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We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project) [Kindle Edition]

Peter Van Buren
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction of 2011 title

From a State Department insider, the first account of our blundering efforts to rebuild Iraq--a shocking and rollicking true-life tale of Americans abroad

Charged with rebuilding Iraq, would you spend taxpayer money on a sports mural in Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhood to promote reconciliation through art? How about an isolated milk factory that cannot get its milk to market? Or a pastry class training women to open cafés on bombed-out streets without water or electricity?

According to Peter Van Buren, we bought all these projects and more in the most expensive hearts-and-minds campaign since the Marshall Plan. We Meant Well is his eyewitness account of the civilian side of the surge--that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed. Leading a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team on its quixotic mission, Van Buren details, with laser-like irony, his yearlong encounter with pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers, and oblivious administrators secluded in the world's largest embassy, who fail to realize that you can't rebuild a country without first picking up the trash.

Darkly funny while deadly serious, We Meant Well is a tragicomic voyage of ineptitude and corruption that leaves its writer--and readers--appalled and disillusioned but wiser.

Editorial Reviews







One diplomat’s darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and the State Department have done — or tried to do — since the invasion of Iraq. The title says it all.”  --Steven Myers, New York Times

"In this shocking and darkly hilarious exposé of the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq, former State Department team leader Van Buren describes the tragicomedy that has been American efforts at nation building, marked by bizarre decisions and wrongheaded priorities… "We made things in Iraq look the way we wanted them to look," Van Buren writes. With lyrical prose and biting wit, this book reveals the devastating arrogance of imperial ambition and folly."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

"One of the rare, completely satisfying results of the expensive debacle in Iraq."—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

I've read just about every memoir out of Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade, military or otherwise, and this stands as one of the best -- certainly one of the most self-aware and best written.  --Washingtonian

"Long after the self-serving memoirs of people named Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld are consigned to some landfill, this unsparing and very funny chronicle will remain on the short list of books essential to understanding America's Iraq War. Here is nation-building as it looks from the inside—waste, folly, and sheer silliness included."—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War

"The road to Hell is paved with taxpayer dollars in Peter Van Buren’s account of a misspent year rebuilding Iraq. Abrasive, honest and funny, We Meant Well is an insider’s account of life behind blast walls at the height of the surge."—Nathan Hodge, author of Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders

"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...Very highly recommended."—Seattle-Post Intelligencer

"We Meant Well is a must-read, first-hand account of our disastrous occupation of Iraq. Its lively writing style will appeal to a wide audience."—Ron Paul, M.D., Member of Congress

From the Author

Learn more, read my blog and see photos from Iraq illustrating many of the episodes in the book at!

Product Details

  • File Size: 392 KB
  • Print Length: 286 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0805094369
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books (September 27, 2011)
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004ULOJA2
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #203,643 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
123 of 134 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Study in State Department ann Military Buraucracy September 27, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book could serve as a text for courses in Foreign Policy, government organization, or military operations. It is a withering look at how some State Department bureaucrats and military officers play a game in order to advance their careers, without much care as to the effect their projects and policies have on flesh and blood people. Van Buren's book is humorous, and easy reading. Underneath, there is a level of tragedy and sadness, as clearly the author was affected by the amorality and immorality of wanting U.S. efforts to once again "win the hearts and minds" of a people whose country we had invaded.

Van Buren discusses the tedium, the mind numbing meetings, the social meetings between Iraqis and U.S. officials where optics were the prime concern, the worthless projects, and the waste of huge sums of money. We do not see one-dimensional characters for the most part. We meet Iraqis who are idealists (very few), trying to get rich, embittered or saddened. Military officers are often portrayed as interested in short term success to enhance their careers. State Department policy is seen as confused, ignorant, and ever changing.

Every taxpayer who thinks we should give the military whatever it wants in terms of a defense budget should read this book; they will likely reconsider their opinions. Those who think U.S. foreign policy is guided by experts with clear goals will receive a rude awakening.

As I write this review, I have read that the author is now being harassed by federal investigators. This is very much a whistleblowing book, and sadly whistleblowers are often punished. I wish the author well; clearly he will have no future in government. However he seems to be a patriot, intent on telling the public how badly our government functions.

In short, this is a book that is both entertaining and disturbing.
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49 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I cried until I laughed October 14, 2011
By Patawan
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I've had the honor of working for the author who, in my personal opinion, is a management genius. Be it a visa line, aiding American citizens flee a disaster zone, or applying lessons learned from the Home Depot into government work, Peter is awesome and I'd "serve with him anywhere."

Knowing Peter, I perhaps did not laugh as much as other readers. Rather, as his tour progressed in the book, I became more apprehensive and distraught knowing that a good man and a great officer such as himself could be negated by the selfish greed of locals and self-promotion agenda of superiors. I can only imagine the frustration and disappointment he had to go through. Among the chapters of mind-numbingly stupid US-funded projects, Peter details his experience living at a Forward Operating Base (FOB) with its smells, sounds, and tastes (whether agreeable or not). The reader will come to understand the social relationships in a FOB; sometimes funny which is surprising noting the number of mortar attacks that occurred, sometimes heartbreakingly human.

I strongly encourage any State Department employee, officer and contractor alike, to read it. You'll probably be disappointed, disgusted, and/or outraged. Once that's passed though, learn the lessons offered in the book.
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49 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Actions without Accountability September 30, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Probably the closest thing to an honest audit of our efforts to "rebuild" Iraq, this book is disturbing to the point of being humorous. If only it weren't OUR country, our war and our tax dollars going to fund the circus. Or real lives being destroyed so that the show can go on. What's clear from the stories told here - that there's really only one goal in Iraq - "look busy". Blow things up so we can rebuild them. Identify non-existent problems so we can throw money at trying to solve them. Iraq is the US's ultimate exercise in sloppy socialism - pouring money into building schools, industries, infrastructure, etc (none of which ultimately works or is used as intended) - all the while those same things crumble into ruin back home. If half the stuff in this book is true, then our leaders should be shamed into resigning and then replaced with people who (like the author) "get it". As mentioned in a previous comment, the opposite will likely happen - the author now being harassed into submission and under threat of losing his job for being honest. Welcome to the new America.
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60 of 74 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase

The author himself begins the book with a reference to Dispatches (Everyman's Library Classics & Contemporary Classics) followed by Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition, to which I would add A Rumor of War. This is a great book, an important book, and I salute the Department of State people with integrity that approved it for publication, while scorning the seventh floor craven autocrats that have bullied the author for telling the truth. This book is the real deal, and I have multiple notes along the lines of gifted writing, humble *and* erudite, quiet humor, ample factual detail, gonzo-gifted prose, an eye for compelling detail, *absorbing,* a catalog of absurdities and how not to occupy a country.

Late in my notes I write "Reality so rich it stuns. A time capsule, priceless deep insights into occupation at its worst."

And also write down an alternative subtitle: "The Zen of Government Idiocy Squared."

This is a book, from a single vantage point, of the specifics of "pervasive waste and inefficiency, mistaken judments, flawed policies, and structural weakness." Speaking of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), the author says "We were the ones who famously helped past together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck."

We learn that at the peak in 2007, there were 31 PRTs with Private Military Contractors (PMC) paid to provide security, and 13 embedded PRT (ePRT), where the US Army provided security and all else (housing, transport).
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The nitty gritty on the disaster of the war in ...
The nitty gritty on the disaster of the war in Iraq. Americans have never unterstood dse Middle East. IRMA DICKINSON
Published 1 month ago by irma dickinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Humorous yet truthful account of OIF!
This book is awesome! I deployed to the 'Stan but so many stories and observations resonate with me and I laughed more times than I could count reading this book. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jason W. Stopper
5.0 out of 5 stars If you want to really find out why we are ...
If you want to really find out why we are loosing our wars all you need to do is read this book. The big question is why are the General Officers and Cabinet Officers who are and... Read more
Published 2 months ago by xtian
5.0 out of 5 stars "ubelievable "
Peter Van Buren – not only a fine writer but one who writes from personal experience. This book should be recommended reading for those who want more than just the military folly... Read more
Published 3 months ago by William VanZevern
5.0 out of 5 stars A real eye opener
Whatever you think of the Iraq war, its clear that it didn't work out so well. This is the story of why: bureaucrats run amok trying to do good things without a clue. Read more
Published 3 months ago by J. Bower
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Excellent insider report. Need more of this reporting!
Published 3 months ago by Wink
5.0 out of 5 stars A great lesson
A fantastic read! As someone who also spent two years in Iraq, I agree that Van Buren hit the topics right on the head with this book. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Mike Busovicki
5.0 out of 5 stars Fleeced by the military-industrial-enetrtainment industry
What we thought all along, a major rip-off, of incompetents, by incompetents, for incompetents.
Published 5 months ago by BadDawg
5.0 out of 5 stars Was a fun book to read giving the seriousness of the subject
Five stars and beyond. Was a fun book to read giving the seriousness of the subject.
Published 5 months ago by Ed Volpe
5.0 out of 5 stars Are the State Department and human rights industry trading free...
Never have negative Amazon reviews been as effective at selling me a book as they were in the case of Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well. Read more
Published 7 months ago by peter maguire
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More About the Author

Peter's new book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. The book is fiction, but based on the real events: the social and economic changes in America between WWII, the decline of the blue collar middle class and the rise of the Working Poor. Ghosts of Tom Joad will be published in April 2014,and is available for preorder on Amazon.

Peter Van Buren is also the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, a sarcastic, funny, sad, angry book about his work for the Department of State as the leader of two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in rural Iraq, 2009-2010. His blog at continues the story, with daily satire and commentary about national security.

Van Buren, a 24-year veteran Foreign Service Officer at the State Department, spent a year in Iraq leading two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Following his book, the Department of State began termination proceedings, and stripped him of his security clearance and diplomatic credentials. Through the efforts of the Government Accountability Project and the ACLU, Van Buren instead retired from the State Department with his full benefits of service.

Peter's commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, The New York Times, Salon, NPR, al Jazzeera, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael, Le Monde, The Guardian (UK), Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others. He has appeared on the BBC World Service and BBC Radio, NPR's All Things Considered and Fresh Air, CurrentTV, HuffPo Live, al Jazeera, RT, ITV, Britain's Channel 4 Viewpoint, CCTV, Voice of America and more.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (his books are all in English, don't worry). He lives in New York City.

Learn more at and

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