Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, touched down behind schedule for a visit to the kingdom of Tonga this week, the result of strong head winds, and he was met with a flurry of activity.
No one on the ground wanted the admiral to be late to meet the king, not known to be particularly flexible on matters of punctuality.
Protocol tends to be a challenge for visitors to the only South Pacific island nation that has managed to hold on to its monarchy. In events where King George Tupou V comes in contact with commoners, for example, he prefers a complex series of screens to shield him from their view, and vice versa.
As the highest-ranking US military official ever to visit the island, however, Mullen is no commoner. His royal treatment on Tuesday included a ride to the palace in a stretch limousine, its interior lined with hot-pink tube lights.
The divide between royals and commoners here has sparked a push for democracy that has at times resulted in violent riots. The island will hold its first democratic elections later this year.
Tonga seemed a well-located, and well-timed, stop during Mullen’s trip home from Australia, where he attended security discussions centered on the Afghanistan war and China’s growing influence in the Pacific region. His 757 needed to refuel, and his staff decided that this was also an excellent opportunity to thank Tonga for its contributions to US war efforts, both current and historical.
During the Iraq war, the country came to symbolize America’s desperate search for coalition partners: The Bush administration accepted 55 Tongan soldiers to bolster US efforts in late 2004.
Back then, there was some debate about whether to call the contingent a large platoon or a small company. US military officials settled on the former and set about deciding what to do with them – mindful that the island nation’s contributions represented 10 percent of its armed forces.
The troops were deployed to heavily fortified Camp Victory in Baghdad, where they quickly became good-natured staples of the security scene guarding Al Faw palace, the headquarters building for America’s top generals.
Now, another 55-strong Tongan troop contingent is preparing to head to Afghanistan, where the US is once again leading a coalition that is becoming smaller and increasingly fragile. Another search ensued for a relatively safe place to station the Tongan troops. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, too, is said to have been touched by the Tongan troop contribution and has taken an interest in their safety.
When they arrive in the country later this year after a training stint in Britain, the troops will head to Camp Bastion – a bustling yet highly remote desert outpost in Afghanistan’s violent Helmand Province – where they will take on base security duties.
At a lavish reception held in honor of Mullen’s visit and the newest military partnership between the two nations, the admiral was to review the Tongan troops. Since he was being whisked away to meet with the king, however, he delegated those honors to a senior member of his traveling party, Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby.
Though he acknowledged he was improvising, Jacoby was congratulated by fellow US military officials for not flinching in the midst of a ceremonial volley of gunfire that visitors noted was aimed closer to the reviewer’s face than US military tradition would have dictated.
Afterward, while her lady-in-waiting carved a suckling pig for visitors, the king's sister presented the admiral’s wife, Deborah Mullen, with gifts, including a club made from local wood. Tongans once – but no longer – used rats’ teeth to carve the club’s stunning and intricate designs, she explained.
There was some worry about a breach of protocol when an Australian official stuffed money in the grass skirt of a Tongan soldier performing a dance deemed to be a cross between hula and tropical hip-hop. The hosts were quick to reassure the visitors, however, that it was part of island tradition.
US officials, with the exception of a marine, agreed that the Tongan military band, complete with male and female soldiers who danced in traditional attire, was about the best they’d ever seen.
On a recent visit to the island, Chinese military officials had asked the band to come perform in China, one of the hosts mentioned. US military officials said it was the first they had heard of the Chinese visit to the island – and decided that back in Washington, a battle of the Tongan and US military bands may soon be in order.