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Book Review: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by Peter Van Buren

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If Joseph Heller’s war began in 2004 instead of 1944, this would be the book entitled Catch-22. Once I picked up We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (available September 27), I could not put the book down. I could not believe so much that appears to be fictional satire could instead relate actual events.

Author Peter Van Buren, a career State Department Foreign Service Officer (FSO), could have been Heller’s Yossarian, a traveler adrift in a sea of official insanity, whose survival depends on pretending it is all as it should be until he can escape. He relates tales of incredible hubris, inedible military rations, of status-seeking superiors and shady local grifters, corrupt “businessmen” both native and contracted, of brass-polishing officers and resigned enlisted personnel. All of these people are assigned to distribute massive mounds of Your Money in a poorly-researched and badly-managed effort to convert Iraq from an ancient tribal culture into a clone of suburban America while mired in a war with cultural and religious overtones. Yet the most basic needs of the local people are completely ignored in the incompetent planning of some incredibly expensive community development projects intended to nation-build Iraq.

The FSOs justify all of this frantic activity to their superiors via fabricated reports (as directed and edited by their superiors) through claiming spectacular successes with projects intended to meet local needs; in reality, the outcomes constitute failures that even the local residents understand to be exercises in lavishly expensive foolishness. This is described in a project intended to both employ idle Iraqis and to improve security for patrols by removing trash from the streets. Each night, all of the removed trash would be returned to the streets for the next day’s effort. No lasting results get produced, and no one ever follows up to see where all the money really went. The only requirement is that once a project is approved and funded, it must all be spent — quickly! There would be hell to pay if there was anything left unissued. Then the project is stamped completed and abandonded.

Reading about some of these projects, which Van Buren regularly examines in detail, I had to occasionally laugh out loud at this bravura performance of farce in real life, such as the trash collection project. The examples are legion. For instance, what good is spending millions of dollars for a milk processing facility in a desert region where cows cannot be productive as they are on Iowa farms, or for a frozen chicken slaughterhouse, in a region where electric service is spotty at best, and the product cannot be produced cheaper than foreign-imports cost? Yet both were done without any follow-up on either project. Then another plan is launched to produce clothing which Chinese imports undercut severely, or something else because some high-level muckety-muck is up for an Ambassadorship to some unnamed country and needs a successful nation-bulding economic project on his resume. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on translating American Classic books into Arabic and shipping them to Iraq only have them dumped behind the local school because no local Iraqi could read them and thus didn’t want them. And so on. And so on.

Yet other times I had to restrain my disgust at the arrogance of those seeking to commit this Americanization on the Iraqis, for all they achieved was to make a bad situation much worse by showing serious disrespect to the sensibilities of the local population. Van Buren touches upon these, ranging from an ill-considered idea to get Iraqi women to dress more like American women to the savage rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her entire family, the most flagrant of the violations of Iraq that he had to confront while stationed there. It happened nearby, and could have provided the motive for a revenge killing of US personnel.

But Van Buren doesn’t just tell of the incompetent and spendthrift economic fraud being perpetrated on America (which itself needs this very sort of investment desperately), nor of the daily events of the war including its crimes. There is also the human side to the Occupation. There are passages of extended boredom, enlivened by the most unlikely inspirations which briefly eased the hard and anxious lives of those who, as Van Buren puts it, “lived imprisoned on military bases” — including those at the Embassy inside the Green Zone. There is a great deal of loneliness for Americans stationed in Iraq, and Van Buren relates heart-wrenching scenes that could have come from Marty, or M*A*S*H (in the non-surgical scenes), desperate efforts to reclaim even for a few moments one’s basic humanity by connecting to another. There are tales of desperate actions taken in this Quixotic quest which lead to personal destruction, both professional and literal.

There is also a lot of brutality, revealed both in tales of the victims of sectarian violence and of how the Army trains its soldiers to conduct battlefield first aid (I won’t describe it here). This brutality underlies everything about life in post-invasion Iraq, which is just one reason why Colin Powell attempted to warn George W. Bush that if he invaded, he would be responsible for 30 million Iraqis. He knew from his Vietnam experience that one cannot lightly assume governance of a foreign nation, yet We Meant Well is ample testimony that Powell’s advice went unheeded.

But little of this awareness is allowed to seep into the exotic experiences of those in command of the occupation. The Army has a standing joke about how the Embassy personnel only know what is going on in Iraq by going up to the roof and looking around. Van Buren’s description of life in the Green Zone makes one wonder how anyone can really know what is going on outside of what he describes as a “Galleria” environment, where the liquor store on the Embassy grounds stocks every variety of Jack Daniels made, even the $150 Blue Label. Excess abounds in a reality of their own creation while few of the denizens there ever expose themselves to the true realities of the invaded nation they command.

Yet while out on his two FOB assignments (Forward Operating Base, rhymes with “Bob”), Van Buren details the incredible process one must endure to receive a single warm can of beer twice a year (a doppelgänger for Catch-22‘s Great Loyalty Oath Campaign), a brief phone call home, or even a shower. Deprivation is the rule for serving the creation of an economic colony.

Deprivation abounds for the Iraqis, despite the well-meaning yet ignorant attempts to improve their lot. Why are these efforts failing? I’ll let Van Buren answer:

“…ego played a role, as team leaders liked saying yes to their bosses, liked being ‘befriended’ by the locals, liked to brag about how connected they were to their assigned area communities by virtue of building and bankrolling stuff. This was the game we were required to play. … At all levels there was little direction to relate what we did at the ePRT [embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team – field operatives for the nation-building projects] to the broader goals we heard at the Embassy, such as the creation of a democratic Iraq … We had to make it up on our own. … Hubris stalked us; we suffered from arrogance and embraced ignorance. … It was almost as if a new word were needed, disresponsible, a step beyond irresponsible, meaning you should have been the one to take responsibility but you shucked it off.”

And no one still seeks to define who is to be responsible for Iraq, nor to shut off the massive outpouring of wasted funds needed for other purposes at home. Disresponsibility indeed, all the way to the top.

If you would like to understand why the war in Iraq (and coincidentally, Afghanistan) goes on without end, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People is definitely the book for you. Just put yourself in the situation we have placed the average Iraqi, and understanding will flow. You wouldn’t take this kind of neglect and abuse either.

Very highly recommended.

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About pessimist

  • http://www.lunch.com/DrJosephSMaresca Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Quote:
    “All of these people are assigned to distribute massive mounds of Your Money in a poorly-researched and badly-managed effort to convert Iraq from an ancient tribal culture into a clone of suburban America while mired in a war with cultural and religious overtones.”

    Response: We cannot convert Iraq into a clone of suburban America. Whatever we do must have the concurrence of the people who actually live in the area. This was Machiavelli’s important principle of military engagement and its aftermath.

    We can assist with installing brand new accounting systems to track the oil revenues, as well as municipal accounting systems to run major cities/municipalities with the oil revenues. Next, we could install brand new systems to provide social services like education, medical, recreational etc. Essentially, this is what Saudi Arabia attempted to do with somemodicum of success.

    Our attention should be directed to the development of small businesses which serve the local community, as well as exports to foreign markets over time.

  • Yonatan

    “The FSOs justify all of this frantic activity to their superiors via fabricated reports (as directed and edited by their superiors) through claiming spectacular successes with projects intended to meet local needs; in reality, the outcomes constitute failures that even the local residents understand to be exercises in lavishly expensive foolishness.”

    This is an effective summary of Soviet 5 Year Plans. Everyone reporting upwards saying all is well, with increasing positive spin as the message travels. Meanwhile, the people on the ground starve.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/realist Realist

    @Dr Joe:

    The function of the FSOs in Iraq was to stimulate small business activities. Unfortunately, someone’s idea of a small business didn’t match the needs of the Iraqi people very well.

  • Popsiq

    The Iraq/Afghan Wars are going to provide grist for such writers for years to come. If the Vietnam Experience was a result of ignorance and naivety, the latter wars are rooted in malevolence and pure error.

    “We Meant Well”??? Just like Heinrich Himmler did.

  • Strider

    Perhaps at some future date this book will be entered into evidence in the war-crimes and/or crimes-against-humanity trials of Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice and others.

  • Igor

    Iraq rebuilding was a huge failure of capitalism and market economy.