The Foreign Service Journal, November 2011

18 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 1 T he Embassy Kabul compound has so many layers of security it would be difficult for any as- sault to succeed. Reassuring as that is, you don’t have to be clinically diag- nosed as claustrophobic to feel hemmed in there. The same food, the same faces, the same jokes and even the same “policy” issues permeate every corner of the compound — a droning so persistent and palpable that even little things set you on edge. On very rare occasions you may be jolted from your bed by a loud rumble and slowly realize there has been an explosion somewhere nearby. Far more often, you may be jolted from bed and quickly realize nothing has happened. Absolute silence and calm reign, except your mind is racing and your heart is beating a little faster than normal. War, as the old adage goes, is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Civilians who choose to serve in war zones can expect to understand this very person- ally. And the boredom breeds a mon- strous hydra of loneliness, fatigue, ennui, depression, self-loathing and insecurity, along with an inclination to- ward other outlets — alcohol, irri- tability and anger, working too hard or underperforming, etc. — that tem- porarily help assuage the tedium. For sound security reasons, em- bassy personnel are constrained from performing even the most common pastimes: walking along streets, shop- ping in stores, going out for meals. And work is often no solace: those same security measures circumscribe how and how well one can perform traditional roles furthering diplomacy and development. This raises questions about one’s personal worth which, in turn, lead to feelings of guilt and futility. Was it re- ally worth leaving my family to come here? Is this really going to help my career? Am I really making any dif- ference at all? And always hovering in the air like the sword of Damocles is the unlikely but real prospect of vio- lence. An Endurance Test The stresses inherent in such a po- tent brew of emotions can overwhelm even the hardiest of spirits. So throughout my time as assistant chief of mission in Kabul (2008-2010), I of- fered the same advice to every batch of newcomers to help prepare them for their year in as foreign an environ- ment as they were ever likely to expe- rience. I began by telling them that coping with stress would be a serious chal- lenge, even for those absolutely cer- tain they could handle it. Then, shamelessly plagiarizing Dickens, I would tell them that serving their country in Afghanistan would be “the best of times and the worst of times.” The “best of times” was easy to ex- plain. After years of neglect, we finally got our priorities right when President Barack Obama, shortly after his inau- guration, sharply changed our focus to Afghanistan. To be part of that mis- sion, both to help Afghans and protect our own country, is understandably appealing to many of us. The “worst of times” was a little harder to articulate, however. So I cited authorities as disparate as Peri- cles, Aristotle, Hadrian, Dostoevsky and Michael Scott (from “The Office”) to try to assure our new arrivals that all that stress could be endured, though never fully eradicated. We Ain’t Spartans The key to happiness always and Coping with High-Stress Posts B Y J OSEPH A DAMO M USSOMELI FS K NOW -H OW During my time as assistant chief of mission in Kabul, I gave new arrivals the following advice to help prepare them for the challenges ahead.