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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) Paperback – August 21, 2012
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“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
About the Author
Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.
Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State's Congressional Liaison Office.
Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean. Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler. We Meant Well is his first book.
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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.