In Memoriam: W. Nathaniel Howell
September 14, 1939–December 17, 2020
Alumnus ambassador showed leadership skills and grace in Kuwait embassy crisis
Upon arriving in Germany after spending four months under siege in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, one of the first orders of business for Ambassador W. Nathaniel “Nat” Howell (Col ’61, Grad ’65 CM) was to take a long bath.
“I brought a lot of Kuwait with me,” Howell said in August in an interview marking the 30th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, where he had become the very symbol of America’s defiance of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Howell, who died Dec. 17, 2020, at 81, brought a lot of UVA to Kuwait, the final posting of a 26-year foreign service career. At UVA, he studied under renowned professor and Iran scholar Rouhollah “Ruhi” Ramazani (Law ’54) and earned a Ph.D. in foreign affairs
“In a circle of brilliant graduate students … Nat stood out,” says President Emeritus John Casteen (Col ’65, Grad ’66, ’70), a longtime friend. “He worked with purpose and intelligence, and he went where he planned to go.”
Appointed ambassador to Kuwait in 1987, Howell was awaiting reassignment when Saddam invaded the country on Aug. 2, 1990. Embassy staff and some Americans living in Kuwait took refuge in the embassy, a modest 5-acre compound that Howell said was once described as “having the aura of a well-maintained boys’ camp.”
About 40 residents holed up in the embassy. The Iraqis cut off water and power to get them to surrender. As an obituary of Howell in the Arab Times noted, they underestimated the resourcefulness of the residents, who had a small generator and dug a freshwater well.
They also had the right leader for the moment. From the beginning, Howell traded his suit for shorts and a T-shirt and did what needed to be done. He assigned jobs to residents—cooking, cleaning, gardening and guard duty, among others—and presided over the crisis with his trademark wit, grace and efficiency.
“Humor was an essential coping skill and even a form of resistance,” Howell wrote in Siege: Crisis Leadership: The Survival of U.S. Embassy Kuwait, a book on the ordeal.
Residents subsisted largely on canned tuna. They held happy hours and confounded the watching Iraqis by playing helicopter sounds from the movie Apocalypse Now over the stereo system.
While working to keep up morale, Howell tried to plan for every contingency while privately worrying that not everyone would get out alive.
“We won’t leave you” was his promise to the residents, he said.
In December, Saddam allowed foreigners to leave. Howell was on the last flight home, with 31 other Americans. He left the embassy flag flying.
Howell began a second career, at UVA, in 1992. He directed the Institute for Global Policy Research and the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf Studies program. He and his wife, Margie (Nurs ’60 CM), helped establish the Rouhollah Ramazani Professorship of Arabian Peninsula and Gulf Studies.
“By practicing diplomacy in his first career, Nat brought a rich array of experiences which enhanced his second career as a research professor at UVA,” Margie Howell says. “The academic was grounded in real life for him.”
Howell is survived by his wife and son Wilson N. Howell III (Col ’84 CM).