Our Flag Was Still There...
In the aftermath of the gulf war, Howell has been hailed as the diplomat who stuck to his post and kept the Stars and Stripes flying. When Iraqi troops cut off water and electricity to the embassy, Howell directed a masterful deception effort aimed at deterring a direct assault on the compound. While from the outside it looked as if the Americans were suffering mightily, they in fact had scrounged up water and food and had even repaired severed phone lines. "I said, 'We're going to play the bird with the broken wing,' " recalls Howell, who is now about to begin a yearlong teaching stint at the University of Virginia and start work on a book about Kuwait. "They were going to think we would come staggering out at any time."
In the early days of the Iraqi invasion, recalls Dan Hudson, a Marine guard at the embassy, Howell ignored the sporadic fighting outside and made it a point to travel around the compound visiting the roughly 180 Americans who initially took refuge on the grounds. "Some people might have said, 'I'm an ambassador, I'll sit in my office,' " says Hudson. "That wasn't his style." Certainly those in the compound needed support. "One of the greatest fears of civilians was that at some point the diplomats would be allowed to leave but we would be taken as human shields," says Jack Rinehart, an American engineer who came to the embassy. "Howell told us, 'We go as one.' He kept reassuring us that we were a team."
Three weeks into the siege, the Iraqis allowed safe passage for U.S. government employees and their families. Most dependents took it, but 28 people stayed on, a number that eventually dwindled to Howell and four fellow diplomats. (Wife Margie, a psychiatric nurse, was in the U.S. at the time of the invasion.)
From the start, Howell excelled as a crisis manager. He organized groups to go out and forage for food and diapers for the 20 infants and toddlers in the compound. He also instituted a kind of "warden system," whereby people were deputized to keep tabs on Americans on the outside by phone and to arrange for supplies when possible.
Despite the constant tension, Howell tried to keep the mood in the compound as light as possible. He shucked his diplomatic pinstripes and started sporting a T-shirt and shorts as his usual attire. During a talent show, he led everyone in a medley of vaudeville songs and recited ribald poetry—while decked out in a coat, tie and bathing suit. At Halloween there was a costume party to which Howell came in desert camouflage. The highlight of each evening was the screening of a movie from the embassy film vault. The holdouts watched The Great Escape (a big fave), Kismet and My Fair Lady. One night a debate erupted over whether to watch The Alamo, which some of the Americans thought a trifle depressing. Howell voted in favor. "They weren't nearly as badly outnumbered as we are," he announced with wry gallows humor.
Davy Crockett's pals were probably no better provisioned either. About the only edible thing in abundance at the compound was canned tuna, which provided adequate nutrition, if not satisfaction. Water was a greater concern, though the Americans did have 8,000 gallons in storage tanks. After digging a well, which took about 10 days, they had enough water for showers, and could even taunt the Iraqis by washing their cars and refilling the embassy swimming pool. After the Iraqis shut off electricity to the compound on Aug. 24, the fresh food began to rot, especially the dozens of frozen turkeys, which began to explode. "They sounded like 105-mm shells going off," says Barbara Bodine, the deputy chief of mission. "We worried the Iraqis would think we were firing, so we had to bury them or burn them in an outdoor pit."
In many ways Howell's experience and temperament suited him well for the crisis. A graduate of the University of Virginia, where he also earned a Ph.D. in government and foreign affairs, he joined the State Department in 1965. He went on to serve in a variety of sensitive posts in the Middle East, including a hazardous stint at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in the mid-'70s when Lebanon was being swept by civil war.
Mercifully, the Americans in the Kuwait embassy never came under fire. To tweak the Iraqis, Howell and his cohort delighted in using a generator-operated fax machine to send anti-Saddam cartoons to other embassies around town. And with each small triumph came huge psychological rewards, which helped sustain the holdouts until the State Department ordered the embassy closed 34 days before the shooting war started. "We came out feeling very good about ourselves," says Barbara Bodine, who stayed with Howell to the end. "We didn't come crawling out like refugees from a concentration camp. We were determined not to become victims. We wanted to win!"
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington, D.C.