- Series: American Empire Project
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (September 27, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805094369
- ISBN-13: 978-0805094367
- Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 132 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #641,292 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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) Hardcover – September 27, 2011
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Van Buren was a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), with the State Department, with an emphasis on the past tense, since as the Boston globe noted, this is a “burn-his-bridges” book. The author notes that there are more people in American military bands than FSOs. Motivated by both the carrot and the stick, he went to Iraq, purported to “win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people” as the sub-title states, with all the doomed implications that phrase conveys from the Vietnam War. He would spend the year as part of an “embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team” (ePRT) at two FOBs (Forward Operating Basis), Hammer and Falcon. It was (sorta) “life in the field,” without the glitz, glamor, or flush toilets that were in the Emerald City. Ah, but they brought in the “Third World Nationals” to do the dirty work.
How could the United States spend $63 billion on “nation building,” far more than was spent on the Marshall Plan (on an inflation adjusted basis) to get war-devastated Germany and Japan back on their feet, with so little to show for it? Van Buren explains. There seemed to be a willful effort to “forget about the basics,” that is, ensuring that the Iraqi people had safe drinking water, functioning 24-hour a day electricity, proper sewage and garbage removal, and day-to-day security. Instead, a library of American classics was provided, in Arabic translation, and was promptly dumped behind a school. Schemes to improve milk production, keep bees, and hold art shows were conducted. All good ideas, in isolation, and might work if the basics were in place, but they never were. A women’s health clinic was started, certainly a great idea, but then it closed down after six months as the “hot idea of the day” in the Emerald City moved on to something else, and follow-up funding was not provided.
The chapter that received my most marks of emphasis in the margins is “Economic Conference Blues.” Van Buren leaves the relative sanity of his FOB for the never-never land of unreality in the Emerald City were the Embassy’s “grass is always greener.” I see him sitting in the back of the room, trying not to scream, and jotting down “sanity-preserving” observations: “…people who incestuously briefed one another- all of the facts, none of the understanding, the big picture, our ‘legacy.’ The new adjective of choice was ‘robust.’” “Will plan webinars and roundtable discussions, maybe a blog, oh yes, a blog is modern, get an intern on it, they know this online stuff.” “Task one: Suspend disbelief, rewire your brain, accept that people at the Embassy who never stray outside the Green Zone tell you about Iraq, the place you live 24/7.” Van Buren describes how a new briefer, just in from Washington, commits (career) suicide on stage by telling the truth about what is really occurring, providing a handy formula: “Corruption= Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability.” Ain’t that the truth?
I am currently watching Ken Burn’s new series on the The Vietnam War: A Film By Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Season 1, and I believe it is an essential accompaniment for this book, with the core takeaway being one that Karl Marx, of all people, first proposed, concerning Louis Napoleon: “Hegel says somewhere that that great historical facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: ‘Once as tragedy, and again as farce.’” So, so many mistakes that America made in Southeast Asia were repeated, two generations later, in Southwest Asia, “as farce”. Not exactly the way to get over “the Vietnam syndrome,” as Bush 41 proclaimed we had done.
I had a problem with Van Buren’s title. No doubt, a few did try, and try hard, but most merely ignored and even suppressed the reality in front of them, in order to successfully have their “career card” stamped: “a good player.” And I definitely have a problem with Van Buren’s assessment that Michael Herr’s Dispatches: “remains the best book ever written about the personal experience of being at war.”
Despite the above reservations, I still consider Van Buren’s account an essential 5-star, plus read.