HUDSON: MEMORIES FROM THE PAST
Everyday heroes now and in the past…
I’ve been thinking a lot about Adolph Dubs the past few weeks. Who? Following the recent assassination of J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, most news reports noted he was the first American Ambassador in 33 years to be murdered in the line of duty. Like Stevens, “Spike” Dubs was a career foreign service officer appointed as Ambassador to Afghanistan (no surprise there) by Jimmy Carter. Members of the Semtani Milli militia kidnapped Dubs in Kabul. Held in a hotel room, his abductors attempted to exchange him for their missing leader, one Badruddin Bahes, who was believed to be in the custody of the puppet Communist regime installed by the Soviet Union. Afghan officials denied they were holding Badruddin.
Ignoring American appeals to arrange for Dubs’ release, the Russians refused ‘to negotiate with terrorists’ (sound familiar?) and stormed his hotel room on Valentine’s Day of 1979. Dubs was killed in the ensuing crossfire. Several of his kidnappers, who survived the assault, were summarily executed leaving no witnesses to what actually transpired. It is believed the Russians were probably holding Badruddin themselves. They were also well aware that the CIA was already playing footsie with the Afghani Taliban, and likely had very little concern for the fate of Ambassador Dubs.
I suspect American spokespersons in 1979 prattled on about how Dubs’ sacrifice would never be forgotten, just as they have regarding the death of Chris Stevens. The truth is, of course, that we will soon forget Stevens just as we did Spike Dubs. In a few years, we will only remember that terrorists murdered an American Ambassador somewhere in Libya, and we might have difficulty recalling his name. While it will be engraved on a memorial to the fallen at the State Department, Stevens is more likely to have a street or school named for him in Libya than he is in the United States. Future American tourists in Tripoli or Benghazi will see the name and wonder whether Christopher Stevens was that American Ambassador who was assassinated in 2012?
That’s the nature of these things. The Congressional finger pointing currently on display in Washington will likely cease now that the election has passed and there will no longer be a political benefit from dancing on Stevens’ grave. We will all move on until the next ghastly barbarism is committed against an American diplomat in another foreign hellhole. The Stevens killing set me to thinking about another kidnapping, which occurred in 1969. Aside from a handful of Latin American specialists, who remembers the capture of Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick in Rio de Janeiro? My father was serving at the American Embassy then, as the State Department scientific attaché to all of South America.
Raised in Anthony, New Mexico, where his public elementary schooling was conducted in Spanish (now, there’s a policy which would give the TEA party shudders), he was fluently bilingual. He had readily picked up Portuguese once assigned to Brazil. A military dictatorship controlled the country at the time and a university based student opposition known as the ‘Revolutionary Movement 8 October,’ or MR-8, nabbed Elbrick in September of 1969. They wanted to exchange him for 15 of their jailed comrades.
I had visited my parents in Brazil the year before when I was a ship ‘rider’ from the Naval Communications Station Puerto Rico as the USS Enterprise was redeploying to Viet Nam. I disembarked in Rio and spent several weeks as a tourist. I distinctly recall one Sunday afternoon at a public park when a few dozen military vehicles roared up, disgorging several hundred soldiers, who then proceeded to perform noisy bayonet drills for thirty minutes. When I asked my Dad what in the world was going on, he smiled and observed, “The Generals like to remind everybody just who’s in charge.”
Most of my father’s responsibilities involved monitoring scientific research programs at Latin American universities, just in case one might explore something that was being overlooked in the U.S. I recall that he became deeply involved with a leprosy treatment program that was well ahead of anything underway at American medical schools, matching up the Brazilian researchers with the resources of our National Institutes of Health. This was logical for a nation where leprosy remained a significant public health threat. Because of his extensive academic contacts and his fluency in Portuguese, my father was asked to attempt a contact with the students who were known to be holding our Ambassador. Four days later the 15 prisoners the MR-8 students were seeking to have released flew into exile in exchange for Elbrick’s return. As we know today, the military was subjecting these prisoners to rape, torture and ‘disappearance,’ including Brazil’s current President, Dilma Roussef. She has not publicly discussed her experience, but she recently received a large financial award from a national reconciliation council, which she then donated to charity.
To this day I’m not quite sure what role my father played in negotiating this exchange. He never spoke about it, and only after his death did my mother provide a little insight into what had occurred. The morning after the kidnapping he came home from his office, changed clothes (apparently with a shirt color that would serve as a signal) and reminded my mother where his will was kept. Explaining he was going to meet a vehicle at a particular street corner and promising that he would return in a few days, he kissed her and left. We know he was bundled into a van, blindfolded and taken to the hideout where Elbrick was being held. How he then communicated back to the American embassy and the Brazilian government in an age before cell phones — or, whether he simply established an information channel for others to use, or, perhaps, even negotiated the terms of the exchange — I suppose I’ll never know.
What I do know and admire is the fact that he placed his life on the line for his country without hesitation, just as he had while serving as a naval minesweep officer during World War II. Chris Stevens did the same in Benghazi and fate claimed him. What we should remember and honor is the fact that there are thousands of Americans who assume similar risks throughout our government — local, state and national — to assure our safety, security and place in the world.
P.S. Do yourself a favor. See the movie ARGO. You’ll feel better about your country.
Miller Hudson, a public affairs consultant, is a columnist for The Colorado Statesman.