Reviewed by John H. Brown, Ph.D.
Peter Van Buren, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, New York Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2011 ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-9436-7 Hardback, 288 pp. $25
State Department twenty-three-year veteran Peter Van Buren served in Iraq for twelve months in 2009 “as part of the civilian Surge deployed to backstop the manlier military one.”1 He worked in an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT) on a Forward Operating Base (FOB). His first FOB, Hammer, was in the desert, halfway between Baghdad and Iran. His second, FOB Falcon, was located south of the capital. His duties were “to meet with Iraqis, hand them money for the projects we hoped would spring up, and then assess the results of our spending.”
In 2009 and 2010, Van Buren points out, suicide caused more deaths among the U.S. military than combat. While often depressed during his tour and missing his family “terribly,” the very rational Van Buren opted, thank God, for staying alive, keeping sane by scrupulously observing the situation around him. The result is this black-humor book, personal and often very funny, which recounts, from an “on the ground” perspective, the pathetic and tragic American attempt to remake the cradle of civilization.
In snappy, brief chapters (titles: “Help Wanted, No Experience Necessary,” “Haircuts and Prostitution,” “Chicken Shit”), Van Buren provides numerous examples of waste, lack of coordination among U.S. government agencies, overpaid contractors (some earning $250,000 a year), and unqualified “experts” coming to Iraq knowing little about the country. Among the projects taxpayers paid for was an effort — pure theater of the absurd — to provide Iraqi widows with fifteen beekeeping sets at the cost of just under $25,000. But “widows were not as keen to keep bees as we thought, showing roughly the same enthusiasm as they had for short skirts.” So, Van Buren notes, “we did not have any extra widows to give the stuff to.”
But forget about widows and bees. What really mattered for Americans dumped by the USG in Iraq was how well their pet reconstruction projects (such as $2.58 million for a chicken-processing plant in Iraq that led nowhere) could be hyped to please higher-ups as well attract media attention. Van Buren:
How many PTR staff members does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to hire a contractor who fails to complete the job and two to write the press release in the dark. We measured the impact of our projects on us, not by their effects on the Iraqis.
Of the many boondoggles witnessed by Van Buren is the Vatican-city-sized American Embassy in Baghdad and its staff (“male, pale, and Yale … their work involved staying in the Embassy and sending important memos”). In one of many passages making one laugh in order not to groan, he describes efforts by the U.S. ambassador to have a grass lawn in front of the main Embassy building in the heavily protected “Green Zone,” a world apart from the dangerous “Red Zone” outside the compound, where the dreaded “bad guys” lurked.
No one dared to admit the cost of this exercise in herbaceous futility, which included sod to be brought from Kuwait delivered to the Embassy by armored convoy. But the project reportedly required expenditures of between two and five million dollars. “The grass,” Van Buren notes, “was the perfect allegory for the whole war.”
Despite all the grass we grew, our “meaning well” in Iraq by no means resulted in universal love toward the US occupiers. “I remember”, writes Van Buren, “when we tried to give away fruit tree seedlings a farmer spat on the ground and said: ‘You killed my son and now you are giving me a tree?’”
Van Buren does cite rare projects that resulted in some local good will, such as organizing a 4-H club in Mahmudiyah, which “set down tender, delicious roots.” But the battle to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people ended mostly in defeat. Indeed, Van Buren learned, Iraqis nostalgically preferred the colonial British to the PRT Americans. Under Mesopotamian eyes (and, evidently, Van Buren’s own as well), the British “conquered the world with good administrators. Their officers were highly educated, committed, conscientious, hardworking, and conversant in the local language — regular Flashman in the Great Game characters.”
Despite all his self-deprecating humor, the above quotation suggests there is something of a Victorian noblesse oblige in the intelligent and sensitive Peter Van Buren. This attitude is, perhaps, an understandable reaction to the crudity and parochialism of many of his American military and civilian colleagues as he depicts them. It also could have stemmed from his evident lack of trust in, and enthusiasm about, the tribal nature of Iraqi society (about which he knew little, he readily admits). Local sheiks, to him, were little more than thugs with whom he had no choice but to do business in order to appear to be getting things done, no matter how absurd they were.
(1) Full disclosure: I was one three US diplomats who left our Foreign Service in opposition to the planned war in Iraq. Full text of my unanswered email to Secretary of State Colin Powell regarding my decision at: http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0312-11.htm. See also http://www.afsa.org/fsj/sept03/brown.pdf
(2) Mary Beth Sheridan and Dan Zak, “State Department readies Iraq operation, its biggest since Marshall Plan,” Washington Post (October 7, 2011) http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/state-department-readies-iraq-operation-its-biggest-since-marshall-plan/2011/10/05/gIQAzRruTL_print.html
John H. Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University entitled “Propaganda and US Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview,” which, he notes, may eventually result in the publication of a monograph on the topic. He is the writer/compiler of the daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR).