It Isn’t Just the War, It’s Us – Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
January 20, 2012

Generally always I never get my hands on a new book in time to get a review of it out while the book is still in play in circles print and intellectual, but for once I did, with Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well, and for once via the local library no less. Unfortunately, I have failed in getting this review out in the very narrow time slot the book world allows for reviews to see the light of day in a first tier publication; perhaps I may yet get it somewhere significant on the web. Perhaps still my efforts will get some people to read it, as this book is dreadfully necessary and overdue both. And I am personally obligated, as an American patriot concerned about us and our times, to put my voice and my reputation in Mr. Van Buren’s service with this review, and by whatever other means I have, as his employer, the United States Department of State, is well on its way to firing him for writing this book and telling the truth about the abject failure of our occupation, governance, and reconstruction efforts in Iraq, and more, the failure of US policy in the war in achieving any worthwhile results for the Iraqi people or the United States government from our war efforts.

Van Buren was a State Department lifer whose State Department day job was in the constituent service overseas part of the State Department, helping Americans overseas with lost passport sort of problems. Two or so years into the war, the US government realizes that Iraq has an insurgency going on, and realizes that the ruined Iraqi state, economy, and society requires large amounts of reconstructive aid and efforts to fix the problems caused by years of sanctions and war and US invasion and occupation. The brighter counterinsurgency lights realize that the economic/societal failures in Iraq so infuriate ordinary Iraqis to the extent that they’ve start shooting at us. Official Washington then decides that whatever reconstruction aid being done up till then by the US Army isn’t enough, and that it is time to bring out from early ’70’s Vietnam cold storage the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, PRT’s, civilian in-country reconstruction teams led by the State Department. PRT’s were the main US foreign aid in wartime effort during the Vietnam War, and were a product of the US’ realization that the Army wasn’t interested in the armed boy scout sort of things that civilian reconstructive aid is, and the job needed doing, and it fell on the State Department to run it.* Same thing now in Iraq.

In Vietnam, State Department employees were drafted to lead PRT’s, a dreadfully unpopular decision with the USFS troops. This time, a mixture of carrots and sticks was used to get State Department staff to volunteer for a year of living out in the provinces in Iraq, embedded in a small army post, running a PRT. Seeing as the failure to volunteer meant end of career advancement, the stick part counted for rather more than the carrot part. This also meant that the ‘volunteers’ were likely to be younger and less experienced, as older experienced hands who were most of the way to retirement could reasonably decide to take a pass on running a PRT, and I suspect most did. Van Buren might should have looked at this fact; he didn’t. Van Buren’s account lacks much of that sort of big-picture analysis, but in this case, it is not that great a failing. The straightforward recounting of what he saw, heard, and did in Iraq here is quite enough. Res Ipsa Loquitur–the facts speak for themselves.

Reading Van Buren’s account of events shows that even if the State Department had drafted all its best and brightest things wouldn’t have turned out a lick different. The United States–its army and its political leadership both, equally irresponsibly–completely overlooked the necessity of providing postwar governance and the certainty of problems of governance in a conquered Iraq when we made the decision to invade. We made no plans nor made any real efforts to provide order in the post-invasion days, and perhaps worse for the long term success of the American endeavor nor did we make provision to reestablish the modern essential basic life services of water, sewer, and electricity.** This initial mistake was in and of itself fatal to whatever our objectives in Iraq were supposed to be, objectives that I still cannot explain as I still have no clue this many years on as to what they were. By 2009, when Van Buren was sent to Iraq, we had made no real progress, (and of course we haven’t since, either, near as I can tell from this remove), in any of these critical areas. We made as amateurish a mistake as possible at the highest levels of government–starting a war with no coherent objective–and Van Buren’s account of his days in the field attempting to alleviate that error and its consequences shows an even worse if possible amateurism and incompetence at the working level in our postwar efforts.

The entire of the reconstruction efforts were done under the direct shadow and protection of the US Army, because at no time had Iraq ever become safe enough for foreign nationals to work except with US Army firepower at immediate hand (or for any Iraqis either, who by virtue of working with us were inevitably prime kidnapping or assassination targets).*** The entire of the reconstruction effort was some armed bureaucratic functionary money wasting process wherein US civilian personnel who knew nothing of the country or language, who had just parachuted in-country for a one-year spell, who had no expertise in any of the important aid areas, and who largely lacked expertise in anything other than office skills, picked up various aid projects, most all of which had the stink of the trendy and fashionable stupidities that only college educated people who read lots of glossy magazine articles are capable of, carelessly disbursed to shady Iraqi characters relatively and absolutely large sums of money with no proper accounting of its disbursement, on projects that almost always failed at accomplishing their stated objectives, most all of which were sociologically inappropriate for that country in the first place anyway, and none of which addressed the critical issues of water, power, and sewerage. The US’ reconstruction efforts in the field were driven by bureaucratic desire/necessity of spending large sums of money to show green zone/DC bureaucratic higher-ups that something was being done. Careerism meant that making waves by doing anything to impair the money-torrent never happened. There was no insisting on the usual financial bookkeeping safeguards on disbursement, or worse, any questioning the lack of results of expenditures past or present, or worse still, any questioning the fatuous and sociologically inappropriate project rationales and objectives.

Amateurism and professional incompetence are from Van Buren’s account the signal features of the American reconstruction effort and the persons and institutions performing it. There is a partial exemption of professional incompetence for the US Army, which in typical Army fashion manages to get things done in its traditional areas of expertise–reconstruction is not one, however–in the typical Army manner of individuals’ skills employed in an organization never famous for efficient or astute application of said skills. But the skills do get applied, generally, and the things do get done, mostly–that by and large is the Army way.**** Can’t say that about the civilian reconstruction efforts, whose personnel all lacked skills and talents, and who worked in an organization that really cared not a fig for getting actual things actually done. What’s worse, in this account, by its actions it shows that it cares no more than and perhaps even less than the US Army does for the lives and futures of Iraqis and their nation. And hell the Army mostly just wants to shoot them all dead. There were two agricultural aid success stories, small ones, when older than average persons from rural areas with ag and people skills both managed to get something useful for the Iraqis done. Otherwise, the story shown by Van Buren is that US reconstruction was monies wasted and/or stolen by Iraqis as some sort of grossly inefficient welfare program to maintain some semblance of a standard of living in a country ours destroyed from two wars, a lengthy military occupation, and a decade of harsh economic sanctions in between. That combined with it being a US domestic welfare effort for some of the most undeserving Beltway parasites that exist, who horned their way into getting their share of the mosh from of what I pray is the worst ever mistake the US will ever have made. After Afghanistan, that is.

And no I am not being too hard on us and our efforts. It is inconceivable that any critically thinking reader could reach any other conclusions about us and our efforts in Iraq after reading this book. I suppose that means that this book is doomed in the US marketplace. C’est dommage.

My favorite passage from the book, and one we might should pay the closest attention to, is Van Buren’s account of senior VIP’s, high-level Beltway Bandits, visiting his site. Here is the US’ brain trust, in action, in the field, in the war they brought us all. From pp 196-8:

“Every so often we’d have a visit from nonmilitary VIP’s like the gaggle of ‘fellows’ who flew in from a prominent national security think tank. These scholars wrote serious books important people read, they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows, and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about this war and others to come…

“One guy was a real live neoconservative. A quick Google of his work showed he strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction (‘It was still the right thing to do’), and came back to see exactly how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high tech; he used words like awesome, superb, and extra-ordinary (pronounced EXTRAordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns. He said in reference to the Israeli Army, ‘they give me a hard-on.’ Another fellow had a habit of bouncing his legs up and down while sitting. Strapped into the MRAP vehicle with the four-point harness that came up through his legs, he bounced and bounced, like something a dog did that embarrassed you when company came over. This guy basically advanced the thesis that anything that happened in Iraq before he started advising was ‘a fucking disaster’ (it was so cool when academics used swear words) and whatever had happened after he started advising was ‘innovative.’ He insisted on using the phrase ‘tipping point’ to refer to just about everything, including lunch. He called people in the news by their first names (Barack, Joe, Meatloaf). He looked at his smartphone for messages a lot, even though we were several hundred years away from the right kind of cell phone coverage.

“The best thing of all was that when these two fellows were together they did not talk about bands of brothers, Israeli wood, or Iraqi democracy, but instead, riding in an armored vehicle through the badlands outside of Baghdad, they compared book deals and literary agents and gossiped about people they both knew who were getting big advances on memoirs. It became clearer to me why this war had played out so well, with people like this intellectually backstopping the policy makers.”

Read ’em and weep, say the card sharpies. Read this book and weep, say I, but more importantly, read it and think, and start thinking about what we as a nation have to do to change us and our ways to stop this madness, and keep something like this from ever happening again.

*Shoot everyone here has forgotten about our huge ‘pacification’ efforts in Vietnam. Here’s the best take on them that exists, from George Allen, a senior CIA analyst (and Sam Adams’ boss) superlative book on his intel career in DIA and CIA, None So Blind. From p. 140:

“…All these {PRT pacification} projects contributed materially to improved public administration, security, and economic conditions, and tended to raise the quality of life in ‘pacified’ areas. But they had little impact in attracting the loyalty of the people–‘winning hearts and minds’–because they were conducted in a political vacuum. …By ignoring this, the political dimension of the war, the US and Saigon government effectively abandoned the ideological and psychological initiative to the enemy. In my view, this fundamental weakness was at the root of the failure of American policy in Vietnam.”

Reading these words of bitter hard-won wisdom from George Allen, I must editorialize about just how incompetent, across the board in American society, key elite sectors of the US are. We engaged in a counterinsurgency in Iraq without an iota of a political or ideological agenda for the country and its inhabitants. Nobody from the world of politics, government, academia, or the newsmedia bothered to ever mention this fact. They probably didn’t think we needed one. The military, insofar as they were cognizant of this fact, papered over it by some of the most disgusting self-congratulatory rubbish by the counterinsurgency proponents about how difficult counterinsurgency was and how much more brainpower it took as opposed to ordinary soldiering. We did, and continue doing, the same thing in Afghanistan.

**I must remind readers that we are obligated, under the Geneva Conventions, to do these things in a country we militarily occupy. This obvious violation of law has escaped comment somehow.

***Umm, you know, Iraq once in recent memory had a functioning water and electric and sewer, and had the trained personnel to operate them, and somehow our efforts and expenditures in reconstruction didn’t bother to include them hardly.

****But the account of how we failed in building up our client/puppet state armies/domestic security forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan hasn’t been told. We have of course failed at both, it is obvious, but nobody wants to talk about that, least of all anybody in the US Army officer corps. Our failure was completely predictable and probably not preventable either. George Allen pointed out, on p. 99, that the United States never made a single postwar study about why we failed with the ARVN.(1) Any bets about whether or not we make any similar studies about Iraq and Afghanistan’s armies?

(1) I seem to recall the only study the US military made about South Vietnam’s collapse took place in 1975, a quick bunch of interviews of senior ARVN officers asking them why South Vietnam collapsed. The number one reason all cited was corruption. We obviously have forgotten that study too.


An inside the beast account of the US’ governing and reconstruction efforts in Iraq by Daniel N. White

Kevin Baker: Soldiers have real power when they organize

A Criminal for Peace, An Interview with William T. Hathaway

2 thoughts on “It Isn’t Just the War, It’s Us – Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well by Daniel N. White

  1. Pingback: War Stories by Daniel N. White « Dandelion Salad

  2. When thugs have commandeered your government and military so they can loot museums and take over oil fields, what do they care about the people in a country that gets attacked. War is profitable, don’t you get it? Especially for private equity firms that finance the deals for the arms… and for merceraries who get $8,000 monthly salaries, and for arms and military companies, and security and intelligence operations. None of this has anything to do with improving the life of Iraqis.

    There was never ANY attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. The shock and awe campaign that mowed down 100,000 Iraqi troops in a day in one of the worst slaughters of our times was all about terrorizing the people of Iraq. There is no way to put a kind or generous or even competent face on it. The war on Iraq was disgraceful for the U.S., and it will never regain any moral standing in the eyes of the world. We are the imperialists of today, and it’s all about power.

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