My new site assignment actually seems much more suited to me than USTR – I’m to be the site officer for the President and SecState’s visit to the JPAC Detachment here in Hanoi. 'JPAC' stands for 'Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command'. They're in charge of collecting and repatriating the remains of american soldiers lost during wartime, a rather large undertaking here in Vietnam. Anthropology and military: right up my alley. JPAC has been asked to make a presentation of its operations to the President and Secretary of State. The people stationed there tell me they've been planning and preparing for over two months.
My actual role is rather minimal -- the real people in charge are the White House advance team, a troupe of mainly volunteers who devote their time to making the paths straight for the President prior to his visits. They all seem very competent, despite being on the whole very young. At an introductory party the day of my arrival, I watched one of them wash down diet pills with a glass of red wine. Others of them are on caffeine pills. I'm not sure why they've chosen to volunteer for such a stressful job, but can only assume its because they are ‘true believers’. Topics of conversation to be avoided: mid-term elections, Nancy Pelosi, the Iraq war... pretty much everything, really. It's fairly obvious at the site visit that one in particular would rather I wasn't there. I'm lucky that my main contact in the team is friendly and good-natured -- and as I said, very experienced.
The advance team's main concern is how the President will look on camera; everything else is incidental. Lighting, etc. has to be arranged to the President's best advantage. Camera angles must be considered. A skull is removed from the forensic anthropology portion of the presentation for fear the President might pick it up, and the resulting photo be taken out of context. The military folks seem perplexed when the White House team insists on bringing out some artifacts and reclaimed guns from a back room to put in the presentation, positioned strategically for the cameras. For the soldiers, the end goal of their work is the repatriation -- identifying the remains, and bringing back the bodies. To them, old helmets and guns are unimportant. Not to mention the fact that they're being asked to change a presentation they've been working on for so long mere days before the event. The advance team is adamant, however. There's a lot of discussion about where the guns should go, how they can make them more obvious...
In a way, I'm perplexed as well. I want to tell them that I think the guns are a horrible idea. Why associate the visit with the weapons that put these people in the ground? Why make it about death, when it ought to be about hope? I would have brought out the recovered dog tags: symbols of identity. But I guess they wouldn't have shown up as well on camera. And anyways, it's not my job to advise them. Not unless they ask.
My job is to herd the press and keep them in place as best as possible. And yes, that's the extent of it. Like I said, I'm just support for the White House team, and this is what they would like me to do. Fair enough. Someone has to do it.
When I get back to the hotel, I call the filing center. They tell me they don't need any assistance. I wander out to find lunch: a bowl of bun cha on the economy.