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foreign policy, foreign service officer, State Department

Shoes on the Ground, Not Boots

When a former foreign service officer makes the case for a more human-centered US foreign policy.

Words: Amy Madsen
Pictures: Aaron Burden

I recently wrote a memoir about my time serving with the US Department of State in Baghdad’s Green Zone, not because I wanted to, but because I felt compelled to.

Compelled, because I also recently co-founded a storytelling nonprofit to amplify the voices of women who have lived through war and conflict. And I firmly believe that if I am going to ask women who have lived through war to share their stories, I need to do the same.

Writing a memoir is not fun. It made me feel extremely vulnerable and exposed. I gave up the ability to gradually share my narrative with people as I got to know them, instead inviting all to read (and judge) it, if they so choose. What I was not, however, prepared for was how I needed to talk about my experiences, memories, and views.


Soon after my memoir was published, I received my first radio interview request. Gritting my teeth, I accepted. Again, I did not want to do the interview, but I felt obligated for the sake of my foundling organization. I don’t enjoy talking to the press; it scares me. And, like many other people, I think of the best things to say ten minutes too late. I need interview do-overs to become a thing.

Writing women out of the history of war doesn’t just render women passive, it writes them out of the attempt to overcome conflict. Without recognizing women’s roles in conflict, we cannot elevate their voices in creating peace.

To prepare, I did what any good, former Foreign Service Officer (FSO) would do: I created bulleted talking points for questions I thought I would be asked and went over them with multiple friends.The problem is, none of the questions I prepared for were asked of me. There were no questions about signing death certificates of people you admired, cataloging hostage victims’ suitcases, babysitting run-away teenagers or processing soldier’s passports. None were about women in the Middle East and my relationships with them; or even about instances of military sexual assault or the inappropriate behavior of several male colleagues that I describe in my book. After all that agonizing about being exposed, I was asked the same questions any FSO would have been asked: What happened to the disappeared piles of cash? Why did Paul Bremer make the decisions he did? Should the Iraq war have even taken place?

Frustrated, and naively unprepared for the discussion of money, power, and politics, I fell back on my State Department training. I described the situation, without giving my personal opinion: I conducted a briefing.

I hung up the phone feeling disappointed in myself. Through my nonprofit, I want to share the stories of the strong, capable, resilient women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with in the Middle East, as well as similarly strong, capable women battling for peace throughout the world — and I failed them. When not caught unprepared in radio interviews, I’ve written a few smart things like women are often passive recipients of historic injustice rather than protagonists in conflict. More than often, war is presented as a male arena in which women can only play a supporting role. Writing women out of the history of war doesn’t just render women passive, it writes them out of the attempt to overcome conflict. Without recognizing women’s roles in conflict, we cannot elevate their voices in creating peace. Instead, in this instance, I had played the game that’s always played and talked about men, money and long-decided policy. Maybe if I was a better interviewee, I could have gotten my point across, regardless of what was asked of me.

I felt defeated.

It reminded me of how I felt about the Washington decision making process. There is an inevitability to it. Six months before the second Gulf War, everyone in Washington “knew” it was going to happen. Just like everyone “knew” Iraq post-war planning was not sufficient. State Department officials warned the Department of Defense of the likely ensuing chaos, but decisions had already been made. Troops were already deployed, warmaking had already begun. Similarly, today, everyone in Washington “knew” the Taliban would retake Afghanistan once the US government announced its impending withdrawal. Afghans tried to warn us, but their concerns were, at best, inadequately addressed.


In my book, I recall a humiliating experience, a few short weeks after I left Iraq. While participating in a meeting, in my official capacity as a diplomat, I openly, loudly started bawling. The other meeting participants were discussing how many more hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would need to die before the world would wake up and give a shit. My boyfriend lived in Baghdad. My Iraqi friends still lived in Baghdad. I envisioned my loved ones as some of the hundreds of thousands of necessary deaths to spur international action, and it did me in. To me, they were much more than a number, much more than a data point on paper.

Everybody, not just women, are too often left out when deciding strategy and when we look back at history. Maybe that’s why all my interview questions had to do with money, power, and politics, as if war is actually devoid of human beings. No other perspectives are considered.

Yet, we have State Department officials throughout the world, who have spent years building relationships and understanding nuances: Shoes on the ground, not boots. We can use their knowledge to do better, to be better, to make decisions that give the people most impacted a seat at the table. Iraqis didn’t deserve massive unemployment from deBaathification and total disbandment of its military, and the Afghan people didn’t deserve to be deserted in the middle of the night after 20 years of occupation. The American people I know are good-hearted. They put people and relationships first. We need to expect the same of our government. We need human-centered foreign-policy making that doesn’t simply render victims of war and conflict as passive recipients of historic injustice — and as a former FSO, I believe the State Department needs to be at the forefront of this change.

Amy Madsen is a former Foreign Service Officer with the US Department of State. She served in five countries across the Middle East and North Africa (Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates). After leaving the State Department, she co-founded the nonprofit organization Undivided: Women, War & The Battle for Peace, a multimedia storytelling platform to create community and amplify the voices of women in war and conflict zones. She is the author of Green Zone Diary: A Diplomat’s War Story.

Amy Madsen

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