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On bringing Americans home
"Having a blue passport means something."
MARTIN KOSZTA WAS NOT officially an American citizen, but that didn’t matter to the captain of the U.S. Navy warship demanding his release from the custody of a foreign government in July 1853.
It had been only a few days since Commander Duncan Ingraham and the crew of the USS St. Louis had arrived in the Turkish port city of Smyrna. But word quickly spread that Koszta, a Hungarian by birth who had immigrated to the United States in 1849, had been taken prisoner on an Austrian warship named Hussar.
Koszta had fought as a soldier in Hungary’s failed bid for independence from the Austrian Empire and fled to the U.S. Having lived there for nearly two of the required five years, he had declared his intention to become an American and received his “first paper” toward citizenship. But he had returned on private business to Turkey, and the Austrian Empire cared only about his revolutionary past. He was brutally kidnapped and placed under guard in the harbor “pending his forced return to Austria for probable execution,” according to The Foreign Service Journal.
As American diplomats protested in vain to Austrian and Turkish officials, Ingraham visited Koszta on July 1 aboard the Hussar, where “a brief but dramatic conversation took place between the prisoner and the American,” according to the Journal:
Ingraham asked Koszta how long he had been in the United States. One year and eleven months, he replied.
With the intention of settling there permanently? Yes.
When and where did he file a “first paper,” the declaration of his desire to become an American citizen? On July 31, 1852, in the Court of Common Pleas for the City and County of New York.
“Do you want the protection of the American flag?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Then you shall have it,” declared the Commander.
I’ve been thinking about this historical footnote lately; I’ll return to it in a moment. First, I want to direct your attention to an official United States government website for American families who pray they never view it.
“If you’ve come to this page, the State Department has informed you that your loved one has been determined to be wrongfully detained,” says The State Department’s Hostage Affairs Family Portal. “You are in an unexpected and extraordinarily stressful situation.”
The families of some 60 Americans have read such words, probably in tears at each horrible sentence. “You are trying to understand the circumstances of your loved one’s wrongful detention, identify people and institutions who can help, and understand possible actions you and your advocates can take to resolve this crisis.”
“You want to have the confidence you and your government are doing everything possible to secure your loved one’s release and safe return home,” it adds.
Mark Swidan. Walid Fiatihi. Austin Tice. Paul Whelan. Jeff Woodke. Theary Seng. Some we don’t even know about. Nowadays, dozens of American citizens remain wrongly detained around the world. And the U.S. Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs is tasked with getting them out. It’s worth recalling the “Koszta Affair” since it informs today’s state of play.
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The morning after Ingraham’s visit with Koszta on July 2, 1853, was “a day I shall long remember,” an officer on the USS St. Louis wrote in his diary. Onboard the ship, sailors were cutting loose the deck guns and readying shells as the captain of the Hussar read a note from Commander Ingraham.
“Sir: I have been directed by the American Charge at Constantinople to demand the person of Martin Koszta, a citizen of the United States, taken by force on Turkish soil and now confined on board the brig Hussar, and if a refusal is given, to take him by force. An answer to this demand must be returned by 4 o’clock p.m.”
Notably, it wasn’t a fair fight: The Hussar was sailing with two other Austrian warships, armed with twelve more guns than the St. Louis. Yet shortly before the deadline, a lifeboat was lowered from the Hussar. Inside were several uniformed figures with a disheveled young man. It was Martin Koszta. A deal had been reached. He was on his way home. “The danger of bloodshed and its incalculable consequences were over,” The Foreign Service Journal said.
“It created at the time quite a sensation both at home and throughout Europe and…everyone applauded Captain Ingraham for his decisive action on that occasion,” read the St. Louis officer’s diary entry. “We were all certain of victory in case it came to blows, but many a gallant life would have been sacrificed, and many a family at home plunged into mourning for a beloved son or husband!’’
Sailors nearly went to war to protect the life and liberty of one man of questionable U.S. citizenship. And so the precedent was set: Americans jailed abroad were worth a lot to the United States of America.
“Our Government is bound to protect the rights of our naturalized citizens everywhere to the same extent as though they had drawn their first breath in this country,” President James Buchanan told Congress a few years later. “We recognize no distinction between our native and naturalized citizens.”
Fast forward 160 years, and “there are two things that we care about,” says Roger Carstens, a retired Army Special Forces officer who has been Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs since 2020. “Are they wrongfully detained, and do they have a blue passport? Because if you have a blue passport and another country or terrorist group takes you, you’ve got to know your country is coming to get you.”
Nowadays, American special operators sometimes pull off daring rescues to free hostages from captivity. But in the nuclear age, the U.S. doesn’t typically send warships into foreign ports brandishing deck guns. Instead, the State Department works behind the scenes to bring loved ones home, even if the country “wrongfully detaining your loved one may be as committed to wrongfully detaining your loved one as the U.S. government is to securing their release.”
That is a good way of describing Russia. Because after months of negotiations involving a potential swap of Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, Moscow said it would release one American, and one only: Griner.
"I landed at 4:30 in the morning, and at 9:30, Paul called from the penal colony in Russia. I explained to him, I said, 'Paul, it was one or nothing. We were not going to be able to get you out. We're going to keep working on it, but I understand you're a little frustrated with that," Carstens said in a recent interview.
Carstens noted that national security experts assessed that releasing Bout six years ahead of schedule was not a major risk to American security. And “to me,” Carstens said, “what's unacceptable is not Viktor Bout. What's unacceptable is an American wrongfully detained and held in a foreign jail cell. We have a moral obligation. Having a blue passport means something. While it's tough to make some of the decisions that we've made, we start from the premise and from the belief that it's our moral obligation to get an American.”
May they all come home soon.
“Face-offs with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have become a common feature along the border in Arunachal Pradesh, particularly in the Yangtse area,” a senior Indian Army officer recently told The Telegraph. “They have happened on average two or three times a month, recently, and the incursions have increased in frequency over the last two years.”
“On average, about 70 percent of each class over the last decade has rung the bell. But the rate suddenly soared in 2021, reaching as high as 93 percent.”
“Classes that started with 150 recruits were finishing with fewer than 10. In Navy records, nearly all the dropouts appeared to be voluntary, but sailors said that, in reality, a majority were sick or injured. It was not unusual, they said, to see men carried to the bell because they could not walk.”
“Americans are now closely divided on whether Washington should support Ukraine ‘as long as it takes,’ according to a recent survey.
“A large majority of those who think Ukraine has the advantage in the current conflict say the United States should support Ukraine for as long as it takes (71% vs. 48% overall). By contrast, a majority of those who think Russia has the advantage think the United States should pressure Ukraine to settle for peace as soon as possible (60% vs. 47% overall).”
A B-52H Stratofortress let the prototype missile fly for the first time off Southern California, where “it reached hypersonic speeds greater than five times the speed of sound, completed its flight path and detonated in the terminal area,” the service said. “Indications show that all objectives were met.”
The Army is fielding the RQ-28A short-range recon quadcopter from Skydio. The drone is a "rucksack portable" design with vertical take-off and landing capability that can fly for about 35 minutes. An outstanding capability to give infantry platoons and squads.
That’s it for The Ruck this week. Thanks so much for reading.
This will be my last dispatch of 2022. I’m taking a holiday publishing break. But I plan to be back in your inbox on Jan. 5, 2023. Happy New Year!
I’ll see you then. —Paul