Peter Van Buren is a State Department Foreign Service officer who was sent to Iraq for one year as part of the plan to reconstruct the country, to “win the hearts and minds” of the people by helping reinstate such basic necessities as clean water, electricity, garbage pick-up, and other elements of civilization. What he found was that everyone was sent there for a year and that they needed short-term projects that would look good on their resumes. The result is tragi-comic—a comedy of errors and bumbles and things about which you go “Really? You thought that made sense?” whose tragedy lies in the fact that actual people suffer as a result. With a virtually unlimited budget of literally millions of dollars, the State Department started projects to paint murals on the side of bombed-out buildings, or to help Iraqi women start small pastry shops in unstable areas where their lives were in danger. These projects had no results–murals were not painted and women did not open pastry shops. My Iraqi friends tell me their families are still without electricity or potable water even in the middle of Bagdad, even now 8 years later.
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project) is full of stories such as the $2.58 million the American government spent to build a chicken-processing plant. No market research was done ahead of time to see if impoverished Iraqis would spend three times more for a local, hallal-certified chicken as opposed to the cheap, imported from Brazil, also hallal-certified variety, and it turned out that a chicken you could kill yourself more than satisfied any market demand. So the chicken-processing plant sits empty, except for a guard paid for by the US Military, who is usually moon-lighting at his second job somewhere else.
He describes visiting a nonworking sewage treatment plant with the goal of getting it operational again. The sole engineer confirmed that the plant processed no sewage, although he and 28 workers remained on the payroll. He shows them the new TV and laptop given to him by the US Army; he watches the TV all day but isn’t sure what to do with the laptop so it just sits there, unplugged and dusty. (p. 66) Another suburb doesn’t lack water but it is dirty and needs to be cleaned up in order to be made drinkable. There’s an existing treatment facility, and all that is needed is for the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity to run power about 200 metres into the plant. “Simple as this sounded, it was the single point of failure for the whole project,” states Van Buren. “In the absence of a responsible bureaucracy nothing was ever done. We ran out of time and went home. The people do not have water.” (p. 71)
Van Buren describes a meeting with Yasmine, an educated and thoughtful municipal services director, about the local trash pickup. After she has described the problem and presented a possible solution, she speaks to the Americans. “She was of an age, she said, where all she could remember were the wars with Iran in the 1980s, the long years of sanctions in the 1990s, and the US occupations from 2003. She asked when her daughter would lead a peaceful life. I thought she was talking to me, so I told her I didn’t know and it was time for us to leave, as our security team said we had been in one place too long.” (p. 61) He means they need to leave the meeting, but reading this now, it resonated with a broader sense.
Van Buren says, “The harm was this: We wanted to leave Iraq stable and independent, with the strength to resist insurgency. But how did we advance that goal when we spent our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most people lacked access to clean water, or regular electricity, or school and hospitals? How did we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons?…We grasped that military action could take us only so far, but we failed to understand the next stage.” (p. 251-2)
Van Buren also describes in great detail what life was like for the American military in Iraq, the monotony of base life enlivened by brief forays into heightened alertness and even terror. In some ways, this book is terribly depressing, redeemed by Van Buren’s sardonic style and all-around snarkiness. There were moments I laughed out loud, and things I could relate to (I spent 9 years living in Mauritania and Morocco).
I highly recommend We Meant Well—I sort of think that everybody should read it, no matter her politics or viewpoint. I realize this is an awfully long review, but there’s so much more I want to say, and so many more bits I want to quote. So I will just say—go get it, read it for yourself. Then come tell me what you think.
Elizabeth works for an organization that helps Iraqi refugees settle in the US, but she believes that she would have reacted to this book just as strongly even without knowing any Iraqis. Read more about her Iraqi friends at her blog Planet Nomad.