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.