Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: America's Other Army

I really meant to read America's Other Army: the U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy when it came out six months ago, but it took me a while to get around to it. Partly this is because I was busy with other things, but primarily it's because because this book had to wait until I finished reading all the Game of Thrones books. But now that I'm all caught up with the Starks and the Lannisters I finally have read it and am prepared to inflict my opinion on you. (This seems like a good opportunity to remind everyone that this is my own opinion and not that of the Foreign Service as a whole.)

America's Other Army is a picture of the Foreign Service (and to a lesser extent, the State Department Civil Service) as seen through the eyes of Nicholas Kralev. Kralev is not and has never been a Foreign Service Officer, but he does have years of experience covering international affairs as a journalist and was granted unprecedented access to the State Department's inner workings while researching this book. It shows.

A lot of the book is mainly useful as an orientation to who FSOs are, what we do, how we do it, and why. If you are kind of sort of maybe perhaps interested in joining the FS, I highly recommend it as intro reading material. But as an FSO I learned some things from it too. Between the historical perspective Kralev provides on the evolution of the State Department and U.S. foreign policy over the last few decades and his top-to-bottom, east-to-west, 7th floor-to-basement, Afghanistan-to-Zimbabwe survey of the Foreign Service as it is right now, the book covers the breadth and depth of the FS experience in a way that a single newbie vice consul in a sleepy African backwater can't hope to match. The overall tone was informative and friendly but not fawning, and Kralev did not skimp on pointing out the risks, flaws, and challenges of the Foreign Service, both as a lifestyle for individual officers and as an organization operating in the modern political world. However, every criticism in the book was raised by an FSO, and none of them took me by surprise.

The one section that made me cringe a bit was Chapter 7: Consular Affairs. Let's just say this book is probably not going to sell you on the glories of consular work. The chapter starts off with a journalist excoriating a consular officer for not doing something that happens to be illegal, and closes with a litany of FSOs who have been convicted for selling visas. In the intervening pages consular officers try, but fail, to save the lives of Americans overseas; inform an American couple they can't take their injured adopted child to the United States because they screwed up the paperwork; and go the extra mile to help U.S. citizens in distress only to have their efforts lambasted in print. Officers on the visa line are pilloried in the press simultaneously for letting too many people into the U.S. and keeping too many people out, while being spat on - figuratively and literally - by unsuccessful visa applicants. There are a couple of success stories in there too, but mostly this chapter is kind of a downer. All of the things he mentioned do happen; some of them have happened to me personally. But as someone who does consular work for a living, let me tell you that in general it's not as bad as this section of the book makes it sound.

Despite his apparent distaste for consular work, Kralev does an excellent job explaining the FS in simple language that makes sense. He plays the roles of the Ghost of Foreign Service Past, the Ghost of Foreign Service Present, and the Ghost of Foreign Service Future with equal facility, and I hope he will be successful in helping some anti-State Department Scrooges change their minds. In any case, if you have any interest at all in how the United States represents itself on the world stage this is not a book to be missed. 

3 comments:

  1. My husband, a career Consular Officer, had the same feelings about chapter 7. I haven't read it, so don't have a comment yet.

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  2. George R.R. Martin really crushed my soul with that last book. The third season on HBO starts in a few weeks. I started reading the books when the HBO series first started in spring 2011, and the story wasn't moving fast enough. Then last summer I re-read them all, because I'm a nerd, in anticipation of the new book coming out.

    I have real conflicting feelings about the whole series - on one hand, I'm absolutely and completely enthralled by the story and the landscape and all the rich round dynamic characters.

    On the other hand, I have this fear that Martin is going to ruin it all before it over. I'm pretty convinced of this fact, confirmed by how he ended the last book, shattering my hopes and dreams. I'm also disturbed by how gruesome it is. Literally, let's kill everyone, in the most horrific way imaginable. And dragons don't make the best pets.

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    1. I've pretty much gotten used to the slaughter at this point, but I had some issues with the later books too. The universe and the plot have just gotten so sprawling it's hard to keep track of. There are so many characters it's hard to keep track of them, let alone bond with them, especially knowing that any one of them may get knocked off without warning at any time. Martin is going to have to start pulling all these divergent threads together eventually, preferably sooner rather than later, but from where Book 5 left off I can't really see this getting realistically wrapped up for at least two more books. Which is fine, I guess, but it's a lot.

      Based on the first two seasons I think I actually prefer the TV series to the books, which is not usual for me. The show is a little bit tighter, better edited. We'll see if that holds true as the TV series gets into some of the more sprawling material in the coming seasons.

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