.  Down to the sounds of metal on metal as sledge hammers break up classified equipment, he seems not to have made a single false move or left out a step in orchestrating the escalating panic inside and the bloody-minded crowds at their gates. At times it doesn’t seem possible that this isn’t archival footage.

Argo is a lot more than its diabolical suspense, however.  It’s a bemused salute to the world-wide power of The Movies (this was 1979, after all, and Princess Leia’s kingdom was universal. Intergalactic maybe.) At the same time, screenwriter Chris Terrio is having a field day with movie-making’s other abiding art form: the great flim-flam. (That would be Alan Arkin’s mega-producer, tenaciously in on the CIA’s con. It’s Arkin’s unabashed claim on a second Oscar, although he may have to wrestle John Goodman for it.)

But see if you don’t catch another undertone beneath the brash and breathtaking CIA plot to walk “the Canadian six” safely out of Iran: the clear  sense of dedication within each of these Americans, even in their most wobbly moments. That conviction gives a soaring quality to Argo’s most lasting afterword, the onscreen title says (roughly):

All six of these diplomats chose to remain in the Foreign Service.

7 thoughts on “Argo and me — the back story

  1. Pingback: Argo and me — the back story | Parallax View

  2. Such an incredible portrait of the real-world situation (easily as dramatic as any movie) and how that sense of genuine terror & tension makes Argo so beautifully made and gripping…

  3. Sheila, my love, admiration and prayers to your valiant daughter and her colleagues.
    I loved “Argo,” but for the sake of all in the FS, I wish it weren’t so close to the truth.

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