Monday, January 16, 2012

"We Meant Well:...Battle For the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" (2011)

Genre: History
Author:Peter Van Buren
Now and then I run across a book that not only enlightens my understanding of some important historical or topical events, but actually seems ot encapsulate all that I have previously read and suspected about a major enterprise.
Peter Van Buren, a State Department Foreign Service Officer for more than two decades in the Far East and, here, in Iraq during the final stages of the official American Occupation of that country. He brings a personal and boarder perspective to the "Catch-22" style chaos and well-intentioned but most often futile and wasteful programs that plagued the Iraqi/American experiment in reinventing a nation from the ground up.

The tales of gross mismanagement, graft, isolation of the VIPs in the heavily-fortified "Green Zone" in central Baghdad ,etc, comes as no surprise to those who have followed development in that nation since the March 2003 invasion. What makes the book worth reading is Mr. Van Buren's eye and ear for the details of life outside the Americanized headquarters in the FOBs (Forward Operations Bases). He spent time in the perilous main cities of Baghdad and Basra during his tour, always in a combat vest on duty outisde his post, always protected by American soldiers and usually getting shot at by persons unknown.

His team's assignment is to create economic vitality in an area that was a combination guerrilla war zone, unforgiving IED course, horrific garbage dump, lakes of greenish water and cesspools NOT served by functioning sewage and water treatment plants, and a collection of sheik-held tribal satraps each looking for easy money.

There are also the private contractors from Kellog, Brown and Root and others who made obscene profits that have served to only make America less safe. Thanks guys.

His knack for adding an ironic and knowing narrative style to the story makes this 261 page book read more like a Graham Greene or Tom Wolfe novel than a true-life report. But a report it is---and a devastation one, I'm afraid.

Here is how the story begins:

"The script for the 2003 invasion did not include an extended
reconstruction effort. It instead imagined Americans being
greeted as liberators like in post- D-day France, with cheerful
natives rushing out to off er our spunky troops bottles of wine
and frisky daughters. The Bush administration ignored the somber
prewar predictions of the State Department, cut it out of
the immediate postwar pro cess, and instead whipped together
a blended family of loyal interns, contractors, and soldiers to
witness the complete implosion of Iraqi civil society. Things
got steadily worse in Iraq as the early Coalition Provisional
Authority and military efforts at reconstruction failed, the UN
was bypassed, and the security situation discouraged even the
hardiest NGOs. By about 2005, the White House saw the need
to kick the war into higher gear, sending in the increased
deployment of troops known as the Surge, while the Pentagon
dusted off the old books from Vietnam for tips on counterinsurgency

"There was originally in the military about
as much enthusiasm for reviving counterinsurgency as there
might have been for reinstating horse- borne cavalry charges and
cutlasses. We were back in a Vietnam kind of war. It wasn’t
enough just to kill people and destroy villages. We had to win
over the ones still alive, get them to adopt a democratic system
and become our allies. Victory would be ours not when we pacifi
ed Iraq militarily but when the country was stable enough to
stand on its own. This was counterinsurgency, hearts and minds,
soft power, what ever you wanted to call it. In the improvisational
spirit of the whole war, it was decided that the State Department
had better get involved in a big way. State would rebuild and
reconstruct Iraq, win over the people with democracy, and then
we could all pack up for home."

Nothing of the sort of course went down that way. Van Buren lays the main blame for this costly mistake not on his Green Zone friends in the Army or the CIA (although some of the gang in those institutions take some criticism). He saves the lion's share on the Bush Administration, their Neo-Con think-tank "generals" in the private sector and the "hawks" in Congress, even though the latter have distanced themselves from the conflict once reality intruded on the dreams of Westernizing Iraq went awry.

Van Buren details his own experiences as a State Department head of something called a Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRC) that engages in a variety of programs that almost always fail due to lack of local input, corruption of local Iraqis, problems of language and culture, inability to properly fund the project, contractors and local leaders skimming money off the top and other debacles and crimes.

The highlight has to be a hospital in southern Iraq that was opened by Laura Bush in 2004 but somehow never managed to receive any patients. Over five billion dollars over five years went into it. Another clinic was opened for the Iraqi people but was left with no roof! Smaller operations set up by the team failed due to the theft of generators (there is no reliable electricity grid in most of the country, power being on a few hours a day in the best of times.)

The one thing that does succeed for Van Buren's team is a a "4-H" agriculture club for children in the town of Mahmudiyah. Whether the club will still be in existence a year after Van Buren helps to set it up the author is not optimistic about.

Part of Peter Van Buren''s blog, which has the same title as the book It's really worth a look:


  1. Peter Van Buren interviewed recently by Scott Simon on the Weekend Edition show on National Public Radio.

  2. An interesting take on the illegal coalition of the willing invasion of Iraq Doug. I don't really discern anything resembling an apology here though.

    I don't think the invaders ever 'meant well', they meant to rob Iraq of its oil wealth using the pretext of the false flag 9/11 so-called "attacks" to extend the military machine of the Hegemon.
    It all ended in tears as some of us had predicted even before Day One, but I don't think Van Buren is sufficiently contrite about his crimes.
    He remains it seems a somewhat disappointed apologist for the illegal invasion, for which there are simply no excuses, no mitigating circumstances and no escaping the allegations of war crimes, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity.

    America and its allies had (and still has) nothing of value to contribute to Iraq and to assume it could have gone any other way is in my view a conceited delusion.
    I think Van Buren demonstrates that he has learned nothing from the war crimes he was a part of. Nobody needs America or NATO, nobody in the whole world is that badly off that they could ever benefit from the military intervention of the evil empire.

    My feeling on reqading your review here Doug and Van Buren's blog was that now the US and NATO have clearly lost the war of illegal intervention the likes of Van Buren himself a war criminal wants to rewrite history, but as history itself teaches us the victors write the history not the losers. This makes me think that Peter Van Buren's book in somewhat premature but the qualms he now has now is much too little much too late. I wonder where Van Buren was on 15 February, 2003 anti-war protests that were coordinated protests across the world, with millions of people expressing opposition to the then-imminent Iraq War. Being wise after the event is of course easy, but I question whether Van Buren has even achieved that minor feat here Doug?

    The US/NATO invasion was an unmitigated disaster out of which nothing good could have ever come... and nothing good ever did.

    Payback time is now upon us and the price will be very high indeed I think.

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  3. It would be hard to argue that Mr. Van Buren is contrite enough, AA, and that is one debate side I will not take. I think the book simply furnishes a ground-level view of the disaster of the US/NATO destruction of most of Iraq.

    The fact that people thought that this would not be another Vietnam were either totally naive or so filled with hubris as to be indeed worthy of international justice. No it wasn't Vietnam--it may have been worse.

  4. I should mention on a side note I am still trying to figure out how to use this site since it doesn't have an inbox. If you, AA, or any one reading my blogs do not get a timely response, please bear in mind it's harder to know which of my blogs here are being commenting upon from the viw of my Blogger "Dashboard". Thank You.