30 November 2011

Book Review: 'We Meant Well'

Department of State employee Peter Van Buren is reviled by some, celebrated by others. Earlier this autumn, he published what some angry diplomats consider a piss-and-tell book, a memoir of his time leading an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (an "e.P.R.T.") in Iraq, from 2009-2010.

The PRT mission is a familiar one to 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division soldiers. In 2004-2005, nearly 1,000 soldiers of the Iowa National Guard's Task Force 168 deployed across Afghanistan to provide security at PRT sites in that country. More recently, PRT soldiers worked alongside the Red Bull's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (2-34th B.C.T.) in Afghanistan's Parwan, Panjshir, and Laghman Provinces, as did as 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168 Inf.), operating in Paktia Province.

Despite his not-so-diplomatic detractors, "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" covers ground familiar to soldiers. It describes how nation-builders can fall into traps of their own making. How well-intended efforts can spiral into spending big money on crack-hits of short-term good feelings and publicity, without developing local and long-term ownership, consensus, or even understanding. As a bonus, the book also accurately captures Army life downrange: The boredom, the sex, the loneliness, the almost total lack of privacy. And how death makes appearances as unexpected as they are unwelcome.

In fact, one might argue that Van Buren has succeeded in writing a most accessible and plain-spoken book about America's efforts in Afghanistan. It just happens to be about Iraq.

Bottom line up front: If you've ever served in or alongside a PRT in Iraq or Afghanistan, or wanted to know more about the "build" part of "clear, hold, build" counterinsurgency ("COIN") strategy, Van Buren's your scribe. He's something of a jester, too. Particularly in the Speaking Truth to Power Department.

Van Buren has more than 23 years in foreign service, and multiple career experiences working shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers. The arm's length familiarity pays off. As an inside-outsider, he deconstructs, for example, how the military talks to itself and makes decisions, in word and deed and PowerPoint. Van Buren also observes that the war in Iraq is all about tribalism--not only in the world outside the wire, but within it. "A [Forward Operating Base] was a village," he writes, "populated by tribes who rarely intermingled except on business and who had little in common except for the fact that they were all at this same place at this same time ..." [p. 37]

A stereotypical diplomat hides behind meaningless words, but Van Buren's approach seems almost matter-of-fact and candid, like a soldier. Plain-spoken and pithy, profane and profound. While he often seemingly shoots off his mouth, he also chooses his shots carefully. During his deployment, he noted:
  • Projects favored new construction over sustainable change.
  • Projects were started without adequate analysis of local traditions, business practices, and inter-relationships.
  • Projects were often subverted by tribal leaders, who sought to take things and money off the top.
  • Progress was often measured only in hope.
All this leaves me wondering if Van Buren's critics are taking on the mantle of Casablanca's constabulary: "Shocked, shocked I am to find that gambling is going on here."

Playing parts in Van Buren's morality tale is a rogues' gallery of ne'er do wells, ranging from short-term deployers from the Dept. of State ("people aggressively devoted to mediocrity, and often achieving it," he quips) to a carousel of military leaders searching for quick fixes. "Had anyone bothered to read those Kilcullen and Nagl war-theory books, they would have learned that haphazard charity had nothing to do with counter-insurgency," Van Buren notes. "It worked pretty well-promotion, however, and if publicity were democracy, this place would have looked like ancient Athens." [p. 127]

Or, more philosophically: "One of the difficult parts about counterinsurgency was that it was hard to tell when you had won. You measured success more by what did not happen than what did, the silence that defined the music." [p. 130]

Van Buren sends up a list of well-intended projects that seem predestined to turn to dross. Some are jaw-dropping and punchline-grabbing, such as an effort to teach disadvantaged Iraqi women how to bake French pastries.

Does the once-Fertile Crescent really need a chain of croissant shops?

More telling, however, are the big-ticket projects that failed to account for local conditions and traditions. Take, for example, the construction of a collection center for cows' milk in Van Buren's province. It turns out that modernizing milk distribution not requires reliable electricity but refrigeration, but trucks and fuel to distribute the milk, as well as a market to buy and consume the milk. Iraq didn't have those things, didn't work that way. "The processing plants were expected to sell to the farmers' neighbors, who would surely be waiting around wondering what happened to the friendly farmer who used to bring fresh milk daily." [p. 81]

No use crying over spilt money, right?

To his credit, Van Buren takes pains to admit that there were glimmers of success. At least, there was one:
After almost a year in Iraq for this ePRT, the 4-H club was still our most successful project, maybe our only genuinely successful one. We spent almost no money on it, empowered no local thugs, did not disrupt the local economy, turned it over as soon as possible, and got out of the way.
The kids' selection of officers for the club was their first experience of grassroots democracy. The powerful sheik's son went home crying because he lost the race for the presidency to a farmer's kid, and the sheik did not have anyone's throat slit in retaliation. The things the club had to look forward to, pen pals in Montana and more animals, were real and could be done without any money from the outside. There remained the tiniest possibility here, where in most everything else we had done there was none, that a year later there would still be a 4-H club in Iraq. [p. 228]
Believe it or not, there's a sort of clear-eyed optimism in Van Buren's work, a similar vibe to that which might be found at Rick's Café Americain. No matter how sharp-tongued and bushy-taled he gets, he doesn't hesitate to let his guard down, and to document the transcendent, disguised as the mundane.

"The next morning I awoke with a vicious headache," Van Buren writes about an evening back on the FOB, after he and his teammates smuggle a few brews back from the Embassy, "and the realization that someday I would come to miss being with those men as much as I now missed the smell of pillows on my bed at home or kissing my wife when we both tasted of coffee. It was already over 100 degrees, a Thursday." [p. 177]

See? Snarky, but true. And not without a heart.

We meant well. Maybe we still do.

In other words, "This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

(Editor's note: The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog was provided a review copy of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.")

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