By Patricia H Kushlis
For the past 25 years, the US government has honored its military veterans with a nationally broadcast special concert on the Mall the evening before Memorial Day. This year’s concert was – as in years past – a special tribute to those uniformed Americans and their families who had served the country valiantly. The program paid tribute to the dead, the widowed and the wounded in America’s overseas wars. The following day, Memorial Day services were held at National Cemeteries located in 39 states throughout the US and Puerto Rico. (photo: front page Journal North).
The commemoration I observed at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe, New Mexico was one of them. Organized by the VA cemetery staff, appropriately conducted, and well attended by 1,100 visitors who ranged in age from babies and toddlers to great grandparents. They came to pay tribute to loved ones and friends despite the unseasonable cold. All, that is, except for one missing element: a single member any of the state’s five member Congressional delegation (either Senate or House). Wouldn’t you think that at least one could have shown up in person? Sure, several sent staff members to proffer excuses on their behalf but that doesn’t have the same impact. This is an election year, four of the five are running for reelection and an audience of 1,100 plus excellent coverage by the local media is nothing to be sneezed at.
This is, after all, a national celebration.
The event took place at the state’s single National Cemetery which is located in the capital city. The cemetery is immaculately kept and those buried in the hills just to the north of downtown Santa Fe include people such as nine World War II Navajo Code Talkers (Chester Nez, the last surviving one of the first 29 died earlier this week) and New Mexico survivors of the Bataan Death March as well as victims and veterans of America’s too many wars that came before and after from the Civil War onward.
In President Obama’s foreign policy address to West Point graduates a few days later, he paid tribute to a strong military. But he said that this country also needs to rely upon other ways to deal with problems beyond its borders that do not require the application of America’s hammer. Most international problems, in my experience, do not.
Yet, as Donald Bishop, the President of Public Diplomacy Council has pointed out, there remains a major and frightening disconnect between what this country invests in its military and the amount it does for diplomacy – which, in reality, is the normal way the US conducts its relations abroad: by and through career diplomats. Like military officers, US diplomats have commissions signed by the President and their promotions are approved by the Senate and the President.
Here, however, are the troubling facts: The discrepancy between US resources for diplomacy versus the military remains shocking: 12 times less for diplomacy (including USAID) in terms of the budget and 24 times fewer in terms of personnel. As Bishop points out, the 2014 defense budget is $516 billion. There are 1.4 million men and women on active duty and another 1.1 million members of the National Guard and in the Reserves. The Department of Defense employs an additional 718,000 civilian personnel.
In contrast, the international affairs budget, the entire funding for diplomacy and foreign aid (eg. development), is $48 billion – a pygmy in comparison. Furthermore, the Department of State, USAID, and the Peace Corps together have only about 86,000 employees. Among them, only about 11,000 are core American diplomats serving in State and USAID.
Yet, these are the people who keep the country out of wars, who are tasked with helping resolve conflicts that extricate the military from foreign lands through engaging in peace keeping, conflict management and negotiating peace treaties, and who themselves are sent to places every bit as dangerous and deadly as those seen by foot soldiers in a conflict zone. From Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, US diplomats have served alongside the US military – in the field, on embassy and consulate staffs and as members of international teams. They include the late Ambassador Chris Stevens and three members of his staff who died in the attack on US facilities in Benghazi in 2012.
But where is the national respect shown to them and those who preceded them by a grateful public or government? Nonexistent. What little there is is hidden away on plaques hung on a gray marble wall inside a State Department entrance. As a result their names and the reasons for their deaths are cordoned off from most Americans – for security reasons – because without a security clearance or a special reason to enter the building no one can get past the guards. Yet, every year, the number of plaques grows.
There’s no reason for those names and plaques to be hidden from public view: Quite the opposite.
Why shouldn’t US diplomats who died in the service of the country also be honored by the US government in its official Memorial Day ceremonies – along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines. Maybe if they were and the public had a chance to learn their stories, Americans would come one small step forward towards understanding that its diplomats are every bit as important as its military in the making and implementing of US foreign policy by initiating, keeping and restoring the peace.