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We Meant Well (But Still Screwed Up)

Published on 5th October 2019

(Photo Credit: Hadi Mizban, Associated Press)

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, by former United States Foreign Service member Peter van Buren, is one of the most darkly comedic nonfiction texts I've ever read. 

The book provides van Buren's first-hand account of the American military's attempt to reconstruct Iraqi society in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War. His narrative, like the events it documents, quickly devolves into surrealist absurdism. I would say it'd be funny if it weren't so sad, but in reality it is funny: funny and sad. Van Buren is not a political scientist or even an academic, a reality reflected in the informality of his prose. This casual style of writing actually amplifies the book's power, because it enables the uninhibited transmission of van Buren's frustration, despair, and maddened disbelief. You feel all these things, and you can only laugh. That's clearly how van Buren coped with the bureaucratic insanity he faced, and his writing deliberately maximizes the comedic potential inherent to the American military's fantastical attempts to plant the seeds of Iraqi democracy. They would have had better luck growing Jack's beanstalk. 

Van Buren led two ePRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) units from 2009 to 2010. He lived with the Army at a Forward Operating Base for a year, where he witnessed first hand the wasteful spending and bureaucratic inefficiency of counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. His extensive disclosures of US military policy, in a mocking tragicomic style no else, cost him his professional career. After van Buren published We Meant Well, the State Department attempted to fire him on the charge of breaching confidentiality. However, after a six-month trial and the help of the ACLU, Van Buren was able to retire from the Department with full benefits and pensions. He had served for 24 years. 

What follows are some notes I took while laughing through the book. I thought I'd share my despair. 

Van Buren’s Counterinsurgency Assignment

Why We Failed (according to van Buren)

1. Disconnect between how Army and PRT (executors) conceptualized vision and how State Department (planners) did

2. Unqualified personnel

3. Lavish, pointless spending

4. Intentional self-delusion

5. Conviction that Iraqis wanted to be exactly like "Americans"

7. Short institutional memory

8. Corruption

Where We Succeeded (according to van Buren)

1. 4-H Club

An agricultural club for kids which teaches farm-related subjects like raising animals, cultivating citizenship, grooming manners, and getting along. The 4-H club in Iraq attracted 24 children and aimed to democratically elect officials, foster pen-pal communication with 4-H club in Montana, and raise lambs.

Reason it succeeded:

2. Dairy Carey

Program led by a retired employee of the Department of Agriculture named Dairy Carey. It taught Iraqis how to produce milk that was “not deadly” instead of increasing milk yield, which they didn’t need. As van Buren notes, “our American goal, to help Iraqis produce more milk, was irrelevant.” The program helped Iraqis increase the quality, not quantity, of their milk, as Iraq led the world in cow disease and in transfer of tuberculosis from animals to people via unpasteurized milk.

Reason it succeeded: Same as the 4-H Club.

Concluding Thoughts and Lingering Questions

I still laugh when I review these notes. But that laughter should not trivialize the magnitude of devastation recounted here. No, that laughter affirms it. If we are to take van Buren at his word--and I see no reason why we shouldn't--the US reconstruction effort in post-war Iraq represented nothing less than the systematic destruction of an entire people, if the repeated military invasions and economic sanctions of the previous decade had not already done so. The Army's "reconstruction" effort was, and remains, a nauseating display of bureaucratic malfeasance, cultural condescension, destructive negligence, and ultimately catastrophic ignorance. 

The extent of the calamity is such that I cannot help but cast a critical eye on Van Buren himself, in spite of the service he offered the world (and the historical record) in writing this book. Though unsparing in his criticism of the US government’s post-war policy in Iraq, van Buren ultimately doesn’t question its premises or its goals (building civic institutions and fostering democracy in Iraq). He criticizes the execution, not the plan itself.

More so, Van Buren seems to believe that the US genuinely had its heart in the right place, hence the book’s title. He returns to this idea of good intentions gone wrong several times throughout the book, but his actual account complicates the simplistic image of the US as a failed do-gooder. Certainly, his portrayal of the State Department as deliberately careless and high-profile officials as willfully ignorant undermines any suggestion that everyone tried their best. Or does he mean that everyone on the ground tried well, but that high command forced their hands in unseemly directions, whether directly or by instituting a system that encouraged destructive behavior?

Van Buren also leaves open the question of his own complicity in the governmental failure he describes. At times he seems to accept his own guilt, but at other times he portrays himself as the lone locus of sanity in a world of incompetent managers, forced into unfortunate policies by his superiors. When Van Buren says “we meant well,” does he mean himself and his teammates, who wanted to do good but were foiled by a terrible system? And if so, does that absolve him of blame? Again, Van Buren leaves unresolved the question of accountability.

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