Editor’s note: Jonathan Addleton, former U.S. ambassador to Mongolia and five-time USAID mission director, was born in Pakistan to a family of missionaries rooted in Macon, Ga., a history recorded in his memoir, “Some Far and Distant Place.”
He recently left Macon to return to Pakistan as rector and president of Lahore’s prestigious Forman Christian College, the fundraising arm of which, Friends of Forman, is based in Atlanta.
Dr. Addleton is also author of “The Dust of Kandahar,” which recounts in diary form Dr. Addleton’s year among warriors as senior U.S. civilian representative in southern Afghanistan from 2012-13, just when America began to wind down its “forever war.”
With great empathy and detail, the book describes events as prosaic as bureaucratic emails, as poignant as the “ramp ceremonies” held for fallen troops, and as harrowing as the April 2013 suicide bombing that killed Dr. Addleton’s translator, a fellow foreign service officer and three American soldiers — and nearly took his life.
Global Atlanta caught up with Dr. Addleton in Atlanta for an extensive interview as part of the Authors Amplified series of book talks sponsored by the Atlanta Global Studies Center. The hourlong conversation covers his upbringing in Pakistan, his thoughts on the cost of the Afghan war, his family history in Macon, missionary callings, global identities, the perils of polarization and much more.
Watch the full interview below or read an abridged transcript edited for length and clarity. Buy an exclusive signed copy of ‘Some Far and Distant Place’ here or attend the next Authors Amplified event by clicking here.
Global Atlanta: Do you think that the title of your memoir “Some Far and Distant Place” accurately reflects the book, which outlines much more than Muslim-Christian encounters and indeed is more of a family history woven into your global story? And was Georgia the distant land when you were growing up in Pakistan?
Dr. Addleton: (The title) actually comes from my mother — she wrote her own little memoir as she was growing up in Middle Georgia. This is the Depression era, I believe she was the first in her family, in the later in the family as well, to go to college. She had talked about being inspired to go to “some far and distant place,” which of course in this case was missionary work — a missionary calling to Asia. And so that title comes directly from that line.
When I was growing up, the U.S was that far and distant place, because I spent most of the first 18 years of my life outside the country.
Your family home was in the province of Sindh, but your real childhood backdrop was a boarding school in the Himalayas. Tell us about those two locations and your upbringing just 15 years after Partition split India and Pakistan.
It was a very distinctive world, a small boarding school in the mountains. But it was a very important part of my life, because it was nine months out of every year in a fantastic setting. My parents would come up in the summer months, and we’d have some time together.
Murree is a big vacation resort now; it’s got hotels up the hillside and summer homes and everything else. But in my time, it was a small town. And it was 800 miles north of where my parents lived at the edge of the desert in Sindh province, which also has a very distinctive culture and history, informed very much by the Indus River, that massive artery. Sindh has an ancient Hindu presence that goes way, way back and even before that, the Mohenjo-daro, the Indus Valley civilization. We lived close to those ruins, and I talked about how striking it was at that time to go to these ruins and imagine people living all those thousands of years ago.
Time is relentless, and that was a lot of years ago. I think my father described the ‘60s and early ‘70s as a sort of wrinkle in time. It was the wrinkle that I inhabited when I was in Pakistan. But Pakistan has changed dramatically in the intervening years, as one might expect.
Talk about your father’s faith journey — the missionary impulse to go first to college, then to somewhere like Sindh on just this side of the depression.
We’re fortunate that my parents are still living — my father’s 91 and my mother’s 89. They have actually both written their own memoirs, and they reflected on this so I can capture part of that as well.
There’s no question that my parents had this call, which was rooted in Middle Georgia, in the spiritual life of that place and time, but ended up in in the subcontinent. My father will say he read a book about Adoniram Judson, who was an American missionary that went to Burma — also, William Carey, who was a British missionary who ended up in Calcutta.
William Carey in particular made some great contributions in language, and as it happens, my father learned Sindhi. He did an academic textbook on Sindhi language, and that’s part of his legacy to translation work as well.
And their story, the choices that they made, shaped my life in so many ways. You do sometimes wonder if I had grown up in Middle Georgia, what my life might have been like, but they made that choice — finished from high school at a time when he was No. 10 in this large family where the older sisters went to work in the cotton mills; they had a fifth grade education and went to work. Post World War II Georgia and the United States had opportunities that they didn’t have depression. So maybe this is an accident of birth, but demographically, my parents came along in the late ’40s, early ’50s, where college was an opportunity. They went to Bible school. This was a boom time in Georgia, and they were part of that, and that shaped their family history as indeed it later shape mine.
How did you retain a sense of rootedness when negotiating multiple identities?
I’ve always felt that as well is that you don’t want to diminish or dismiss part of your childhood, your grounding, if you will. That family connection for me goes back multiple generations.
And maybe that’s a Southern thing. I like the expression that in the South, they tell stories. And I think that cuts across the whole spectrum: This is a society that tells stories, and maybe they don’t tell stories like they used to. But I think the storytelling is something I got, including storytelling about my my parents’ upbringing, and we’ve told stories to our kids as well.
I wonder that all of your long ground travel across Pakistan and ocean voyages back to the U.S. as a child influenced your studies of migration. And did your did your growing up next to impoverished, ghetto-ized Hindu communities in Sindh influence your work in development later on?
I’ve often said that the path isn’t always clear, when you’re starting on it, but when you look back, you can see a pattern. And maybe there’s a spiritual aspect of that, I’m not sure. But when you look back, it’s a definite pattern. There’s no other way to say it. Any new assignment I’ve taken on, you look to those threads from previous experiences that come together.
I certainly think that about where I’m in Pakistan right now, which in some sense is the big surprise of my life. But looking back at that weaving, if you will, of one’s life, migration was a topic I was enthusiastic about, and I did make it my graduate study.
It was focused on Pakistan, and people pass through and they think this has been a stable society for years and years, but actually, like most societies, migration has been huge. In the case of Pakistan, of course, that included independence and the huge movement of people between India and Pakistan.
Pakistan is a religiously established state; that was part of it as well. But even the 1800s during the British period, when they opened up the so-called canal colonies creating new agricultural land, which are a fact of life in Punjab, people moved there as well.
I’ve talked about different chapters of my life in Pakistan. I grew up there, did my PhD research there, and then I came back as USAID mission director after the Great Pakistan Earthquake of 2005. I was in Cambodia and the earthquake hit, and people knew about my background. That was 2006-07, an incredible year. I mean, 70,000 people were killed in that earthquake — who remembers it now? But at the time, it was devastation. I think 2 or 3 million people were left homeless, a population the size of Mongolia actually. And so again, I think it was the threads of my childhood.
What took you to Afghanistan — why did you take up such an assignment after such a long and distinguished USAID and diplomatic career? This was after your posting as ambassador to Mongolia and a short assignment in India, and you signed up to serve as senior civilian representative in southern Afghanistan, an experience you describe in the diary memoir, The Dust of Kandahar.
I think it was some of that same motivation and that notion of public service. Some people think you’re incredibly stupid, or incredibly naive or incredibly idealistic. I had devoted my life to working for my country in the foreign service, but even going to Afghanistan was not a logical thing. It was a human drama that I was part of.
Of course, it was associated with 9/11. People forget that (Afghanistan) was not an American venture — it was a global one. I was always impressed when I looked at those flags ISAF headquarters. We had people from Jordan, we had people from Kosovo, soldiers from many countries. In the case of the south, where I was in Kandahar, the Romanians were there in a big way. Previously, the Canadians had been there. And so it was a very international effort.
I felt the threads of my life (there). I had been to Afghanistan as a kid. When I left high school, I took that classic route with two classmates in a bus, from Kabul to Kandahar on into Iran — a very different kind of world, but I think a sense of history is important, and I certainly had a lot of sympathy and empathy for what Afghanistan was going through.
So yeah, I volunteered. That’s a difference with the Vietnam War — this wasn’t a draft war. I was there voluntarily. And just like the hundreds of thousands who experienced Vietnam we were told, ‘When you leave, you may leave Afghanistan, but Afghanistan will never leave you.’ And that’s the reality of those of us that served there.
You mentioned ‘death hanging in the air’ in your childhood and the impact of learning about people close to your family who died in Vietnam. But unfortunately you got even more up close with death during your time in Afghanistan, where not only did you attend many services of fallen and wounded soldiers, but your convoy was also bombed, killing five people in your party. In the context of peace building, how do now view the value of what we were doing versus the lives lost?
What I did see for sure, up close and personal, were the sacrifices involved, and they were undeniable. The ramp ceremonies for fallen soldiers were incredibly moving; there were also the Purple Heart ceremonies, and the most intensely moving things were on those small bases, where you would have these memorial services. So it’s a combination of all three.
People may be surprised to know, it’s been well over a year since there’s been a combat death in Afghanistan. Numbers are much lower. I was there when the numbers were high. And what that meant is that, yes, these were regular events throughout the course of the year — and intensely moving events.
You talked about life being a gift and the fragility of life. That was demonstrated all the time. And I have to think that the soldiers as well as the civilians, when we went out, as you call it, “beyond the wire,” the thought did cross your mind: Is this my last visit? Actually, that’s why I kept a diary.
And on one particular day, in the province of Zabul, we were on a walk to a school, similar to work I had done many other times. But this time, of course, I think the story that I’ve gotten was first it was an IED hidden in a bunch of pallets, and then it was a suicide bomber in a car, and, you know, afterwards, everything that you can imagine — all the destruction that you can imagine, and it stays with you. I mean, this never, never leaves you. I tend to walk fast, and all this stuff happened more in the middle of our relatively small group. I threw myself into a ditch and basically, honest to goodness, felt this was where my life ends at this small town in Afghanistan.
And it really is true that your life passes before your eyes. And it really is true that you think about your loved ones, and that’s why those relationships are important in life. I survived, and I was okay — my trousers were shredded and all that — but there were three soldiers and (two others) who paid the ultimate sacrifice that day. And I went back to the States with them. When you go back on that plane, carrying that precious, precious load, when the pilot enters the airspace over Dover Air Force Base and says, ‘flight such and such carrying American heroes,’ and the response is, ‘flight such and such cleared for landing, American heroes coming home,’ — whatever you may think about anything, the fact of the matter is that the human sacrifice involved hits you, and it doesn’t go away. It lives with me to this day.