No hearts, and no minds either

April 9, 2012

Cindy Beringer reviews a book about the so-called reconstruction of Iraq, as told by former State Department team leader Peter Van Buren.

WE MEANT Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by State Department veteran Peter Van Buren reads like a farcical horror novel.

The book begins with a foreword, "My Arabic Library," describing the unsuccessful attempt to unload $88,000 worth of American literary classics, such as Tom Sawyer, which had been translated into Arabic to help the children of Baghdad have "better job opportunities" and "be able to better support their families and help build a more prosperous Iraq."

We all know how well that worked out.

Van Buren spent a year as a FSO (Foreign Service Officer) as part of an ePRT (embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team) on a FOB (Forward Operating Base) inhabited by many fobbits (soldiers and 3161s) who spent most of the time on the base). The 3161s were contractors hired as SMEs (subject matter experts); the vast majority of these did not speak Arabic.

The frequent acronyms were as annoying and silly as the "American Freedom Bridge" plaque on a bridge in Dyala.


MUCH OF the book chronicles the author's participation in throwing billions of dollars into the black hole of absurd hearts-and-minds-building projects.

The vision of the State Department Reconstruction Teams is hypocritical at best. Hoping to build a "sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq" in a country that was occupied after being bombed to smithereens, the U.S. invested vast sums to "foster the development of transparent and accountable government, promote rule o f law, confront corruption, deliver essential public services, improve public health and promote stability and community development."

None of this actually happened. Back in the U.S., all of these essential services, requisite for functioning communities, are being eroded at a record pace.

One of the main tasks of Van Buren's team was to provide the basic essentials of communal living--water, sewage and trash removal--services destroyed in the "shock and awe" beginning to the war. The armored, super-air-conditioned, enormous MRAPs (mine resistant ambush protected carriers) made few friends as they destroyed pirated electric lines and blasted garbage around from giant blowers searching for planted bombs.

Millions were spent on a milk distribution system ("value chain") that failed because the Iraqis had no funds to pay for trucks to distribute or to buy the milk produced. The milk distribution system that was already in place, by the way, had been working well).

HA (humanitarian assistance) drops, such as cheap "intellectual-property-rights-violating" plastic bags bearing images of Disney princesses and filled with dried beans and tins of halal beef, won about the same number of hearts and minds as massive bombing and Agent Orange did in Vietnam.

Only the soldiers were smiling during the PR shots. "Each iteration of handouts caused you to lose respect from a proud group of people forced into an uneven relationship," writes Van Buren.

A lot of humanitarian effort was directed toward Iraqi widows, a demographic greatly expanded by the U.S. occupation. Colonels sought to enhance their careers by coming up with "some kind of goddamn Chick event" such as belly dancing at a women's conference.

The Foreign Service Officers and the Army colonels knew their projects weren't going to work and often caused great harm. The goal was to further their careers with illusions created with taxpayers' money, according to Van Buren:

There was money everywhere. A soldier recalled unloading pallets of new U.S. $100 bills, millions of dollars flushing out of the belly of a C-130 cargo aircraft to be picked up by forklifts (operated by soldiers who would make less in their lifetimes than what was on their skids at that moment).

The ubiquitous NGOs eagerly awaited creatively useless projects, many of which failed at a rate too difficult to document. Expensive wheat seed did not grow well in the desert, and the owner of a job-creating medical gases factory couldn't get the gas cylinders past Army checkpoints. The author's comment "The Army can be hard to understand" is a bit of an understatement.

Van Buren divides the various population groups inhabiting FOBs into "tribes" which exist only to serve U.S. imperialism. It's a whole other world, much more dystopian than humorous.

The largest tribe, of course, is the U.S. soldiers who were reminded of the lack of control over their own lives every Super Bowl when they stood in line for the one beer of the year they were allowed. After describing a horrendous "non-combat related" suicide, Van Buren points out that in 2009 and 2010, more soldiers died by suicide than in combat and "mental disorders in those years outpaced injuries as a cause for hospitalization."

Then there were the three KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) tribes who did the "backstage" work for KBR or hundreds of subcontractors--dubbed by the contractors as KBR White, KBR Green and KBR Brown. KBR White was made up of white males, predominantly from the South, who were paid six figure salaries with lots of perks.

Almost as unappealing were KBR Green, arrogant white males called "mercs" behind their backs because they carried weapons and shot up places. They had their own sort of uniform to distinguish themselves from real soldiers.

The third and saddest group was KBR Brown, people of color brought in from slums around the globe. Their homes previously devastated by imperial powers, they were brought in to further serve imperial masters. Many paid part of their meager salaries to middlemen for their passage to this nightmare or to hungry family members back home.

Filipino men and women ran concessions on the base, just as they do on military bases throughout the U.S. They had little to say, perhaps because Filipino women "were hit on by the soldiers and contractors approximately 10 million thousand times a day."

Young men, former child soldiers from Uganda, guarded U.S. bases, and other "Third World servants" were available to clean and to serve food. These refugees from famine and exploitation lived in tents and an area where U.S. forces were forbidden to go.

A "Sri Lankan slave force" emptied the communal latrine tank twice a day. Service workers at the massive U.S. embassy lived crammed dangerously into shipping containers in sharp contrast to the lavish lifestyle of the people they cleaned up after.

Outside the FOB were the occupied Iraqis living in unbelievable squalor, picking through the junk discarded by soldiers and bathing in undrinkable water that was piped in and so full of contaminants that it often burned their skin.


THIS THEATER of the absurd is often quite funny, but the laughter is strained. It's hard to shake off the many between-the-lines stories of human tragedy resulting from decades of anything but well-meaning U.S. imperial madness.

With the last chapter "Exhaling: Leaving Iraq," the story doesn't end. In early March, the State Department formally ended Van Buren's 23-year career as a diplomat.

As Obama desperately struggles to plug the holes in an empire in freefall, Van Buren has become a victim of a greatly expanded war on whistleblowers. This administration has attempted more prosecutions against leakers of information than any of his predecessors. These attempts have not been very successful, and most of the "leaks" are easily found in a quick Google search.

Even before the book's publication, Van Buren's State Department career was on the line. It started with a link on his blog to a WikiLeaks document available all over the web. He was interrogated a week before the book's publication in a tiny, windowless room complete with interrogation terror supplies--a "two-way mirror, multiple ceiling-mounted cameras and iron rungs on the table to which handcuffs could be attached."

Van Buren has made public the attack on his job and other whistle-blowers in televised book appearances and in detail on TomDispatch.com. The State Department had approved the book over a year before it was published. After his second interrogation, the Principal Deputy Secretary of State asked the publisher for "small redactions" in the book, which was already on its way to book stores, to avoid "harm to U.S. security." The State Department is a good deal nastier than the well-meaners in Iraq, but both deal in the same level of high comedy.

In February of this year, the State Department suspended Van Buren's security clearance for "poor judgment" in his blog--essentially ending his career. He was given a meaningless job, threatened with a felony conviction and banned from entering the building where he works. The State Department continued to "try to harass and intimidate" Van Buren, even cross-examining his friends in the State Department who emailed him on business matters.

Van Buren plans to fight his firing and to fight for the rights of other whistleblowers. His hope is the Office of the Special Counsel whose job is to insure compliance with the Whistleblowers Protection Act. Van Buren cites a Washington Post article praising the head of the office, Carolyn Lerner, for her aggressive attention to the rights of whistleblowers and leakers.

"Every small step forward in Iraq," says Van Buren in his book, "seemed followed by some tragedy...Much as we tried to stick a finger in the dyke to block the cynicism that otherwise washed over us, we ended up most nights drinking hard, cursing the darkness."

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