Peter Van Buren is not a writer, and he admits as much from the beginning of his memoir, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He’s a smart guy with a distinct sense of humor who was thrust, with thousands of other Americans, into an historic moment, the American effort in Iraq. He’s not out to write the definitive tome on that effort, or even to offer specific advice. Instead, he’s out to offer a generation of future scholars and policymakers “the raw material of failure,” and thereby to get a hearing for the one thing no one in Iraq wanted to admit: defeat.
Van Buren writes from the perspective of a guy trying to execute an ever-changing series of orders, and that may be the harder book to write. Before Baghdad, he was a career service officer, enlisted “on the benign side of empire” in helping Americans navigate the unexpected abroad. By the time he got to Baghdad, he’d won accolades from the State Department for his work after an earthquake in Japan and a tsunami in Thailand. Crisis response was not new to him.
But what’s happening in Baghdad is new – for van Buren, and for the country. When he lands in the region, he wants to be intoxicated by the danger, the exoticism, and the nobility of purpose.
“I wanted the air to feel electric and for people to ask me who I was and why I was there,” he says of the waiting zone in Kuwait, “but the air was dry and nobody cared who else was present.” When he finally lands in Baghdad, he steps onto the tarmac, takes a big whiff of jet fuel, “trying to have a significant moment.”
He would end up impressed instead with the insignificance of it all. Iraq drained from him any notion that one person can make a noticeable difference, especially in the quagmire of bureaucracy that governed day-to-day American efforts there. Van Buren led a Provincial Reconstruction Team, a civilian-military hybrid tasked with guiding local government and other structures toward independence. When he starts asking follow-up questions about projects old and new, he encounters resistance from his team and smiling silence from some Iraqi partners.
Eventually, he realizes no one is evaluating nation-building in Iraq by whether a nation was actually being built. The American government exhibited its priorities not by pointing to real change on the ground but to line items in the budget. “We measured the impact of our projects by their effect on us, not their effect on Iraqis,” he writes. Meanwhile, he watched project after project stall and disappear, a paper trail or a photo-op the only evidence of that day-long pastry class for widows. “If publicity were democracy,” he writes, “this place would’ve looked like ancient Athens.”
Much of van Buren’s book focuses on the dramatic waste of financial resources, and the unintended consequences that has wrought. It would be a mistake, however, to see his book a chronicle of boondoggles. It is instead about the failure that inevitably follows when pre-existing visions refuse to adapt to reality. This clash dominates the book, sometimes in stories as short as one sentence – hundreds of donated soccer balls, decorated with flags of the world, go unused 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.” Other examples rise almost to the level of parable, as when an unnamed ambassador demands to grow grass on the Embassy grounds in the green zone. When the seeds didn’t take, he imported sod from Kuwait, “brought by armored convoy to the Embassy. No one confessed to what it cost to import, but estimates varied between two and five million dollars,” van Buren writes. “No matter what Iraq and nature wanted, the American Embassy spent whatever it took to have green grass in the desert…. It was the perfect allegory for the whole war.”
This eye for meaningful details, combined with Van Buren’s plain-spoken storytelling, is what makes the book work. He could tell contractors on sight, he says, because they all wore clothing with a plethora of pockets. “If you filled all the pockets, you wouldn’t be able to climb stairs.” From the popularity of line-itemed programs for widows to the Green Zone’s plentiful cargo pants, van Buren identifies the styles of our war – and demands we think about its substance.
Therein lies the necessity of this book. Van Buren isn’t exposing anything new; he cites reports by the Government Accountability Office and by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, both of which had cataloged wasteful spending and risks of corruption. Unlike government committees or traditional journalists, van Buren is undeterred from drawing politically unpopular conclusions, often with a wry voice. He closes a chapter that wrestles with what the bountiful spending in Iraq really achieved by pointing out that, last year, Iraq was the fourth most corrupt country in the world, slipping down 16 spots since we arrive. “[S]o it was obvious all our money had contributed something to the country,” he writes.
His tone would feel glib, if van Buren hadn’t spent so many pages describing, for example, ill-conceived plans to “improve” a 5,000-year-old method for selling and distributing milk, or recounting our $200,000 investment in cylinders of medical gas which never reached their clinics, because we intercepted them at Army checkpoints, having figured out only once the goods were purchased and on their way that “terrorists used such cylinders as bomb casings.”
Or perhaps van Buren’s tone is glib, at least in some moments.. The story he tells doesn’t do him any favors: To really uncover what’s going on in Iraq is necessarily to weary the reader, and it’s difficult to finish van Buren’s book without feeling as helpless as he learned he was. Earnest writing didn’t do any favors for those who argued we should take a different course, yet submission to irony doesn’t feel entirely appropriate, either.
At crucial moments – though not always – van Buren resists that temptation. He remembers, for example, offering a free seedling to an Iraqi farmer, who “spat on the ground and said, ‘You killed my son, and now you are giving me a tree?’” He describes a medical clinic for women, funded when women’s empowerment was in season at the State Department, which treated in its first month over 100 women, most of whom said they were barred from going to regular clinics. Start-up and six months of service cost only $84,000 – a bargain compared to the other projects detailed in the book, most of which failed. But six months after it opened, the State Department decided that women’s centers were not “a prudent investment,” as the Embassy put it. The project was cut off.
Van Buren alternates engaging but ultimately depressing chapters about the many ways reconstructing Iraq has failed with vignettes about the effort’s cast of characters – private contractors, Army brass, diplomats and spies, some arrogant, some lonely, some homesick. The reader unquestionably needs the respite, but the characters who provide comic relief in a chronicle of relentless failure in fact create the very failure we need to escape. In one such scene, van Buren describes preparing breakfast for a VIP general visiting the base. There is an overabundance of hard-boiled eggs, the general’s favorite, and a display of “significant donut assets,” none of which the general touches. When van Buren zooms in like this, the absurdity he conveys by co-opting the bureaucratic language of a failed endeavor is humorous. When he zooms out again, the absurdity turns dark.
“Dark,” really, isn’t even the word. In fact, van Buren thinks no word adequately conveys the combination of poor management and willful irrelevance that he saw. “It was almost as if a new word were needed, disresponsible, a step beyond irresponsible,” he writes, “meaning you should have been the one to take responsibility but shucked it off.”
Jina Moore is a Monitor correspondent.