Saturday, February 26, 2011

On Pay Cuts.

Wikileaks wasn't a big deal in my part of Afghanistan. The Governor occasionally asks me to stop taking notes during our meetings ("Hey Wikileaks, don't write this down"), but aside from cramping my habit of keeping a verbatim transcript of my life, it didn't really touch me. I was already a year out of China by the time the story broke, and the statistics here -- 9 percent literacy, 1 percent internet access -- meant it wasn't a big deal in Farah.

State got great press out of Wikileaks. "Wikileaks Proves Diplomats Doing Exactly What They're Supposed To" was a big leitmotif, and for a brief moment in time, State was feted as leading the charge for peaceful resolution of international problems. There was also the annoying undercurrent of "We Had No Idea Those Embassy People Were Actually Smart," but even that I'm chalking up as good press. The positives definitely outweighed the negatives, and I felt like State came out on top -- that people had come to know who we are and what we do.

State was briefly the golden boy of the Federal World. And consequently, I was taken completely by surprise when the House passed a 16 percent pay cut for Foreign Service Officers last week. It comes at a particularly bad time, smack in the middle of a two year pay freeze (which itself was hard to take) and in the face of a possible Government shutdown that may involve being furloughed.

But frankly, it's not about the money.

We're a small service, and the pay cut affects only junior and mid-level officers -- about 7,500 people total. You only take a pay cut if you if you're overseas, and the cuts only affect the Foreign Service -- the other agencies that live and work overseas are not included in this. State has been singled out. You can't help but feel like Congress is trying to punish the Foreign Service for something we did, but we don't really know what it was.

There's that old lingering perception that U.S. diplomats are the snobby elite, spending their time in Paris drinking champagne and mocking people who don't know which fork to use, and I have the feeling that THAT, somehow, is the problem here. But I thought, mistakenly it seems, that Wikileaks had cleared all that up -- that Wikileaks made it known that the United States Foreign Service isn't all champagne receptions and tea parties, and that the quiet work we do is helping the American cause, even though it's behind the scenes and most Americans are unaware of it.

I've committed to giving up two years of my life to live in Afghanistan. I'm not looking for thank-yous for it: I knew what I was getting in to when I signed up for this, and State has certainly incentivized my coming here. But to have Congress come back and say that giving up two years of my life to this place is worth 16 percent less than last year has weighed on me. A 16 percent pay cut is just the opposite of a thank-you; it's a direct statement that the work you do is not valued. It's hard to take it any other way, and it's particularly difficult to take when you're living on the edge of a rocky desert, 40 kilometers from combat operations and a thousand miles from nowhere.

Others in the Service are outraged about it, and there's been a flurry of well-written responses. My favorite, which I've re-read a thousand times, came from a friend of mine in Jordan. There's a movement to blanket congress with letters (I wrote mine, though not nearly as eloquently as others), though the Foreign Service undoubtedly lacks the numbers to make a difference. Even writing my Congresswoman felt futile, since I live in DC and my Representative in Congress has no vote.

My response has not been outrage so much as a lingering sadness; the entire ordeal (including some of the ugly, you're-probably-overpaid/stop-your-whining/if-you-complain-you're-not-a-patriot rhetoric it's stirred up) has made me question what I'm doing here. I had assumed upon signing up for this job that I'd have lots of these moments -- that I'd find myself questioning U.S. policy, or that we'd take repeated, terrifying incoming and I'd be unwilling to leave the base because of it, or that I'd miserable in the wake of casualties and question the logic of continuing on. But that none of that ever happened -- I've never wavered in my desire to be here or in my commitment to this place. At least until now, when the House voted to cut my pay. It really isn't the money (the bill is ambiguous and almost certainly won't pass the Senate or the President) -- it's the sentiment that goes along with it.

People have said that we're taking a pay cut because we enjoy our work too much, but that seems ridiculous -- like they should only pay people for working a job if it makes them miserable. The same cuts were recommended by the White House's Bipartisan Fiscal Commission, though budgetarily speaking, cutting 16 percent of 7,500 people's salary is not a significant figure, and it certainly doesn't explain why we alone were singled out. Moreover, the commission noted that even with the pay cuts, the Foreign Service will remain a highly competitive and sought after: some 25,000 people apply for 300 to 900 jobs annually. But I find that rationale to be wildly offensive -- that they can cut our pay with impunity because of how imminently replaceable we are.

I'm going on leave in a week, if the military can fix our runway so my plane can land. It's definitely time: we've been running ragged implementing a thousand different programs and hosting visitor after visitor, and an ugly internal fight with the maneuver unit over our housing has left all the civilians on edge; it will be good to get away for a few weeks. But it will also be good to get away and take a deep breath and re-examine all of this.

I like living in Farah and I love working with the military, and I don't feel like I'm done with my experience here. But the pay cut has engendered in me a significant homesickness, and made me focus on what I'm missing instead of what I'm gaining from this experience. I toyed briefly with leaving -- Afghanistan is what the Foreign Service calls a "no-fault curtail" posting, so you can cut your posting short at any time without any negative financial or career impacts -- but I think that impulse has passed and I'm back to committed.

I have been questioning, though, if instead of eking out time to study Pashto during the day, I should be eking out time to study for the GRE -- if it isn't time to reconsider this career and begin taking more concrete steps towards quitting and getting my PhD. I've heard others in the Foreign Service say similar things about moving on. I doubt that Congress's intention with this pay cut was to push us towards the door, but that may very well be what ends up happening.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Manuary and the Drowning of Farah

I've said a thousand times that we don't even get clouds in Farah, much less rain, so when it rained -- rained hard! -- for five days straight, it was something resembling a natural disaster. Half the districts in the province claimed flooding damage, and the Province's Emergency Disaster Response Committee was convened and the whole thing took over our collective lives. The mountains that ring the FOB were wreathed in clouds, and being outside was eerie.

The rain turned the Afghan moon dust into a thick sludge, and large swaths of the FOB itsflooded. The maneuver unit (which owns the FOB) had to dig drainage trenches in the gravel, and the floors of my office and bedroom were covered in mud that got tracked in. In my bedroom, it dried into cakes that disintegrated back into rough powder, and no amount of sweeping is enough to keep it from clinging to the bottom of my feet and working its way into my bed. I've changed my sheets twice since the rain, but it still feels like I'm sleeping on the beach.

The weather kerfuffle happened to coincide with the end of the month of January, which our men and women in uniform -- or more accurately just the men, since none of the half dozen or so women here participated -- refer to lovingly as "Manuary" and celebrate by growing truly awful mustaches.

Growing mustaches for major events is a surprisingly large part of the military mindset. When the 4th Infantry Division ("Straight Arrows!") took over for the 82nd Airborne ("Stay All American!") as the maneuver unit on base, they promptly began growing "deployment mustaches" that lasted until people got tired of looking ridiculous and shaved them off. That was followed shortly thereafter by both Playoff Mustaches (kept until favored teams lost) and then the great month of Mo'vember, which, like Manuary, requires a mustache.

PRT participation in all of this was all but nil until Manuary hit, and then some primal urge kicked in and half the people around me grew awful mustaches. Some only lasted a few days, and others were picked off over time as trimming accidents took away too much from left or right and it was deemed unsalvageable. But more than a few hearty souls kept it up the entire month.

Engineer Lovesalot grew a particularly luxurious mustache (no doubt in part to spite Captain Adventure, whose scraggly mustache grows nearly straight out from his face, parallel to the ground); he began carrying around a fine toothed comb in the velcroed chest pocket of his uniform, and took to sneaking it out during staff meetings and surreptitiously combing his facial hair. "I started this as a joke," he said. And then guiltily added -- "but...but it feels really good."

Lieutenant Dracula, over in Supply, kept his mustache until he went on leave. "Is it normal to miss a mustache this much?" he opined after shaving it. "My upper lip feels so cold and afraid."

(Lt.Drac is of some vague Eastern European ancestry that actually has nothing to do with Transylvania -- but his first name is Vlad, and so Dracula it had to be. "I'm Ukrainian," he told me, but I don't see why that matters).

I myself did not participate in Manuary, as I'm already the proud owner of a significant quantity of facial hair and even trimming it too short causes Afghans consternation: they like full full beards. I did feel a little bit like I was missing out, but Drac's office mate (Petty Officer Moonshine, who owns a distillery in Breckenridge and has promised me a tour and some Bourbon the next time I'm in Colorado) consoled me: "It's not that you lack a mustache," he said. "It's just that you've got mustache all over your face."