122 of 133 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified 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.
48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 2011
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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.
48 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2011
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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.
58 of 72 people found the following review helpful
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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).
62 agencies competed with or ignored one another in Iraq, all of them "fragmented and under-staffed." One PRT served a population the size of Detroit with a staff of six.
The staffing that the diplomatic surge provided (once allowed by the mercurial and perhaps insane Donald Rumseld and frat-boy Paul Bremer was "mostly amateurs. Out of 610 PRT personnel in mid-2007, 29 spoke Arabic, or 5%. [This is of course what happens when a mercurial government compounds its own ignorance with an insistence on unilateral US citizen staffing, excluding multinational participation at the tactical level, where legions of Arabic-speaking, Islam-understanding real experts are available from many countries.]
The PRTs received three weeks training (neither the author nor I make stuff like this up). Week One is a dummies guide to Islam. Week two focuses on spreadsheets used to track the billions being blown into thin air. Week Three is what we in the CIA call "crash and bang"--the cursory basics of shooting and using a car as a weapon to escape.
QUOTE (14): "Missing from the training was any history of the war and our policy, any review of past or current reconstruction projects, any information on military organization, acronyms, and rank structure, any lessons learned from the previous years' work, or any idea of what the hell a PRT was and what our job was going to be."
Recurring themes throughout the book, which assuredly should be a war college and government entry level reading staple, include:
+ enthusiastic ignoring of reality by all parties
+ chaos at all levels across all boundaries
+ no one asked the Iraqis what they wanted--ever
+ no one did market research in support of any thing they proposed
+ the one constant was illegal DVDs, many made in China
+ the one thing not lacking in Iraq was money by the billion
+ Embassy isolated, flip-flopping, totally divorced from reality
+ US loose money took Iraq from 20th to 4th on the global corruption index
+ We did not play well together
+ We overpaid for everything, with no accountability anywhere
+ Constant struggle to determine if what we paid for even existed
+ Cognitive distance between and among all participants
+ Good projects like the 4H Club did not require money, and were shut down
The author has one chapter on the "tribes" imposed by the US on the Iraqis, including soldiers, KBR white (good old boys), KBR brown (doing the dirty work), KBR green (security), other contractors including Filipinos and Ugandas, Iraqis, and Iraqi-American translators.
Early on one gets a finely-crafted sense of the "Mad Max" nature of the environment, and I have a note to myself: devastating detail on the mediocrity of it all, the pervasive corruption (corruption is not just about honor, it also includes being stupid and irresponsible at taxpayer expense--see my Journal: Reflections on Integrity UPDATED at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog).
The below quote is in my view a microcosm of the insanity of the entire $80 billion a year US secret intelligence community that provides "at best" 4% of what the President or a major commander needs to know, and nothing for everyone else.
QUOTE (30): Speaking of the overhead surveillance blimp, "With the appropriate clearance, you could watch the video feed from your desktop computer as the soldier in charge zoomed in on patches of real life outside our walls. In the odd way that soldiers entertained themselves, dogs going at it were always worth zooming in on, and one troop claimed to have a night-vision enhanced video clip that will never make Wiki-Leaks, showing a man in close carnality with a donkey."
I've spent my life in the real world, including decades in residence across Asia and Latin and Central America, but have never encountered a level of inter-locking detail such as this author provides on the basics--each factoid that he presents is an indictment of the incapacity of the US Government - including its $80 billion a year "intelligence" community - to actually get in touch with ground truth. Four words capture the essence of the mass of detail: trash, water, sewage, power.
I've known Turkey was playing the US for big bucks in Afghanistan, this is the first time I read in detail about how Turkey gamed the US system to secure massive amounts of funding for work that could have been done by indigenous Iraqis for 1-2% of what Americans paid Turkey (as well as KBR and the others of course -- roughly 60 billion from Congress, 90 billion captured, 18 billion donated, and nothing to show for it.
The essence of American hubris and hypocrisy at the tactical level is captured by the author in this quote:
QUOTE (76): "...instead of holding local elections as the starting point for converting the country into a democracy, we appointed local sheiks as local leaders, with the promise of elections to follow, someday. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
It merits comment that most of us knew we should not have invaded Iraq; that General Shinseki honestly appraised Congress of the 400,000 needed to keep the peace after the invasion; that General Garner was on the verge of succeeding when Dick Cheney pulled him out and sent Paul Bremer in to assure the failure of the US; and that the US Government is not designed to serve the public interest, but rather -- since 1980 -- to optimize the transfer of wealth from the US taxpayer to the banks and corporations that comprise the various taxpayer-funded special interest groups that are inherently antithetical to the public interest.
Worthy of note for me were two major discussions of homosexuality among US forces in Iraq, the first righteous, that no one seemed to care about one's sexual proclivities; the second, which should not have surprised me but it did, to the effect that there is much more homosexual activity, including among normally "straight" men, and all of it is aided by Facebook pages and other social networking means that get down to the specific Forward Operating Base (FOB).
The chapter on the three colonels, pp. 122-130 is not fair to many, but is consistent with both the stories out of Afghanistan, where one reserve officer was ordered home for writing about the number of useless colonels, and with more recent stories in the media about "toxic" US Army leadership culture. Self-promotion rules, and books on counterinsurgency are for show, not for reading.
QUOTE (130): "One of the difficult parts about counterinsurgency was that it was hard to tell when you had won. You measured success more by what did not happen than what did, the silence that defined the music. Silence did not play well with self-promotion, but it sure as hell beat the sound of IEDs.
There are many specific examples throughout the book, but the one that will stay with me forever is the chicken processing plant built at a cost of $2.58 million, that ended up killing and processing twenty-five chickens.
QUOTE (144): "How many PRT staff members does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One to hire a contractor who fails to complete the job and two to write the press release in the dark."
QUOTE (152): "Our job was not to think in or out of the box but to retrace endlessly the outline of the box itself."
On page 157 hundreds of soccer balls decorated with flags go to waste because the Saudi flag has a Koran verse in it and no one would kick that. The Chinese sub-contractors knew to leave off the Israeli flag, but not the Saudi flag. For me this is a tiny reminder of Winston Churchill's wisdom, "The Americans always do the right thing, they just try everything else first." The depth of the ignorance, naivete, and downright irresponsible attitudes across the US Government stun me to this day.
The chapter on the CIA is narrow (misses NSA and other pieces) and half-admiring and half-sad, ending with the observation that while State can know its failures today if it is honest, it will be decades before the truth comes out on the failure of intelligence.
QUOTE (208): The devolution of counterinsurgency into counterreality was hardly limited to my ePRT, or to the State Department."
QUOTE (222): "Our American goal [insert any idea here] was irrelevant. They had a system in place that predated our idea by approximately five thousand years. More was not better."
Late in the book I learn the author's FOB was mortared 70+ times and read some very good stuff on wounds, training to treat wounds, and the reality of treating wounds. This is followed by the factoid on page 240 that out of 4471 US deaths in Iraq, 913 have been suicides (here in the USA we are reaching 18 veteran suicides a day, and one hushed-up self-immolation of a veteran in New Hampshire). In 2009 and 2010, there were more suicides among US troops in Iraq than combat deaths. In June 2010, there were 32 suicides in one month.
The chapter on "What Victory Looks Like," pp 245-254 is destined to be an extract of great value to courses across the spectrum from public administration to ethics to economics 101.
QUOTE (253): "We meant well, most of us really did. Hubris stalked us; we suffered from arrogance and we embraced ignorance."
The last sentence of the book, on page 268, helps explain--above and beyond all that went before--why the Department of State "mandarins" are freaking out, remembering that in the class war that the rich have won, Secretaries of State are part of "they" not part of "us."
QUOTE (268): "No thanks really but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned us there."
The book has 60 notes, most of them pointing to online sources. As a 30 year veteran of the classified world, I am certain that there is nothing classified in this book; that the State Department personnel involved in clearing the book were righteous and professional; and that anyone at the State Department harassing the author is ripe for impeachment or a civil lawsuit.
I certainly do encourage everyone to buy this book, it will join Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,Losing the Golden Hour: An Insider's View of Iraq's Reconstruction (Adst-Dacor Diplomats and Diplomacy Book), and Still Broken: A Recruit's Inside Account of Intelligence Failures, from Baghdad to the Pentagon as classics--I mean that in the very respectful sense--of how not to do diplomacy.
There are roughly five parts to the demise of the American "Empire," in this order:
1 Lost of electoral system integrity leading to two-party tyranny and complete corruption in Congress and the Executive.
2 Out of control Department of Defense regardless of who is in charge, with Donald Rumsfeld *barring* the Department of State from presenting and then executing its well thought out, in advance, plans for post-war occupation and reconstruction.
3 Shallow Department of State unable to surge anything, with a fortress mentality from the years when Madeline "Gerbil" Albright decided that her legacy would be bunkers no one could get in or out of.
4 Corrupt tendency to rely on contractors for "surge" when what really happens is they steal away the shallow bench from within, and we end up with no government and rotten contractors.
5 Zero intelligence because intelligence is irrelevant in this town. Paul Pillar just wrote the definitive book on the political side of that problem, see Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform. We are wasting $80 billion a year to provide "at best" according to General Tony Zinni, USMC (Ret), 4% (four percent) of what the President or a major commander needs, and nothing for anyone else. So are we surprised to have Iraq turn into a three trillion dollar keystone cops meet griftopia sinkhole?
I mention the above in part to observe that the Department of State does the best it can with almost zero resources, in the face of grotesquely over-bearing and very ignorant Department of Defense "leaders," and to observe that even Jesus Christ himself could not succeed in Iraq as long as Dick Cheney was hijacking the White House, George Bush was trapped in a family farce, and Donald Rumsfeld was nearly lunatic with the abuse of power. See in passing:
Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency
The Bush Tragedy
Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy
PLEASE buy this book and then share it (I donate all my books to the George Mason University Library, without marking them up, for a modest tax credit). The day must come when those who are in power not only avoid the mistakes this author points out, but also embrace the messenger rather than trying to shoot him.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2012
Peter Van Buren gets kudos for taking the time to compose his thoughts and put them into a memoir that points out the "Dilbert zone" policies of the State Department in Iraq. With over 20 years battling "Iron Rice Bowl" bureaucrats both inside the foreign service and out, it's not hard to see why the tone of the book sounds so cynical. With Van Buren's sharp court jester wit, the State Department should be grateful that they have one of their own who is willing to speak truth to power. The throne to the Secretary of State is for the most part unaccountable to the American public that it is supposed to serve. Challenge the State Department on their policies, and their bureaucrats very quickly find ways to stonewall and escape scrutiny. Too many people inside the State Department are willing to look the other way knowing that the consequences are practically non-existent. There are of course some very good people who work for the Department but the politics that govern the pecking order makes it very difficult for people to do the right thing. Cross the wrong person and they can make things very difficult for you. With so much at stake personally, most people just decide to abandon their sense of integrity, which unfortunately leads to a deterioration of organizational values that inevitably permeates the organization's culture. Changing the culture of an organization like the State Department is next to impossible. Change, if it comes at all, happens very slowly. What ends up happening, however, is that the more they try to change things, the more they revert to the way things originally were.
Van Buren himself is far from perfect but his book does illustrate the dysfunction that is the reality of America's premier foreign service conglomerate. It is plagued by sclerotic thinking and territorial egotism which will only be corrected if enough people insist on upholding the values that the State Department claims it wants to promote to the world. Among these are integrity, ethics and fairness. Van Buren said in an interview with "Publisher's Weekly" ([...]) that the State Department is like a Mafia family because it does not like to air its dirty laundry in public, even though it is a public entity. It should probably take a minute to review its own propaganda playbook so that it can practice what it propagandizes to the world's masses. Otherwise the subtitle of Van Buren's book "How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" surely makes the point.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I handed this book to my son last night, and said he might enjoy it, because it is at times funny. And it is sad because the funny dumb things it talks about are true. And it might help him understand part of his dad's job better.
The on-line photo gallery is pretty good. [..] Things look exactly like they did 20+ years ago when I moved there (also with the State Department, right after the Iraq/Iran war.) If it were not for the fact that people keep trying to kill people, it would be a nice third world posting.
Although the book goes into why they couldn't develop water/sewage/electrical systems for the country, I still don't understand completely why they didn't do it. Oh yeah, it was the number of projects completed that counted, not the number of meaningful project completed. Helping widows raise sheep and art exhibitions apparently counted for a lot. Also State and the Military didn't want to get into hand-holding for even a moment. For some reason, our illustrious foreign service hierarchy didn't understand that a people who had had everything taken care of for them forever might need some time to adjust before taking on something as big as running a city's infrastructure.
I do recommend the book. Well-written and easy to read. You just have to suspend disbelief and scorn for the way things were run. And the author disses State and the Military so much that he could not have published this without thinking there would be repercussions. I expect he was shocked that it passed the State censors, who were probably focused on things that were classified, instead of things that would make State look bad. It was a huge disappointment to many that his security clearance was yanked as the book was published. This means he can no longer do his job.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2011
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After reading Peter Van Buren's chronicle of his year in Iraq, I can see why the folks in State are going after his security clearance. He has once again revealed one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington, that our reconstruction and democratization effort in Iraq was a fiasco from the word go. It would appear that out of the tens of billions America spent on assistance projects of all sorts, less than a fifth of the money actually went to the projects themselves, with the rest being parceled out among greedy contractors, corrupt Iraqis, or simply getting lost, who knows where. Perhaps worse still, most of the projects that actually did get parachuted into the desert never achieved their desired objectives, and, where they still exist at all, are rotting monuments to America's boundless capacity to spend millions to paper over failures of leadership and policy.
So much, as well, for Condi Rice's delusions of an "expeditionary" Foreign Service. The "expedition" part came into play only on those rare occasions when Van Buren and his colleagues were allowed to venture out of their "Little America" Forward Operating Bases into the "Red Zone," which comprised all of Iraq except for the immediate areas controlled by Embassy Baghdad and American military units. Van Buren appears to have seen more of Iraq than most of his colleagues, but even he spent most of his time in the claustrophobic base areas, inside fully-air conditioned MRAPs on the road, or in the air in fast-flying helicopters.
From what I can tell of Van Buren's description of our Iraqi "partners," most would accept our money but do little in return. The Sunni sheiks, whom we appointed to power as part of the Sunni Awakening were very happy to discard their al-Qaeda allies in return for a guarantee of endless streams of cash and our studied ignorance of the fact that we had simply resurrected Saddam's old system of rule, which worked, and junked all pretense of establishing a Western democracy, which didn't.
Van Buren's caustic and funny description of life on the ground in Iraq reveals the folly of our policymakers. We went into Iraq expecting to find weapons of mass destruction and cheers from the masses of Iraqis, whom our neocon pundits imagined were hungering for democracy. Instead, we found IED's and millions of hands, both Iraqi and American, grabbing for US Government cash. When we finally leave Iraq, the likely result of our ten-year expedition to nowhere will be an Iraq more friendly to our adversaries than to us, a weakened balance of power in the region, and a strengthened and soon to be nuclear Iran. That wasn't exactly what we signed up for when we went into Iraq in 2003. After the delusions of our foreign policy makers have finally been dispelled, Peter Van Buren shows us what we actually got, and it isn't pretty.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
"We Meant Well" cuts through the media ops, the self-serving pr, and the veneer that makes it seem as if we are actually doing good in Iraq by pouring billions of dollars down a drain of a corrupt failed state that, sadly, was a failed state before we invaded, is one now, and will be after we leave -- if we ever leave.
Peter Van Buren was on the ground as a State Department foreign service officer. He tells us in a nice, breezy style what most in government (elected and non-elected) and the media would love to ignore: we're not "helping" the folks in Iraq who _need_ help, we're only enriching the corrupt factotums who have always enriched themselves at their countries' expense (throw a dart at a map--throw a hundred darts at a map, and you will hit one of these countries). We are also impoverishing ourselves and, horrifically, killing the flower of our youth in a sink hole of mismanagement.
"We Meant Well" is, in my view, a misnomer. According to Van Buren, paper shufflers, the mainstay of every bureaucracy on earth, fill their "reports" with faux "successes"--milk processing and storage facilities where there is hardly any electricity for more than one or two hours a day, wheat seeds to be planted where wheat will not grow, paying off local thugs for a modicum of "peace" (what Van Buren says is akin to paying "protection" money to the mob), etc. ad infinitum.
He tells us: "As with pretty much everything we did, our vision was not to be disturbed by anything silly as reality." When he complained that the projects the bureaucrats embraced could not possibly work because of the lack of electricity, or fertile soil, or skills, or other essential elements of our misguided attempts to clone a civilization in our image, he was told not to make waves because there was lots and lots of money to spend.
So, we not only send our men and women to needlessly die in Iraq, but we also hemorrhage billions of dollars, creating a no-win economic catastrophe at home.
The early 20th Century British journalist and author, Charles Edward Montague observed in 1922 that: "War hath no fury like a non-combatant." The politicos who got us into Iraq and Afghanistan are poster-children for that sad truism. The bureaucrats about whom Van Buren tells us are poster children for the equally pernicious proclivity of government types to spend other folks' (taxpayers) money with unbridled fury.
Harry Truman once observed that the buck has to stop at the top. Thus, Van Buren gives what he calls "a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I [Van Buren] once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned us there. In a sad way, their actions created this book--I [Van Buren] just wrote it all down."
"We Meant Well" is a "must read" for everyone, especially, the media and those of our elected representatives who really care and who are not content to, as most are, to merely go through the motions ("good enough for government"). Sadly, especially at the top of the government pyramid, there is almost no accountability for things done terribly wrong.
Get this book!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Mr Van Buren's book chronicles his experience leading a Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of more than thirty such joint civilian-military teams spread across Iraq from 2006 onwards. While Van Buren provides a revealing glimpse into an unheralded footnote to the post-2003 debacle in Iraq, shortcomings in both substance and style hamper his account.
Having served on an Iraq PRT in 2008-2009, a year before Van Buren arrived, I agree with his withering view of the amateurish, self-defeating nature of the reconstruction effort. The PRTs fussed with trivialities such as sponsoring public art displays and creating vocational training centers while Iraqis had hardly any electricity, water, sanitation services, or even rudimentary health care. Yet while Van Buren excels at lampooning his own PRT's flailing efforts and one-off projects, this only accounts for half of his material. The rest of the book talks about life on the Forward Operating Base (FOB) where he was stationed. Although Van Buren's anecdotes brought back plenty of memories of my own time on a FOB, they don't illuminate "How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." Van Buren also frequently depicts himself as knowing better than everyone else, yet he offers few prescriptions for improvement.
Style-wise, the book is too episodic to feel like a coherent narrative. To be fair, that reflects the nature of the reconstruction effort itself, where priorities changed every month on the ill-informed whims of senior leaders in Baghdad. Van Buren also stretches by extrapolating his experiences to characterize all of post-invasion Iraq: 'This is how it was like at every checkpoint.' His constant attempts to be witty detract from his more important points. At times the book feels like a collection of ranting, cathartic blog posts. I'd suggest to Mr Van Buren that he could improve this okay book by polishing his manuscript for a second edition...after he's put a few more years between him and his discouraging Iraq experience.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I was reading a fantasy novel when this arrived. I put it down and started reading "We Meant Well." Then I double checked the jacket and blurb--this sounded a lot like the Kafkaesque novel I was just reading.
The incompetence of the rebuilding effort in Iraq is widely known if not acknowledged. In "We Meant Well," we get a view of what it looked like "on the ground" to a Foreign Service Officer for the year he was there (2009). Well, it looked pretty surreal.
For example, Van Buren was never criticized for giving money to a useless project. However, he was reprimanded for canceling a project that was clearly wasting money. The goal of the top officials was to spend as much as possible so they could look like they were getting a lot done and get that next promotion.
Van Buren acknowledges the sacrifice of the US soldiers, including the fact that in 2009 and 2010 more soldiers committed suicide than were killed in combat. Under Bush and 2 years under Obama, their families did not receive condolence letters from the President.
He is not so impressed with the contractors (at one time there were 150,000 of them), who made a virtue of making money without making anything else. For example, the invading force, like all empirical forces, did not like to do the dirty work. So, young men were imported from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, and elsewhere to take care of latrines, cleaning, cooking, etc. "It all gave the place a last-days-of-the-Raj feel, when it did not give it a we-are-slave-owners feel." p. 40. The guards were young men imported from Uganda. All of these mercenary forces were brought in by the contractors. The importees were paid more than they would be at home, but nothing close to the amount the contractors kept for themselves.
The book is easy reading, but filled with information about what has been happening in Iraq in our name.