Zakariah Johnson's Reviews > We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People

We Meant Well by Peter Van Buren
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Feb 04, 12

bookshelves: war-and-politics
Read in February, 2012

Van Buren's account of the blundering giant in Iraq should be read by anyone who's upset the US has finally left that place--he makes a good case that America was NEVER going to get its act together there and cutting its losses was the only intelligent option. His real contribution is showing that it wasn't just bad planning and infighting at the top levels that turned Iraq into a quagmire of soggy hundred dollar bills, it was also the pervasive attitude of "CYA" and go-along-to-get-along that typifies (from his perspective) the State Department's collusion with the fraud and waste that dripped so much money and blood onto the thirsty desert sand. Van Buren describes at the micro level of someone in the field the same failings that other books and memoirs have portrayed at the macro level, and for that reason it's worth reading.

Most of his chapters are anecdotes that are very effective in making his point. The one that struck me as the saddest was the soldier who's name was called out during the role call following his own memorial (he had committed suicide) because the sergeant attending the event hadn't known the name of the lonely young man being eulogized. If there's a better example of the alienating power of a large bureaucracy, I haven't come across it.

Though he might not realize it, Van Buren's condemnation of how the State Department is organized and how it operates as an institution not just in Iraq but as a whole, is evident on every page. Unfortunately, Van Buren's book doesn't have an ending or a thesis, even an opinion, as to why everything in Iraq went to the dogs. Surely he must have opinions informed by his insider's perspective? No one should expect him to have the answer to everything, but by not offering any recommendations for improving the State Department's operations, his book ultimately seems unfinished. Perhaps he could add a chapter to the next edition: "My Year in Hell Amongst the Brown-Nosing Sycophantic Career-conscious Generalists to whom We Entrusted the War and How to Stop Them Next Time Around." Now THAT's a chapter I'd go back for.
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