Heroes and Patriots
We’re in California now, but just before our trip I bought a paperback to read on the plane. It’s been mentioned nowhere that I know of, but I happened to notice its title online: A Voice for Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens by Lydie M. Denier. The author is a Frenchwoman, now a citizen here, who shared with Stevens a love that survived, in platonic form, the breaking off of their youthful engagement and lives on in the book she has written about the man she will always love.
When I heard that the American ambassador to Libya had been killed in a surprise attack on an U.S. embassy outpost in Benghazi, I felt it very much, as a wound on the body of our country. We are not collections of atoms in the void. We are made possible by the polities in which we gain the features of our humanity. A man is sent into the field to represent us all abroad. He is murdered there. It’s a violation of the most serious kind, of the peace between nations that an ambassador mediates, of our honor, of our perimeters.
Later I read that Stevens might have been involved in a same sex relationship possibly offensive to Muslim sensibilities – and my sense of him blunted slightly. At about the same time, I also read that he might have been sent to Benghazi to smuggle arms to some militia conglomerate that our government was backing, perhaps misguidedly, on the fields of Syria. My sense of the man got further sanded down. The contours were confused for me.
The fiction that was aired on TV talk shows, about a local crowd incited to mob violence by an anti-Muslim video made in America, never persuaded me and later turned out to have been fashioned for the political occasion: to mask the still-live terrorist threat that by now everyone knows is still a live threat. Ambassador Stevens was murdered in a well-planned attack by a group affiliated with Al Qaeda. That was pretty clear to me even back then. In the fog of political battle, however, the contours of Chris Stevens himself became blurred.
But a memoir about him by a woman who loves him still and values the man? Wants to rescue him from the dustbin where we keep yesterday’s yellowed newspapers? Ah, that’s different! If that’s not enough to bring back the dead, nothing would be.
Lydia Denier is of French origin, a movie and TV star, hence – one knows – very pretty and a good cook. In view of the circumstances, however, I forgive her. Also (and this is a weakness in the memoir), her account of their intimate interludes borrows stylistically from bodice busters and hurts her credibility. I can enjoy a red-blooded bodice buster and pardon a stylistic lapse, but I must report the fault because a woman in love can be so easily written off as simply “silly.”
Her main thing she does is portray the hero and patriot she loved and admired. As a girl growing up in Normandy, the Americans were all heroes for her: young men sent by their country to fight the Nazi conquerors and liberate France – leaving France unplundered, walking away from their opportunity – and finally to fund its restoration through the Marshall Plan!
Ambassador Stevens cared about the future of the people with whom he was mediating peace. He had learned Arabic. He loved and valued Arab culture. He was, Denier writes, “the first U.S. envoy into Benghazi in April 2011 when he sneaked ashore to join rebel leadership to help coordinate the fight to topple the Gaddafi regime; and then … was named the first Ambassador to Libya in almost two years. Chris represented the American ideal that I believed as a little girl that all Americans shared with the brave soldiers at Normandy; he came to Benghazi to help, not to conquer, heedless of the risk to himself. Such men are heroes but they need looking after or they are sure to perish; it is not in their nature to look after themselves.”
He worked to set up sister relations between hospitals and other important institutions in American and Libya. He worked tactfully to advise on legal procedures and the training of police to act in subordination to representative and lawful governing bodies. Lydie Denier includes excerpts from his testimony before bipartisan congressional confirmation hearings. His responses to sharp questions from both sides of the aisle show him remarkably well-informed, realistic and constructive.
He was the best type of patriot. Six hundred of his requests for additional security were denied. He was sexy, outgoing, good at sports. The disinformation about him is not correct. He was, as it happens, known as a man who loved women. He was also fully capable of loyalty and long-term devotion to a woman, though uncertain – during the period of his engagement to Lydie Denier – whether he could or should include a wife in what he felt to be his mission.
W.H. Auden’s commemoration of the death of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats concludes with lines that I feel fit here:
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.