[This review was published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 99-105.]


Book Review


We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People

Peter Van Buren

Metropolitan Books, 2011


          During World War II, journalist Ernie Pyle and cartoonist Bill Mauldin told the story of the war to Americans as though through the eyes of the “grunts” who slogged through the mud and lived in the foxholes.  We could call this a “grunt-eyed view” of a war.  It isn’t the same perspective as one would get from a distance.  A detached overview reveals some truths, and they are to be taken seriously; but a view as seen by those who experienced the war at ground level brings its own truths into focus – and these, too, are worth taking seriously.  Even though they may in part be the same truths, they take on an enhanced reality by having been experienced directly.

          Peter Van Buren doesn’t quite fit the image of a “grunt.”  He was a veteran 23-year foreign service officer in the U.S. State Department when he served a year in Iraq in 2009.  But he did work at ground level amid the grime and the heat, first at Forward Operating Base Hammer “in the middle of nowhere” in the desert “halfway between Baghdad and Iran” and then at Forward Operating Base Falcon on the southern outskirts of Baghdad.  He shared the life and circumstances of the troops with which he was embedded.  By no means was his a comfortable sinecure situated in the enormous “World’s Biggest Embassy” in the city, with its replication of the American home environment. 

          Van Buren tells the story of the American attempts at the reconstruction of Iraq as he witnessed them out in the field.  His narrative carries him through his year there, with considerable commentary along the way.  An aspect of his account that adds to its verisimilitude, albeit superficially, is his profane way of telling the story.  The book is full of sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, honest description, well-crafted turns of phrase – and scatological humor.  The last of these has caused some reviewers to think the book quite amusing – “laugh out loud funny.”  We, however, were sufficiently absorbed in the other qualities that the profane language seemed more like an unnecessary and not particularly humorous embellishment.  This reviewer must admit, however, that he is a good many years from his Marine Corps days, a time when that sort of language was engrained in everything we grunts said.

          Style aside, the value of the book lies in its substance.  It is a description of what happens when a superpower goes into a country with only the most meager knowledge of that country’s people and customs and seeks to do “nation building.”   The hubris and inanity of such a project stands out on every page.  The problem wasn’t simply that the United States had no comprehensive plan for how it would “reconstruct” Iraq, no organizational structure ready, and thoroughly inadequate staffing – those things were present, to be sure; but the problem was deeper than that.  It lay, we might conclude, in the very idea of nation building.  This would be so even if the purpose were to put the country back where it was before the invasion (with, of course, a change in government).  The presumptuousness is compounded when the idea is to reconstitute the society into a mirror image of the superpower.  (Van Buren says “the overall premise of the U.S. efforts [was] that the Iraqis want to be like us.”) The fatuity of this is perfectly illustrated by the objective of “empowering women,” a feminist ideal that is held to in the United States but that declares a culture-war, in effect, on so much that goes to the heart of Islamic religion and culture.

          The reports of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) confirm much that Van Buren tells us, but the broader lesson about nation building per se have passed him by, leaving the core premise of America’s global meliorism undisturbed.  His report Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience sums up this way: that “of the many lessons to be drawn from Iraq reconstruction, the most compelling speak to the need to develop an agreed-upon doctrine and structure for contingency relief and reconstruction operations to guide the use of military and economic power so that the United States is ready when it next must intervene in a failed or failing state” [our emphasis].   In other words, Americans need to be ready to go at it again.  (Despite our quarrel with that expectation, SIGIR’s Hard Lessons is well worth reading, with Van Buren’s book as a valuable supplement.)

          A project so immense is filtered through the myriad imperfections of ordinary humanity.  It seems that in the Iraq Reconstruction effort, little attempt was made to minimize those imperfections.  Van Buren shows what a slipshod process it was, despite (or mostly likely in part because of) the many billions of dollars poured into the effort.  Along with idealism, hard work and sacrifice (which must be mentioned if we are properly to appreciate what so many did contribute), there is opportunism, careerism, indifference, failures of communication, short-termism, a love of hype, obliviousness to reality, bureaucratic make-believe, prodigality and corruption.  We will see all of this illustrated as we review the specifics Van Buren gives us. 

          Staffing.  It seems an understatement to say that the effort was “fragmented and understaffed.”  One of the Provisional Reconstruction Teams “had to serve a population the size of Detroit with a staff of six.”  The Foreign Service Officers were supplemented with contracted workers, mostly hired “without interviews,” whose main qualification “seemed to be an interest in living in Iraq for a year with a $250,000 salary and three paid vacations.”  Although few spoke Arabic, “the State Department did not provide language training.”  There was an incomprehensible disconnect between their qualifications, so to speak, and the jobs they were assigned.  “I had among my teammates a retired guy who was imagined as our elections expert, a washed-out juicer who slept late most days, and a former Army turret gunner who was hired… to oversee sewage and water programs… Another teammate was a former Army MP now in charge of small business development… Another two were agriculturalists for real, albeit specializing in hogs (in a Muslim country)…. A Sergeant who fixed cars ended up overseeing a vocational school.”   This was exacerbated by constant turnover: “There had already been seven team leaders for [my] group in the last twelve months” before his arrival. 

          An oddball aspect had to do with how much the United States was bringing in mercenaries from the Third World to do “anything dirty, dark, or dangerous, such as cleaning latrines, digging holes, unloading things, guarding places, or serving food.  Exclusively young male workers imported from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, and other Third World garden spots did these jobs.”  The “American military had always depended on a community of Filipinos to staff its bars and curio shops.” The barbers at the Army base barbershops “were all from Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, imported into Iraq by [an] unnamed subcontractor to work for cheap.”   

Recently, the American people were surprised to find that the United States had relied on Libyan security personnel to guard its embassy in Benghazi against such attacks as occurred on September 11, 2012.  We find from Van Buren’s book that that was by no means unusual: he refers to “very young men from the slums of Uganda who guarded most US military facilities” in Iraq.  He says that “the Embassy used a different contractor and so was guarded exclusively by Peruvians.”  That security at American embassies is delegated in such a fashion is surprising to a former Marine, since the guarding of the embassies has traditionally been a function of the Marine Corps.

          Shifting and ill-defined purposes and direction.  The Foreign Service Officers received very little training for their role, and one aspect of it, Van Buren says, is that “they never told us anything about what we were supposed to do once we got there.”  The SIGIR reports give some idea of the thinking behind the constant changes in direction, but for an officer in the field such as Van Buren it seemed like there was an “ever-changing mandate on what to do.”  He explains that “one fiscal quarter the emphasis from the Embassy would be on limited, immediate-impact projects, while three months later we’d be told to shift to long-term efforts.”  The impression was one of extreme superficiality: “Every [reconstruction team] went through fads and fashions in its year, holding women’s empowerment conferences, paying for trash pickup, or giving away books and school supplies,” all with little memory from year to year about what had been done before.  Van Buren speaks of “the blind-leading-the-blind style of management” that was more concerned about inconsequential aspects than about actual purpose: “Instead of asking why a [reconstruction team] wanted to spend $22,000 to produce a stage play in Iraq, the committee asked why the play’s director needed five production assistants.”  He says “the review process substituted petty corrections for any semblance of broader policy guidance.” 

Essentials were neglected: “It took us years to realize we needed to think about things like garbage and potable water.”  Money was poured onto Iraqis with only the flimsiest hope that something would come of it: “We were asked to give out micro-grants, $5,000 in actual cash to an Iraqi to ‘open a business,’ no strings attached.”  Public relations fakery was held in high esteem: “Visitors from the Embassy demand to meet ‘real’ Iraqis, but only under safe conditions, and preferably ones who spoke English and would pose for photos in robes and who could be summoned on short notice… We were all required to have a few such Iraqi friends to keep our bosses happy, and friends didn’t come for free.”  

Anyone who has taught in an American college of business will recognize the fatuous hocus-pocus that is virtually de rigueur in organizations today: “Every [reconstruction team] produced a ‘maturity model’ matrix, layers of work plans, progress modeling reports, mission statements… and the like.  Owing to their length, complexity, and untethered-to-reality focus, these reporting tools were useless for planning and quickly devolved into a list of chores to be done.”  He says, moreover, that “within my own year in Iraq, we switched progress models repeatedly….”

A result: countless boondoggles.  Part of what some see as the “humor” in the book comes from Van Buren’s account of the many dead-end projects that either served no purpose or that were started and then abandoned.  The book begins with a page that tells about $88,000 being spent on a project called “My Arabic Library” which featured American novels like Tom Sawyer translated into Arabic.  When the books were left at an Iraqi school, the principal tried unsuccessfully to sell them on the black market, and wound up “dumping them behind the school.”  We are told of a contract being let for a $680 million water reconstruction project, but that “nothing was ever done.”  There was a “sports diplomacy program” under which hundreds of soccer balls were donated for Iraqis to play with.  The problem was that “no one would play with the balls, because they included the flag of Saudi Arabia, which has a Koranic verse on it, and you cannot put your foot to a Koranic verse.”   A $200,000 center was set up to train women to work in a sewing factory, only to find that the women were unemployable because “Chinese imports began arriving in Iraq.”  The effect was to turn “unskilled, unemployed women into semiskilled, unemployed women.”  $2.58 million was shelled out to create a poultry plant that “stayed idle” because the chicken proved too expensive to compete with frozen chicken imported from Brazil.  Van Buren muses that “no one actually did any market research,” and we are prompted to muse more broadly: “Why was there such ubiquitous incompetence?  Have Americans fallen so low?”  These aren’t questions to be asked but quickly forgotten.

Pallets of $100 bills; billions in waste.  “One thing we didn’t lack was money… A soldier recalled unloading pallets of new US hundred-dollar bills, millions of dollars flushing out of the belly of a C-130 cargo aircraft to be picked up off the runway by forklifts.”  This gives us a visual image, at least, of the otherwise incomprehensible sum of “$63 billion spent overall on reconstruction.”  The money provided a metric for “progress”: “Individual military units were graded on how much cash they spent – more money spent meant more reconstruction kudos on evaluation reports.”  Cost was no object: “We were not allowed to order things through the Internet.  When we needed something not available in Iraq, such as veterinary supplies, we had to pay an intermediary to order it through the Internet, for which he charged a 30 percent fee” (with another “100 percent markup for shipping and local customs costs, including bribes”).  This illustrates what Van Buren means when he says “we overpaid for everything, creating and then fueling a vast market for corruption.”

We are told that “since the publication of this book, the Department of State has begun termination proceedings against Van Buren.”  It’s easy to understand why they would not want somebody working for them who is so disaffected.  But let’s hope (probably very unrealistically, considering the usual propensities of people in such matters) that they will take seriously the content of We Meant Well.  Whether they do or not, it would be fascinating to read a detailed response addressing the many issues he has raised.


Dwight D. Murphey