Why do we need to read history? Why does history matter? Because history helps us to hear the little voices, to discriminate among them, and to silence, perhaps, some of the more troublesome ones. And to act on those little voices, the right ones, when they tell us something important.
For an explanation of this, let’s crack open my favorite novel, The Sand Pebbles, by Richard McKenna. You might have heard of it somewhere along the way; you might also have seen the 1968 movie, with Candice Bergen and Steve McQueen, which was a fairly decent film.
The book is noteworthy because it is one of a scant handful of novels about machinery, written by an author who firsthand knew and understood the world of machinery. I’ve always been a sprockethead first class, so seeing machinery written about this well always appealed to me. The book also has passages of descriptive sociology and cultural anthropology of the first order running through it; particularly about the world of men. It is also the best book ever written about the below decks Navy—the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis thought so too and said so on the dustjacket when their press reprinted it some years ago.
McKenna wrote this book after he retired after 20-something years as a torpedo mechanic in the Navy. Sadly, McKenna died way too young from a heart attack, shortly after this book’s publication.
The Sand Pebbles is the story of a Caliban-like machinist’s mate in the China Fleet in the 1920s, back when the US, as well as the other Western powers, ran their warships up and down the major rivers of China. The protagonist, Jake Holman, is posted to the most obscure ship on the China Station, patrolling the far reaches of the Yangtze River. Once aboard, Holman makes it a point, as he always had done, to master every single aspect of the ship’s engineering spaces. The ship is a creaky old relic taken from Spain after the Spanish-American War of 1898, and it has a knock in the engine that has always been there and that has always defeated all prior repair efforts. The knock causes main bearing wear that in turn causes increased coal burning and regular major repairs to clean and re-clearance the ship’s crank bearings. Holman is driven to find out what the cause of the knock is, and to fix it.
Early on in the book Holman is spending time in the ship’s bilges, sloshing around in the dirty bilge water, getting the rustproofing tar in his uniforms and skin and hair, staring at the huge pieces of rotating machinery just inches from his face, trying to figure out the problem.
McKenna talks about all the little voices in the engine room around Holman, all the little noises of the machinery in operation, all its sights and smells, and how it is all a confusing welter of little voices, each trying to be heard. He can hear them, but he can’t hear the right one, on account of the crowded welter of them all, and his ignorance of what voice he should be listening for.
Under the ship’s main crank spinning overhead, Holman sees a drop of oil on the engine soleplate, a drop of oil that expands and contracts regularly. All of a sudden, Holman recognizes that he’s seeing something important–this drop of oil, expanding and contracting, indicates relative movement in the soleplates, where they should be absolutely dead tight. Holman picks up a ballpeen hammer and beats on all the soleplate bolts, and discovers that many of them are loose.
The light bulb goes off in Holman’s head–the soleplate bolts are loose, and the soleplates therefore are in misalignment, causing the rest of the machinery to be in misalignment, all on account of a long-ago grounding that bent the hull slightly. Making the soleplates true and tight to the hull will fix the problem that has dogged the ship’s engine for decades.
McKenna goes on for a spell about the little voices in the passage that tells the above story. Anyone who has worked around machinery knows about those little voices, because they are always out there in machinery, telling you the machine’s story about what’s right and what’s wrong, and what you can do to fix it if it is broken. Anybody who is any good as a wrench, or e-tech, knows about the little voices and how important it is to listen for them. You don’t fix broken things very well without having an ear for the little voices, no matter how skilled you are as a technician. To be any good, you have to have the craft knowledge, the skills, AND the ear for the little voices.
The story of Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles is really the same story about us and history. History gives us, should we choose to use it, the ability to hear the little voices that tell us the key important facts about some big event going on around us, some big event that is surrounded by a huge welter of competing voices. And if we read history with a keen eye—if we listen to it with discriminating ears–we are far better able to pick out the right little voice out there from all the welter of them that explains things to us, and gives us, combined with our life craft-skills that we acquire as we live and learn, the ability to understand, and perhaps even fix, the problems in our world that bedevil us.
Ace technicians, with a sure eye, ear, and feel for the little voices, are rare, as are ace historians, and ace political leaders. But we all can do better if we are aware of these little voices, and try at least to listen for them. And that is what the study of history is for.
Here’s an example from our today. In our train-wreck of a war in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) troops, which the US military is training, sometimes turn sides and shoot the trainers—Green on Blue violence is what the Pentagon calls it. Shoot the trainers, and if they aren’t themselves shot, they then defect to the Taliban.
Such attacks, according to the Pentagon, are unprecedented in human history. That’s rubbish. We only need look back to France’s war in Algeria (1954-62): to cock our heads and listen to the little voices of that war. Listen for that voice, and maybe heed it:
One day in the war there was this French infantry patrol out in the bled (the deep countryside) that got fired on by someone hiding in an orchard just outside this small village. The French patrol returned fire, and a dead fellaga (FLN—Front National Liberation, the Algerian Muslims fighting for Algeria’s independence from France) fell from one of the trees. The members of the patrol went over to his body to investigate and discovered that the person who shot at them was a very old man, who had let fly at them with some antique muzzleloader. The soldiers went through his pockets, and found a Medaille Militaire in his pocket, from the old man’s First World War days in the French Army. Thumbing the medal, and looking down at the corpse of the dead old man, the Lieutenant said, “You know, there’s just something terribly wrong with this war, terribly wrong.”
That fellaga, a combat veteran, knew what he was up against and what he was doing and how suicidal it was for him when he grabbed his muzzleloader and went to try and bag him a Frenchman. The obvious lesson was that the gig was up for France in Algeria, and that France had to leave. Even if that wasn’t quite clear yet to that Lieutenant. He, and most all of France, had not yet the ears to hear, even if the little voices were screaming it.
In that war, there were dozens of instances of Algerian troops killing their French officers and NCOs while they slept and then deserting to the FLN—in at least one instance, a full company of men did.
The French were deaf to what events like these were telling them about Algerie Francais. They refused to hear the little voices. We are equally deaf, and I’d say deliberately so in the Pentagon’s case, with what Green on Blue attacks are telling us about our war in Afghanistan.
When the Pentagon claims these attacks are unprecedented, beyond human ken and understanding, they’re willfully refusing to pay any attention to the discordant voices of history. Anyone who has read anything about the French war in Algeria knows better about the lazy canards about Green on Blue put out by the Pentagon. Anyone who has read anything about counterinsurgency has read about that war, as the French were the foremost practitioners of counterinsurgency in the 20th century, and knows about the Algerian soldiers regularly mutinying and killing their French leaders and deserting.
The gig is up for us in Afghanistan, and the American endeavor in that country is every bit as dead as Algerie Francais. That is clear and beyond refutation.
That lesson should be obvious, if you know your history and understand the little voices studying it lets you hear. Few in this country have read any of that history, any history much period, and so we don’t hear those little voices, and so the problems we face remain beyond our ken to understand enough to fix. But Jake Holman heard those voices in the engine room, and he fixed that engine. But that’s another, absolutely great, story from that book that I’ll leave to you.
This piece by Dan White originally appeared on The Contrary Perspective and is reprinted by permission because it is worth reading.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
For those (I’m talking to you here CNN) who seem surprised about events unfolding now in Iraq, here’s an excerpt from something I wrote almost four years ago. At that time pretty much everyone disagreed with these conclusions, but can you hear me now?
When wars end, usually there is a winner and a loser. Greeks burn down the city for the win; Trojans accept a dummy horse for the epic loss, like that. As we near the end of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and note the beginning of the State Department occupation (the formal mission handover is Oct. 1), it is a good time to decide who lost and who won, and what that means for the future of Iraq.
For the minority, all-around Washington guy (now stopping off briefly to be Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta thinks we and the Iraqis sort of won. Leon said, “But the bottom line is, whether it’s diplomatic or whether it’s military, we’ve got a long-term relationship with Iraq. We’ve invested a lot of blood in (Iraq). And regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a … relatively stable democracy that’s trying to work together to lead that country.”
Tune into your favorite right-wing blog, and there is lots of mumbo-jumbo about the surge and sacrifices and all that false patriotism stuff that no longer even makes for a good country and western song. On firmer ground, it is less clear that the United States or Iraq won anything. The United States lost 4474 soldiers (and counting), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return.
Blood for Oil?
Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at pre-war levels and will be for some time. A drop in world oil prices would wreck the Iraqi economy. Despite Panetta’s patter about Iraq being a country willing to work with the United States, Iraq as a political entity follows its own path, virtually allied with Iran and unsupportive of American geopolitical dreams. The U.S. government will sell some military gear to the Iraqis and make some money, but in the end George Bush went to war and all we got was a low-rent dictatorship turned into a low-rent semi-police state.
As for Iraq being any sort of winner after being stomped on by the U.S. military, no. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed and is home now to a small but bustling al Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil. The United States also failed to establish stable borders for the Kurds, such that the Iranians shell “Kurdistan” from the east, while Turkish jets drop bombs in the west. Turkey is part of NATO — imagine the U.S. government sitting silently if Germany bombed Poland next week.
What many people do not know is that one reason for the drop in sectarian violence in 2008 was that both sides had done much of the killing they needed to do. The fighting then was a civil war, Shia versus Sunni, and the death toll was high enough on both sides to achieve the level of segregation and redistribution of power desired at that time– they temporarily ran out of reasons for the war to continue at that level of intensity. Ominously, however, the Sunnis and Shias did not fully settle the score and so that pot sits bubbling on the stove as well.
Sectarian tensions do still run high in Iraq, and the United States has been left powerless to do anything about it. Except for some technical assistance and perhaps some very low-key special operations help, the U.S. government has taken a sideline seat to the sectarian violence over the last few months, leaving the fight to the Iraqis. Whether zero or 3,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops stay on in Iraq, it is unlikely that such a smaller U.S. force will intervene, given that a larger one declined to do so.
The tinderbox nature of things is such that the Iraqi government is seeking to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects hundreds of years ago. The Iraqi parliament asked that the Communication and Media Commission, a media regulator, ban “Al Hassan and Al Hussein” on the grounds it incites sectarian tensions and misrepresents historical facts. “This TV serial includes sensitive issues in Islamic history. Presenting them in a TV series leads to agitated strife,” said Ali Al Alaq, a politician who heads the religious affairs committee.
Needless to say, a glance at the daily news from Iraq will reveal the ongoing steady low hum of suicide bombings and targeted killings that is now all too much a normal part of life. The occasional spectacular attacks (instantly blamed on al Qaeda by the United States) make headlines, but every Iraqi knows it is the regular nature of these killings as much as the death toll itself that is most disruptive to society. Iraq is hardly a winner.
Who won the war? Iran…
Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam, and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship but, after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush Administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelope America). The long slog both wars morphed into dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for another war, and cooled off plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for airstrikes against Iran’s nukes (if Cheney couldn’t edge the United States into that fight, who can?).
The Iranians also came to see that Iraq, like Lebanon, made for a nice proxy battleground. By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: Iranian-made roadside bombs ealled EFPs. These shaped “explosively formed penetrating devices” fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. (Iranian proxy warfare in Lebanon is well documented in Robert Baer’s excellent book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower which also advances the United States vs. Iran proxy theory in general.)
Iran not only lost an enemy when Saddam was hanged, it gained an ally in the new Iraq. When the United States’ last election surge withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi contest to produce a government, Iran stepped in to broker a settlement involving current PM Malaki (Malaki also serves as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior but is not a dictator) and the jolly Sadrists. Malaki, a Shia, happily recalls his days in exile in Iraq during the Saddam reign while Sadr hid out as a religious “student” in Qom when he was on the U.S. military’s capture or kill list post-2003. Both men remain beholden to Iran and continue to shift Iraq closer and closer to Tehran’s policy positions. Iran has its own proconsul in Baghdad, well-known locally but not discussed much in the west. The guy moved into the job after a tour as head of the Iranian special ops Qods Force.
Iran Ascendant in Iraq
Yet while strategic and political relationships are very important between Iraq and Iran, it is the growing economic and social-religious ties that cement the relationship and signify Iran as the real winner of the U.S. invasion. The raw numbers tell a big part of the story: the two countries’ current annual trade is valued at $4 billion to $5 billion and growing, with much more money changing hands on the black market.
On more formal terms, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi kicked off the most recent round of goodwill on July 6, when he traveled to Baghdad to join the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. Better yet, Iran agreed to supply 9,400 barrels of “gasoil” a day to Iraq for power generation. Iraq also signed a $365 million agreement to install a pipeline network to import natural gas from Iran for power stations in the country. The pipelines will eventually supply 25 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas a day to the Sadr, al-Quds and South Baghdad power stations in the Iraqi capital.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said that Iran and Iraq would soon sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said.
But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, the real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism. Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange. It also creates significant people-to-people ties that Iran will be able to exploit long into the future.
Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Iranian companies are associated with local hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to the religious site Mashhad, in Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.
Business is Booming
Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.
Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.
I saw a little slice of this during my own time in Iraq. My Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.
Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital. Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the U.S. invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select friends of Saddam. My translator recalled family trips to the area the way my daughters remember a visit to Disney, leaving me a bit nostalgic for a time and place I never knew. The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.
On routine patrols through the area, my PRT and Army would frequently see giant tour buses with Iranian license plates and markings hauling tourists around the city. The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.” Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom. We didn’t know it then, but our tourists were offering us a glimpse of the future, a picture of who the winners, and losers, were to be in our war.
Adding it Up
As for Iraq, add it up:
–no resolution to the Arab-Kurd issue,
–no resolution to the Sunni-Shia issue,
–no significant growth in the oil industry,
–a weakened U.S. presence more interested in a Middle East land base and profitable arm sales than internal affairs,
–and an increasingly influential Iran seeking a proxy battleground against the United States and a nicely weak buffer state on its formerly troublesome western border.
None of that tallies toward a stable Iraq. Indeed, quite the opposite. Worst case scenario might look a lot like the darkest days in Lebanon, with many of the same players at the table.
Here’s the full article.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Drops in the Ocean
Lt. Commander Jennifer Cragg at “NATO” headquarters in Afghanistan brings us (only on the “NATO” website of course; even the lamest of the main stream media has abandoned this meme) the story of one person who has “made a difference” in Afghanistan. Please have tissues at the ready to soak up your tears, then read:
Alfredo Memmer, a German citizen who has worked here since 2008, helped launch a charity organization called Basic Needs Support of Afghanistan. Memmer has consistently found ways to impact the lives of dislodged women and children since arriving in Afghanistan.
“Since my arrival I participated in various toy collections and clothing drives for displaced women and children,” said Memmer. “The creation of BNSOA is seen as a legacy to the innocent lives taken too early.”
“Our efforts might look like a small drop in the ocean, but many drops can also form an ocean.”
The article goes on to say that the organization gives away donated clothing, food, blankets, shoes and toys.
An Ocean of Dumb in Iraq
Was it really only just a few years ago when these same stories, with nearly the same wording, ran in the steady flow of news explaining how well things were going in Iraq? Hit the Google with the search term “iraq giving toys to children” and you’ll come up with pages of photos. And they are all the same: a U.S. service member dressed like a Space Marine handing over some plastic piece of junk to some kid. Sometimes one or both are smiling, often times not. The images feel more like some freakish form of pedophlia than even decent propangada.
As for the similarity of the glowing press releases, here’s just one from Iraq plucked out of the Internet Cosmos:
It’s a lesson in contrasts. A heavily-armed American soldier giving away stuffed toys to children in Iraq.
Barbara Cerniauskas [whose husband is deployed in Iraq]: “It really is just a small way that we can reach out to them and show them that our soldiers are there to help.”
“No matter how you feel about the war, the children are just innocent bystanders.” These toys could even help save lives. There are reports from soldiers about children warning them of dangers from land mines and buried bombs.
“We are doing something to maybe, you know, open the door to a new generation that will see that freedom and peace are possible. This is just a little token to maybe get it started.”
Like the idea itself, many of the organizations that enthusiastically sprung up to donate stuff to kids when the wars were a “thing” are gone. FYI: The kids are still there. For example, Operation International Children (OIC), founded in 2004 by actor Gary (“I’ve lived off being Lt. Dan forever, suckers”) Sinise “to reach out to children in war-stricken countries and support American troops in their efforts to assist them” closed down. In its so-long message, the group reminded us all that “We believe those moments of joy [following a kid whose parents were killed in a drone strike getting a used made-in-China toy] have the potential to bring about great change and our joy comes from the knowledge that we have worked together to make that possible.”
If you really, really want more such stories, including lots of wacky propaganda examples from Iraq, they are a Google away, or, conveniently, in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
Oceans of Garbage
But we digress. That NATO charity group in Afghanistan says “Our efforts might look like a small drop in the ocean, but many drops can also form an ocean.” One might ponder the fact that the U.S. and “NATO” have been leaving drops of hope all ver Afghanistan now for 13 years and haven’t managed to form a puddle, never mind an ocean. Perhaps more specifically in answer to the small drops add up to an ocean analogy, one could cite an alternative old saying about the value of “pissing into the sea.”
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The oft-repeated pop psychology definition of mental illness– doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results– pretty much sums up America’s limp efforts at reconstruction, nation building, hearts and minds, counterinsurgency, whatever tag you choose.
Efforts failed spectacularly and expensively in Iraq and (ongoing) in Afghanistan, and just as significantly, though more quietly, in Libya. With Obama having morphing into McCain like an old werewolf movie scene and calling for more wrath in Syria or wherever, it is obvious that the U.S. intends to stay in the nation building business.
The Return of the Jedi
One guy with some experience in the trade thinks he has a better idea of how to do this. Stuart Bowen was the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and produced a series of reports that year-by-year carefully documented America’s failure in Iraq to reconstruct much of anything. Whereas in my own book, We Meant WellI sought to document such failures on the local scale, Bowen’s assessments were Jedi-like, sweeping and Iraq-wide. Through the seemingly endless years of that war, Bowen shouted into the darkness about the waste, fraud and corruption in Iraq. His organization actively sought criminal prosecutions of those doing the wasting and the corrupting. This guy was born with both fists up, and good for him about that.
In a working document Bowen’s office shared with me, the story is this:
Who should be accountable for planning, managing, and executing stabilization and reconstruction operations (SROs)? The U.S. government’s existing approach provides no clear answer. Responsibilities for SROs are divided among several agencies, chiefly the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the United States Agency for International Development. As a result, lines of responsibility and accountability are not well-defined.
The lack of an established SRO management system forced the U.S. government to respond to challenges in Iraq through a series of ad hoc agencies that oversaw stabilization and reconstruction activities with—unsurprisingly—generally unsatisfactory outcomes.
A New Hope
Bowen suggest a new solution, comprising a collection of targeted operational reforms and the creation of an integrated management office— the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO)— that would be accountable for planning and executing SROs. You can read more details about his proposed new agency.
As almost an air-tight endorsement of the idea, both State and Defense oppose it. Bowen explained that both agencies believe that the existing management structure, which diffuses duties between and among varying agencies, is preferable to implementing a new, consolidated system. State believes that SRO problems chiefly arise from insufficient resources and not management weaknesses (Note: A lack of money, and not management problems, is State’s default answer to nearly everything from failure in Iraq to failure in Benghazi).
The Empire Strikes Out
While the reality is that just about nobody in Congress will support creation of a new government entity in the current political climate, the Obama Administration remains hell-bent to do some more nation building. If nothing new is tried (that mental illness definition again!) nothing new will happen. Failure is assured. Again. Bowen’s idea is worth looking into as a possible way to break the loop.
At the same time, a new organization sitting around the table with no purpose other than to tuck into reconstruction may be more dangerous that you think. The bureaucratic rules of evolution that govern Washington say any organization, once spun up, will seek more resources and more reasons to continue to exist. Would having a new office for SRO work simply create another strong voice inside government in favor of more SRO operations?
The jury is still out on how best to proceed. The best way to win at Fight Club is not to get into it in the first place. Is it too much to dream that maybe the U.S. will just stop invading and intervening abroad, and perhaps create an office designated to reconstructing America instead?
This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.
One (of thousands) of examples of how we lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people was our shoddy management of the things we built. To be fair, the lack of oversight was often due to our own limited personnel (in numbers and in intellect) and the ever-worsening security situation that made getting out into the field difficult. That said, the problem was often just our own laziness and plain not caring; our bosses were satisfied with trumped-up reports of success and cared not a zot for the truth.
Reconstruction, the Iraq Edition
The milk plant was a good example. Leaving aside our plan to disrupt an indigenous milk production and distribution system that had worked for the Iraqis for say, 2000 years, in favor of a neo-Stalinist centralized way of handling things, our refrigerated storage facility was a bust. After dropping $500,000 of your tax money on a local contractor who assured us everything was A-OK, we then sent out an Iraqi engineer in our employ to verify things. He sent back a message that everything was A-OK before disappearing. Finally, after a couple of months, I got a chance to see the A-OK stuff myself. Instead of delicious refrigerated milk, I walked into a room with crooked plumbing stitched together, rusted “stainless” steel and holes in the storage tanks big enough to accommodate my chubby fingers. The contractor ripped us off, the engineer took a bribe to tell us everything was fine and the Iraqis we were supposed to be helping thought we were insane, stupid, corrupt or all of the above. No hearts and minds were won.
Reconstruction, The Afghan Edition
With such examples fresh in their minds, you’d figure the State, DoD and USAID reconstructors in Afghanistan would be doing better. If you do, you’re as dumb as they are.
Our good friends at the Special Inspector General of Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; motto: We Have the Worse Jobs Ever, Please Kill Us Now) recently sent letters to the usual suspects pointing out that two schools built by the U.S. to win over hearts and minds are in danger of instead killing Afghans.
Case One is the Bathkhak School addition in the Bagrami district, Kabul province, Afghanistan. Here’s what SIGAR said:
Our inspection of the Bathkhak School addition found that it has not been constructed in accordance with contract requirements. The contractor substituted building materials without prior U.S. government approval or knowledge. Furthermore, the school addition appears to have design and construction flaws. Specifically, the school’s interior and exterior walls appear to be insufficiently constructed to hold the weight of the concrete ceiling. As a result, the building’s structural integrity could be compromised.
Because the first U.S. government oversight visit did not take place until six months after construction started, there may be other deficiencies that cannot be seen. Our concerns are heightened by the fact that Bathkhak School is located in an area of high seismic activity. In light of these construction flaws and the distinct possibility that an earthquake resistant design was not used, we have serious concerns for the safety of the hundreds of faculty and children that will be using the classrooms at any given time.
A-OK, let’s move on to Case Two:
Our inspection of the Sheberghan teacher training facility in Jawzjan province, Afghanistan found problems with the electrical, water, and sewage systems that could pose potentially serious health and safety hazards for its occupants. SIGAR inspectors found that the facility’s electrical wiring does not meet the U.S. National Electrical Code–as required by the contract– and other problems that create potential electrocution risks and fire hazards for its occupants.
Although the facility currently does not receive power from the electrical generator provided under the contract, serious risk for its occupants are present due to improper entry into the electrical system–known as a “tap”–and by the improper connection to an alternative electrical power supply. In addition to the electrocution hazard, the facility currently lacks operational water and sewage systems, raising potential health issues for the building occupants.
Despite the fact that the building is still under construction, our inspectors found that the Afghans have already begun using the building. As you know, the U.S. government is still responsible for the facility’s operations and maintenance and any occupational health and safety issues because the U.S. Agency for International Development has not yet transferred the facility to the Afghan government.
God, after twelve years in Afghanistan, this is so depressing.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) website is always an interesting, if depressing, read. Current headlines include “$5 million spent on unused incinerators; burn pit used instead despite potential health risks” and “Poor project management by U.S. agencies hinders efforts to commercialize Afghanistan’s national power utility.” The purpose of the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, is to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The U.S. strategy has always been clear, hold and build, the latter the most important in the long run for establishing a stable society somewhat friendly to U.S. aims.
Reading the SIGAR site, however, it is almost as if the goal was to reproduce all of the failures of Iraq reconstruction, only on a larger, more expensive and more foolish scale. If that is the goal, the U.S. is succeeding.
SIGAR’s most recent report is in the form of an alert letter warning State, DoD and USAID of serious problems involving failure of prime contractors to pay subcontractors in Afghanistan. SIGAR reports that evidence has come from multiple credible sources, and adds that the issue puts at risk numerous multimillion-dollar projects intended to promote stability in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:
– SIGAR has 52 ongoing investigations based on $62 million in claimed monies owed;
– Losses from non-payment have the collateral effect of eroding support for U.S. and coalition forces and costing the US time and money;
– Failure of prime contractors to pay their subcontractors has resulted in projects promoting the stability of Afghanistan being delayed or not completed;
– Prime contractors’ failure to pay is often viewed by Afghan subcontractors as a failure on the part of the U.S. government;
– A subcontractor threatened to set himself on fire in front of the U.S. embassy in protest of nonpayment;
– A prime contractor told SIGAR that a subcontractor threatened to blow up a compound of U.S. contractors and government agencies over non-payment.
In short, contractors for the U.S. government, clearly seen by the Afghans as one in the same as the U.S. government, are stiffing their Afghan partners. Whether through bureaucracy or as outright theft, and with the dullard-like lack of oversight by State, DoD and USAID, the very programs designed to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people are having just the opposite effect. Indeed, when people threaten to set themselves on fire in protest, you can assume things are not going well.
BONUS: One group of Afghans is however doing well with the reconstruction: Karzai’s government. SIGAR tells us that the Afghan government has levied nearly a billion dollars in “taxes” on contractors supporting U.S. Government efforts in Afghanistan. Because the SIGAR folks are polite men and women, they do not refer to these “taxes” as what they really are, bribes, kickbacks and protection money. Better yet, SIGAR also found that State and DoD contracting officers do not fully understand Afghanistan’s tax laws and, as a result, they have improperly reimbursed contractors for taxes paid to the Afghan government (with your tax money!).
Though the interview took place almost two years ago, a friend only recently sent me a transcript of my talk with NPR’s Fresh Air. For the historical record as well as a cheap and easy blog post, here it is.
National Public Radio (NPR), September 26, 2011 Monday, FRESH AIR 12:00 PM EST NPR
THE GREEDY BATTLE FOR IRAQ’S ‘HEARTS AND MINDS’
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. How would you feel about spending millions of Americans’ tax dollars to build a chicken processing plant in Iraq that never processed any chickens except to impress visiting journalists? That’s just one of the projects described in a new book by our guest Peter Van Buren, a veteran foreign service officer who gives a ground-level account of the effort to rebuild and stabilize Iraq.
Van Buren has spent much of his career in the Far East, when in 2009, he joined a surge of State Department personnel headed to Iraq to assist in reconstruction. Van Buren’s experience working on a provincial reconstruction team is a dispiriting tale of waste, corruption and sometimes comically misguided approaches to the mission of improving the lives of Iraqis.
His account isn’t kind to American policymakers, and as you’ll hear, he has strong feelings about the futility of his efforts. We contacted a spokesperson for the State Department who declined to respond to Van Buren’s book except to say that the author’s views are his own and not necessarily those of the State Department.
Van Buren’s book is called “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were in the State Department for more than 20 years before you went to Iraq. Tell us just a little bit about your career.
PETER VAN BUREN: My work was primarily concerned with what I like to think is the benign side of empire. I helped American citizens overseas. When people got arrested, when people fell into trouble one way or the other outside the United States, it was my job to help get them out of trouble, to visit them jail, when people passed away to make sure their remains got back to their loved ones. It was very rewarding work.
It was social work on steroids at times, but dealing with people and being able to help them was very fulfilling, very satisfying.
DAVIES: I read you won a Superior Honor Award for helping a rape victim in Japan. What was that about?
VAN BUREN: It was a terrible tragedy. An American citizen suffered a very violent attack in Japan, and it was our responsibility to help her. She decided very courageously that she wanted to go through the very difficult process of seeing her attacker put in jail, and it was a very difficult experience for her. It was my obligation to assist her with this, and the two of us together got her through it.
It was a difficult process in that many times the language that she needed to use to describe what had happened to her was language that was not typically heard in a Japanese courtroom. There were translation problems. There were times when the prosecution attempted to paint her as a person who might have brought on this attack somehow herself.
But we were able to get her through that and see that justice was done. Her attacker went to jail, and it was a moment when we really understood what it meant to have an American embassy overseas that was there to support you. She probably could have done it without us, but it was an honor to have done it with her.
DAVIES: Now, when you went to Iraq, this was in 2009, and this is far beyond the days when a lot of people would say American military policy was so misguided. By then, a lot of people think we had figured this out. The military was much more committed to friendly engagement with the Iraqi population and reconstruction and winning hearts and minds.
So you’re there to do good things, to help rebuild the country. But as you tell the story, you certainly weren’t out among the people. Just tell us a little bit about your living kind of situation and how that meshed with the mission that you had.
VAN BUREN: What a PRT, Provincial Reconstruction Team, was supposed to do, was to operate at a grassroots level, embedded with the U.S. military, to bring stability and economic success to all of Iraq, particularly operating outside of the major cities. One of the key problems was the inability to reconstruct something while it was essentially still falling apart.
The American presence in Iraq basically had three components. You had the military command, which sat in a place called Victory Base – the Army has no irony in its naming conventions – and they had a very limited view of things. They were very isolated.
You had the American embassy, the world’s largest embassy, surrounded by the world’s largest walls that kept both bad guys and reality out. The joke was that the embassy kept an eye on events in Iraq from the roof.
And then you had the Provisional Reconstruction Teams, me. We were – are small groups of people – we were embedded with military units. We would roll out in military convoys, typically riding in a vehicle called an MRAP, which is like a giant monster truck. It has all sorts of armor and special electronics on it that make it less vulnerable to the IEDs, which plague the campaign in Iraq for its entire life.
It had machine guns on the top and full of soldiers with their game faces on; guns, rifles, grenades, the whole manner of stuff. Myself, I would wear body armor and a helmet just like the soldiers would. I wasn’t armed. I didn’t carry a weapon. But we made quite an impression on people when we rolled through town.
Sometimes when we rolled through the center of town, we made quite an impression because our vehicles were tall enough that they tore down all the electrical and phone lines that were strung across the roads. Sometimes we made quite an impression when we roared through fields and left ruts where there had been rice or wheat planted. And oftentimes we made quite an impression by attracting a lot of attention to people just by our presence.
It was difficult to say that we ever could have a normal interaction with anyone. The mere presence of us made us look like aliens descending from armored spaceships in the middle of nowhere. Every interaction with every Iraqi took place with soldiers with weapons standing around. Oftentimes, I was told to leave my body armor and helmet on while I was speaking with the Iraqi people for my own safety.
We rarely could stay in any one place for very long for fear of attracting too much attention and an attack. Setting up appointments was very difficult because it was dangerous to tell people too far in advance that we were going to be arriving. We didn’t want to give the bad guys too much time to get ready.
And under those conditions, the ability to meet with people, to interact with them, was a failure.
DAVIES: And I believe kind of one of your first interactions with Iraqis involved this fellow named – I think he had the nickname McBlazer, and there was a particular issue you had to work out. Tell us that story.
VAN BUREN: State Department people love to wear blue blazers with brass buttons. It’s almost kind of a uniform. And one of the Iraqis that we interacted with regularly had adopted this as his form of dress. And so he was nicknamed McBlazer among us.
The embassy constantly was tasking us to put on presentations, shows, lectures. We were going to tell Iraqis how things were going to work. Here’s how democracy works. Here’s what women should be doing. Here’s the way that you should be running your businesses.
These were hard to put on, and it required a lot of logistical arrangements, things that we couldn’t possibly do on our own in a country where we couldn’t travel freely, where telephone service was sporadic and where there was no infrastructure for us to work with.
It became necessary for us to seek out these middlemen, these operators, carpetbaggers, slick guys like McBlazer who for money could make things happen.
The very first day, as I arrived and met my team, the very first task I was handed was to commit fraud so that we could properly pay off McBlazer for the last thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VAN BUREN: Now, fraud is a nasty word to use…
DAVIES: Well, let me just interrupt here. What do you mean commit fraud? What did you have to do?
VAN BUREN: Well, it turns out that there limits the State Department put on how much we could spend on refreshments. This was very important because without refreshments, the Iraqis wouldn’t come to our meetings. We simply couldn’t get a crowd unless we fed them. To feed them costs money, and the cost of that food oftentimes exceeded the maximums that we were allowed to spend.
This doesn’t stop a guy like McBlazer. He simply created fake receipts for printing that covered the cost of the food. And my very first diplomatic action in Iraq was to be told by my colleagues to sign the fake receipts so that we could pay McBlazer for the food, which we had to use to bribe the Iraqis to come to the meeting so that the embassy would be satisfied that we were reconstructing Iraq.
DAVIES: And did you object?
VAN BUREN: It seemed like a wrong way to get started to me, and I have this aversion to going to jail for fraud, and so I said no, I’m not going to sign that. This was a problem. Well, McBlazer, it turns out, is married into a very powerful family that’s connected to some very powerful Kurds, who happen to be connected to a lot of guys that apparently used to work for the mafia until they found out working in Iraq was more profitable.
And it was not going to be in our best interest to crisscross on McBlazer. In fact, McBlazer offered that he was setting up conferences for all of the PRTs all over Iraq and that if we didn’t pay him the money that he wanted, he was going to stop servicing the other PRTs. And so simultaneously with my arrival to Iraq, I was going to be responsible for the countrywide breakdown of a system that had been running smoothly for about a year.
VAN BUREN: Yeah, I signed.
DAVIES: OK. So you could see some immediate frustrations with what was happening in this State Department effort to assist the Iraqi people. But there were enormous needs around you. You write about trash disposal. Do you want to give us a little picture of what you saw?
VAN BUREN: I’d never seen so much garbage in one place in my life. It was almost as if the only thing being manufactured in Iraq was garbage. This oftentimes didn’t jive with other things. People were not very wealthy. People in fact in many cases were quite poor. But suddenly, everywhere I looked, there was garbage, garbage and garbage.
The garbage was a problem for the Iraqis. It was a problem for us. The bad guys used to hide bombs in it that would catch us as we drove down the road. So one day, we were told it was going to be our job to clean up the garbage.
Now, I’m a pretty energetic guy, but it seemed like I was going to need some help. Well, not a problem. There were oftentimes sheiks who would appear, sometimes without us even calling them, who would offer to take care of whatever problems we happened to have, in this case the garbage. They would be able to, for a very small fee, get their entire extended family and their family’s families out there to pick up the trash for us.
It was an absolute amazing thing until we found, of course, that we were overpaying these people so much that we had distorted the local labor market, and in fact several shops had closed down because people found it more profitable to have us pay them to pick up trash than to operate small businesses.
DAVIES: And of course they were temporary jobs, right?
VAN BUREN: They were temporary jobs in the sense that when we got bored with picking up trash, or some other shiny object caught our attention, we moved onto a different project. The garbage piled up. The city of Baghdad generates hundreds of tons of garbage every day.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is “We Meant Well.” We’ll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran in the State Department who spent a year in Iraq on Iraqi reconstruction. He’s written a new book called “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”
There was also a tremendous need for clean water and sewage treatment, and it just seems like so obvious that meeting these basic needs would have done a lot to build meaningful relationships with the Iraqi people. Do you want to tell us – I mean, there’s an example you tell of a treatment plant in Nahrawan, I believe, northeast of Baghdad.
VAN BUREN: Nahrawan.
DAVIES: OK. Yeah, go ahead.
VAN BUREN: Ever since the Romans had occupied this part of the world, providing water to people was what government did. It was the essence of surviving in the desert. Saddam had built a number of water plants, oftentimes with Soviet or other people’s money, and these water plants had pumped along without much success from the 1960s on up. Some of them were older than I was.
We were told to go out and see what we could do about a water plant not far from where we living out in the desert. The great news was that way back in the good days of 2003 and ’04, when people were still enthusiastic for the war, apparently the Japanese had promised to pay for repairing this water plant.
This was good news. But when we contacted them, it turned out that they neither remembered paying for it nor had any interested in driving out through the dangerous parts of Iraq to see a water plant. It fell on our shoulders to go out and check up on things.
The water plant was run by a wonderful gentleman who I hope to the bottom of my heart is still alive somewhere in Iraq. We called him The Engineer. And The Engineer had been working at this particular water plant since the 1960s. He would tell us these wonderful stories about how during the glory days, Saddam would send him off to Russia or Bulgaria for water plant training, and he would trade his then-valuable Iraqi dinars for rubles and be very popular with the women that he would meet and come home with suitcases full of vodka. They were good times for him.
The war did not work out well. He had a number of people on his staff killed in the sectarian violence. Another larger group disappeared, some of them possibly killed; a lot of them running away to relatives in Jordan or nearby countries.
But throughout this all, The Engineer stayed at his post throughout the sectarian violence and the worst years of the war, even though the plant had long since ceased to process any fresh water, and raw sewage ran right through it into the beautiful Tigris River.
The Engineer was still optimistic, and when we arrived there, he brought out these incredibly dense three-ring binders full of plans that were drawn up by a Japanese engineering firm in Tokyo that had never been to Iraq and never seen his plant. But these were the plans for the water of the future.
The Engineer needed nothing from us except a lot of money and a lot of help. The way he saw it, he was going to work this all out by hiring an Iraqi contractor who would actually be a front for a Turkish country, which would hire Arabic-speaking Jordanian engineers to bring Chinese equipment into Iraq – rebuild his water plant.
He then planned on the Chinese equipment being left behind so he could sell it off on the black market and raise enough money for maintenance of the plant because unfortunately, our planning never extended past the end of next year, and we had no money for long-term maintenance.
DAVIES: So what happened?
VAN BUREN: Nothing. Nothing happened. The problem is, is that you can’t, with all the best intentions in the world, simply rebuild a water network. Our plant was one plant, was one plant in a long line of facilities that were necessary to take water out of the Tigris, process it, bring it all the way into Baghdad, then take the dirty water out, bring it all the way back, process it and bring it back in, put it back into the river.
This involved hundreds of facilities. We had authority to try to fix one of them.
DAVIES: It sounds like this was a case where there was a big, important problem like sewage treatment and water purification, but that you didn’t have nearly the kind of resources that you would need to do something on that scale. People needed to think bigger?
VAN BUREN: We were never able to do thing on a large enough scale to make a difference because the thinking was never long-term. Everyone in Iraq was there on a series of one year tours, myself included. Everyone was told that they needed to create accomplishments, that we needed to document our success, that we had to produce a steady stream of photos of accomplishments and pictures of smiling Iraqis and metrics and charts.
It was impossible under these circumstances to do anything as long-term as a water and sewer project, particularly with the need for our work to dovetail with work being done to the left and to the right of us.
We rarely thought past next week’s situation update. The embassy would rarely engage with us on a project that wasn’t flashy enough to involve photographs or bringing a journalist out to shoot some video of something that looked good. The willingness to do long-term work, to do the very slow work that reconstruction and development takes place, the idea that development work is a pyramid, you build the base that creates the possibility of a top, never existed in our world.
DAVIES: Now, there were some efforts to do things on a smaller scale. They bought some of these Mobile Maxes, a trailer-mounted, what, a water filtration system. What happened there?
VAN BUREN: One day, a soldier literally trolling through the Internet came across something called Mobile Max. Mobile Max seemed like the solution to our problems. It was a solar-powered, trailer-mounted water purification device. You put the hose into dirty water, the sun shone on Mobile Max, and clean water would pour out the other end.
The soldier told his boss, who told his commanding officer, who told some other people, and believe it or not, in the time it takes me to write a letter home to my wife, we found that the Army was buying five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes and paying to have them shipped all the way around the world to the middle of the desert at a place called Forward Operating Base Hammer.
It took months and months for these things to arrive, and the day that they showed up, it was like a fair at the base. They came on trailers. They were bright blue. People came out of their workstations and sleeping quarters to see this arrive, as if the circus had come to town.
DAVIES: And what happened?
VAN BUREN: We set the first Mobile Max up, put the hose into a hole that we had dug and found water in, waited for the sun to warm up the engine. There was a hush, and poured out of the other end of it – nothing. It turns out that the groundwater in Iraq is too salty for Mobile Max. Mobile Max can clean all sorts of naughty stuff out of water, but it can’t turn salty water into drinking water, and so it was a complete failure.
DAVIES: And you had 25 of these things. What became of them?
VAN BUREN: The five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes were moved off to a corner of the base where they were parked in very neat rows and left to sit there for the course of the year that I was in Iraq. I’m told that soon after I left, and we closed the PRT down, the commanding general forces there, General Odierno, came out, asked what those blue things were, was told the story and ordered them to be gotten rid of.
My understanding is one of them ended up in a sheik’s backyard, where it did some good work for him and his family. No one seems to know what happened to the other ones.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren is the author of the new book “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” We’ll hear more of his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of our show. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to Dave Davies’ interview with Peter Van Buren, the author of “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” It’s about the sometimes comically misguided projects, wasted money and corruption he encountered while working with the State Department team on reconstruction efforts in Iraq in 2009.
DAVIES: Now this brings up the subject of all the money that was available. Did you ever want for cash for these initiatives?
VAN BUREN: Working for the government for 23 years, the only constant was there’s never money. There’s never enough money to do all the things we wanted and there were times when I bought my own office supplies and stole yellow stickies from my kid’s school so I had them in the office because it was easier than trying to get money for it.
In Iraq we had money everywhere. It was literally in boxes that you had to step over. At one point in time, I had $100,000 in cash in a small safe in my office. I felt like a drug dealer, I kept pulling out bundles of money. There was so much money that the Iraqis invented a new slang word in Arabic that means a large pile of hundred dollar bills. What’s the word?
My pronunciation may not be precise, but I believe it’s duftar.
DAVIES: A stack of Benjamins, huh?
VAN BUREN: A large pile of Benjamins. They were at first the most convenient way for us to put money out. There was no banking system. There were no electronic transfers. There were no checking accounts, no credit cards. And so when we needed to give someone money, we literally gave them money. I would travel around with $50,000 in a paper bag to hand out to one of the people who was taking over our project. We would have these counting sessions where we had to account for our money, where we would have $20,000, $30,000 out on a desk. This was all tracked on paper and through some Excel spreadsheets.
Most of the folks I worked with were honest people and I don’t think we lost any money. But somewhere along the way millions and millions of dollars were just casually misplaced. The Army lost 60 million dollars at one point in time. And over the course of the eight years of the Iraq Project, the United States has spent 63 billion dollars on the reconstruction.
DAVIES: And there were reports by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that documented literally billions in waste and mixing funds. You were on this provincial reconstruction team doing the reconstruction, but you were embedded with an Army unit. I think the 82nd Airborne, right? And how much, to what extent did the Army actually call the shots in these efforts? Was the State Department in charge, or was the Army in charge, or was it a negotiation? How did it work?
VAN BUREN: The original plan was that we were to be equals. The State Department and the Army were to work as equals on these projects and work as equals in making decisions. The problem was we couldn’t leave the base unless the Army took us out. We couldn’t make a phone call, use a computer, make a photocopy or get a meal without the Army’s permission and consent. And so in situations where you couldn’t get along with your colonel, the colonel in charge of your unit, you couldn’t do your job. It created a terribly unequal relationship. The joke was that we practiced more diplomacy inside the wire than outside.
DAVIES: You write about one colonel that had – who really liked the idea of passing out humanitarian assistance bags, HA bags. Explain what they were and why they were appealing.
VAN BUREN: One of the problems that plagued the whole reconstruction program, from its sad birth to whenever it finally passes away, it was the overall concept. The State Department imagined this as remaking an entire nation. The Army had a little harder time getting its head around that concept and tended to think in smaller units.
One colonel that I worked with decided that the best way to win the hearts and minds was to give away stuff. Everybody likes free stuff. He characterized this as a humanitarian gesture, and the project was called HA, humanitarian assistance. What would happen is the Army would load up some trucks with food bags. The amount of food in there might have given a family of four a meal or two. It was nothing special, nothing elaborate. He would load up these food bags, drive out to some village, and hand them out to people.
What you saw in these instances was very interesting. If you imagine yourself as a camera and you focus very closely, you saw happy smiling soldiers handing food bags over to young children or women, who were smiling as they accepted them. If you zoomed out a little bit, you found that the soldiers who weren’t in camera range were probably not smiling. You zoomed out a little further and you found that the Iraqi men would stay in the background and give us kind of hard stares. This is a country where pride, where self-image is very important to people, and being handed food by Americans who had invaded their country and in many cases caused damage and violence around them was a shock to the Iraqi people, was a blow to their pride.
Imagine if the Chinese army appeared one day in Minneapolis and started handing out food to the people there. Would Americans feel proud about that?
DAVIES: Now why did the colonel do this? And was this ever evaluated? Did anybody ever look at whether this had any positive impact?
VAN BUREN: The chances are that your listener’s thinking about this constitutes the only time anything was evaluated what we did there. The entire process was one of improvisation, of please do something because something might work. There was never anybody who said, hey, that’s not working. Let’s not do that again. Or this seems to have promise, let’s keep doing that. What we did was never examined, was never looked at. There was no sense of output. Everything we did we did for us. We did it for our personal satisfaction. We did it because we felt good doing it. We did it because we were told to do it. We did it because we wanted to get promoted and patted on the head. The sense was it wasn’t about the Iraqis. It was about us.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is called “We Meant Well.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran Foreign Service officer in the U.S. State Department who spent a year in Iraq. His book about his frustrations with the Iraqi reconstruction effort is called “We Meant Well.”
Did you have any contact with the media? I mean could you give them a sense of what was really going on?
VAN BUREN: I saw very little of the media. And the embassy made sure that whenever someone from the media did go out into the field that the journey and the experience was stage managed to the final degree. We did have one experience that might illustrate how this works. The largest amount of money I ever spent was with the Army, a two million dollar chicken processing plant. The idea was that instead of these systems that had been in place for about 5,000 years, where people bought live chickens in the market, we were going to take those chickens and cut them up and put them in styrofoam and plastic just like you’d get at the Safeway. Problem was that that didn’t work out very well. The farmers were had a system of selling to the markets. The people didn’t have refrigeration at home to handle cutup chicken. And there was Brazilian frozen chicken being imported at that time that underpriced us. So the factory didn’t produce any chicken.
One day we were told that the journalist was coming out and wanted to see our factory in action. This was a moment of panic for us, because we had not really admitted to the embassy at that point that it wasn’t working.
DAVIES: I just want to understand this. So from scratch you imported all this mechanized equipment and built a chicken processing plant that simply was sitting idle?
VAN BUREN: That’s correct. Because when these projects were conceived – and this project actually was in conception long before I arrived, it had taken so long to spec out and to create – no one considered where those chickens were going to come from and how they were going to be paid for. And no one considered what was going to happen to our processed chicken once we put it in the plastic.
For example, there were no transportation networks. There were no trucks that could carry frozen or chilled food around Iraq. And even if we had those trucks, the roadways made it impossible for them to travel very long distances. No one bothered to figure out how we were going to buy the chickens, how we were going to pay for them, which farmers were going to sell, whether the farmers needed to raise the chickens specifically for us. None of that was thought out. Simply, we built something and hoped it would work in either direction.
DAVIES: All right. So it’s time to prove to a journalist that you’ve done something good here. what happened?
VAN BUREN: This was a real problem. We contacted the Iraqi sheikh who had taken possession of the chicken processing plant and explained our problem. He was a very clever man. He sent one of his sons out to the market that day and what every live chicken in about a five mile radius of the place. Lord knows what they paid for it, brought all those chickens in and the plant was humming like the middle of a speedway when the journalists arrived. We processed through about 150 chickens that day.
DAVIES: And nobody ever caught on. No one was the wiser.
VAN BUREN: The good news was is that it was 100 percent productivity increase from the day before…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VAN BUREN: …so we were kind of happy about that. It turned out that the chicken that we actually served the journalists was bought at a different place, because we weren’t quite sure if our machinery was clean enough and we were afraid to actually serve the person because the machinery hadn’t been used so we bought chicken someplace to serve them.
This was a problem. The problem was is that the journalists said what a great day had happened out here and other people wanted to come out and see the plant too. So, every time someone came out we had to buy chickens to run them through the plant so there was something to see. This led to a new unit of measurement – the chicken measurement. We would try to figure out who was important and who wasn’t because the chickens were expensive. So an important person might see 50 or 60 chickens processed. A journalist who comes from a smaller outlet for or a hometown newspaper, they might see 20 chickens processed. And so it became kind of a joke how many chickens we were worth.
DAVIES: Didn’t – I mean were you ever in a position to pull someone aside and say – ask them if this is running tomorrow or was running yesterday?
VAN BUREN: Dave, please don’t be upset. We would’ve given you the full 50-chicken treatment.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: No, everyone played the game.
VAN BUREN: Everyone was looking the other way. There was an understanding that you wanted to get through your tour, and the way to do that was not make waves, not ask questions. It had been running before you got there, it was going to be running after you got there. Look away like everyone else was doing and things would work out for you. The only time I got into trouble, the only time I was called into my boss was when I canceled a project.
DAVIES: Well, I was going to ask you about that. You were called on the carpet at one point. What happened?
VAN BUREN: I wasn’t spending enough money. Early on, soon after failing to properly attend to the fraudulent receipts of McBlazer, I was presented with another opportunity to excel. My colleagues had arranged for us to pay about $5,000 a head for sheep to be delivered to widows. Good idea. Widows are it’s a sad thing. We created more than enough of them ourselves in Iraq, why not help them out. We were going to give them sheep. They’d raise the sheep. Everybody would be happy. So I asked a few questions. How are we going to find the widows? Well, the guy we’re buying the sheep from will find them for us. OK. How will the widows know how to raise the sheep? Oh, the guy we’re buying the sheep from will teach the widows. OK. Who is going to pay him for that? Oh, he’s going to take the lambs from the widows so that he’ll get paid that way. It sure seemed to me that this was kind of a scam – that it was a pyramid scheme so that the guy we were buying things from was going to make all the money. I didn’t see how the widows were going to benefit, and I canceled the project.
DAVIES: And then you were what, summoned to the embassy?
VAN BUREN: This brought down the wrath of Mesopotamia on me. Because once I realized what the questions were and I started asking them, I found out that the women’s rug-making cooperative that we were paying for had devolved into child labor. I found out that most of the things that we were paying for at the vocational school were actually nonexistent; that there were no vocational classes being held, and the equipment that we had paid for had long since been trundled off and sold off on the black market. I found that many of our projects existed solely in our own minds and our checkbooks, and so I started canceling them. This did not sit well with my bosses and I was called into the embassy and reminded that my predecessors had found ways to spend money, I should find ways to spend money. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make trouble. You’re one little guy in a big operation. Do what you’re told. Get through your year. Go home. Maybe we’ll promote you.
DAVIES: And when you got that speech how did you respond?
VAN BUREN: I didn’t know what to respond. I did know how to respond. I went through a period of trying to do what I was told was the right thing. I signed off on a lot of projects that would embarrass me to explain to you in great detail right now. I spent a lot of money. At some point, I realized that that was wrong. It was not true to myself. It was not true to the integrity that I believe is important for us, and so I stopped signing projects.
I found that not saying yes and not saying no gave me enough grey zone that my year ran out before they caught up with me.
DAVIES: Have any of your colleagues in the State Department read this manuscript? How is this being received?
VAN BUREN: The State Department, as an organization, is not very happy about what I’ve done. I was required to submit an early copy of the manuscript to the State Department for them to determine that I wasn’t releasing classified information, or the more hilarious one, that I wasn’t misrepresenting this as official State Department policy. It’s pretty clear that I’m kind of speaking for myself, here.
The State Department is unhappy about this. The organization is not one that is comfortable with its private parts showing in public. This is very clear in their reaction to the WikiLeaks scandal, where suddenly the internal workings of the State Department were on display. This makes everyone very uncomfortable, and my book does something of the same. My colleagues oftentimes will privately tell me that they saw many of the same things I saw, that they were – they’re pleased that someone has written down what I wrote. But in public, many of them have shunned me, have accused me of not being fair to them, of blaming them for things that I knew were institutional. They didn’t make these same decisions because they were stupid. I didn’t make these same decisions because I was stupid. We all knew we were told to these things, and they’re a little bit angry at me for sometimes maybe labeling them as complicit in this, when they knew that they weren’t.
DAVIES: What kind of assignment do you have? Has your writing affected your work?
VAN BUREN: Unfortunately, the State Department has started an investigation against me. They claim that a link on the blog connected with this book links to a WikiLeaks document, and that constitutes disclosure of classified information. And so the security people have begun an investigation against me that will probably end in my losing my job.
DAVIES: Well, you know, one of my reactions in attempting to judge this was that when I look at your account of these events, I mean, they’re told with really telling detail, and it’s quite funny in many places. But you’re not very specific about, well, certainly people. You use only first names, or, in some cases, no names at all. You refer to people as my boss or the major.
VAN BUREN: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: Someone might say, well, aren’t you kind of fudging of the details here, and that gives you some ability to exaggerate?
VAN BUREN: To a certain extent. It’s difficult. It turns out that when you throw pies at people’s faces, they sometimes get upset about that. And so in these litigious days, it became important in many instances do not identify people by name, partially for legal reasons, partially because, in many cases, they were decent people trying to do the right thing who shouldn’t be blamed personally by name for what they did because they were following orders. They were doing the things that they were told to do.
The book that I wrote is not a scholarly text. It’s not a history. It’s not full of footnotes and things like that. It’s an impressionistic version of what I saw. It’s the rough draft of the PRP, the Provincial Reconstruction Program that I helped administer. My hope would be that someone who is better at these things can write a book that has footnotes that can chronicle in great detail and with great accuracy what happened over there. Others will fill in the details. I don’t know that it’s important to know that the major I referred to was Major Jones or Major Smith. What’s important to understand is at that time, at that place, this is what happened.
And we have your assurance that the details that you recount – I mean, the phony tours of the chicken processing plant that this…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: …and the sheep for widows programs, all of those are as accurate as you can make them?
VAN BUREN: If you were with me, you would’ve seen the things that I wrote in this book. My hope would be that at some point, some of the other people there will feel comfortable in speaking up. I don’t doubt that someone in the State Department will claim that some of this is inaccurate, or that some of the details are exaggerated. What else can they do to defend themselves here, but try to assault my personal credibility? The book is there. The stories that I tell are there. You, as the reader, are in a position to judge them, to say this makes sense, this doesn’t make sense.
Some readers will look beyond the book to the documents that the special inspector general for Iraq has written that chronicles some of the chronic episodes of waste. Some folks will talk to their friends who served in Iraq and say, hmm, this Van Buren guy is talking about this Mobile Max thing. You were there. What do you know about that? And hopefully come to the conclusion that the stories I tell are sadly accurate, that the things I saw are sadly representative of the failures that we experienced there, that unfortunately, “We Meant Well” is true.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
VAN BUREN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Van Buren’s book is called “We Meant Well.” After recording the interview, we called the State Department. A spokesperson declined to comment on the book, saying only that it represents the author’s views and not those of the State Department. He also said the department never comments on whether an employee is under investigation. You can read an excerpt of “We Meant Well” on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the Bangles’ new album. This is FRESH AIR.
Along with the odd threat or hate mail (a few people hilariously misunderstand the book’s title We Meant Well as being serious and chastise me for supporting the Iraq War), some interesting things pop up. Here’s one, a report from the front lines of freedom in Iraq:
I work in Iraq and I’ve seen first hand the waste and abuse you chronicled so well during the “reconstruction”. I think you once called the US Mission in Iraq a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ — a self-contained, self-aggrandizing system of little actual use to Iraqis. An apt analogy.
Here’s something you’d appreciate:
A couple of days ago, just minutes after a briefing on the latest death toll from sectarian violence (50 killings in one night;
520 close to 1000 total this month) in Iraq, I attended a meeting with people who were enthusiastically discussing the massive uptick in “likes” on our mission’s Facebook page.
As journalism, I checked Facebook to find that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has some 137,000 “likes.” Their banner graphic celebrates breaking 100,000. As a comparison, retired porn star Jenna Jameson’s Facebook page as 566,703 likes. Maybe the Embassy needs to show more skin?
So, as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains the world’s largest and most expensive diplomatic mission, we salute the brave boys and girls out there who are still more focused on their Facebook likes than Rome burning down around them. To Victory!
I had the pleasure of speaking yesterday at George Mason University alongside Christopher Coyne.
Chris is the author of an excellent new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond. I’ll have a full review online soon.
My thanks to the students, faculty and staff at George Mason!
The We Meant Well wrap-up of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion was unfortunately tainted by several gallons of bile spilled on to my keyboard as I typed. It is important to note that while most of the U.S. Government people involved in Iraq well-deserved all the bile spattered their way, there were those who did try. So thus I owe a bit of an apology for the slam dunk I took on the Special Inspector General for Iraq, SIGIR, a few days ago.
Fair is fair; I wrote:
SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.
The people at SIGIR, who clearly held the least-loved jobs in all of Iraq, were kind enough to write to me and point out that they were trying hard to be part of the good guys. They also ran at something of a profit. SIGIR wrote:
SIGIR pointed out that in its final report it stated that the financial benefits accomplished by SIGIR’s work included more than $1.61 billion from audits and over $191 million from investigations.
That works out to $2,329,268 recovered for the U.S. taxpayers per investigation, which is a pretty good return on investment. That is not counting perhaps another approximately $100 million we expect to recover by the time SIGIR closes.
I hasten to add that the scale of bad money collected by SIGIR is important not only for the dollar amount itself, but also as a sign of just how much freaking money was being spent/stolen during the Iraq campaign. The mind spins.
And for those in the Washington DC area, the SIGIR Inspector General Himself, Stuart Bowen, will speak today, Wednesday, March 27, 1:00 – 3:00, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Conference Room B1 A/B, 1800 K Street, NW, Washington DC, 20006.
If you can’t make the speech, you can read Learning From Iraq, A Final Report From the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction online and weep quietly alone at home as I will be doing.
It was with great fanfare a few years into the American invasion of Iraq that plans were announced to build America’s largest embassy, in the Green Zone in Baghdad. The embassy itself would cost over one billion dollars, and occupy more land than the Vatican. The U.S. ambassador of the time boasted it would be seen from space. As America’s largest embassy, no, the world’s largest embassy, it was to be a symbol of American might and power dropped smack dab into the heart of the Middle East. That it sat on land conquered– taken– from Arabs was part of the point.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was also a symbol that the State Department, left out of the Neocon fury of 2003, was going to be a player in Iraq’s future, and indeed in America’s broader plans for the Middle East. The military would soon withdraw (they thought) to a string of permanent bases large and small across Iraq, but the embassy would stand proud and big in Baghdad forever, full of important State Department staff doing important things for the United States. Daddy liked the State Department once again, and to make up for all those bad, bad things Daddy once said, had bought the State Department the world’s largest embassy as a welcome-back gift.
As the Iraq War crumbled underneath America, State still clung to the plan. Thousands of diplomats and contractors were flown in to fill the embassy which, even at its massive size, was still too small to house them all. At one point the State Department had close to 20,000 personnel on its pay roll in Iraq.
The war ended (for America) and the mighty U.S. military quietly slunk out of Iraq. The Obama administration began pretending like Iraq never really happened, devoting it no intellectual capitol and no bandwidth as it turned its attention to “winning” in Afghanistan. The Iraqis returned the favor, turning down American training programs and sidelining U.S. diplomats in favor of their Iranian counterparts. Everybody seemed to be reaching a new normal.
Everybody but State of course, which continued to staff the Baghdad Embassy as if it was the epicenter of the American Empire instead of an awkward mistake. A year ago State still had some 16,000 people in Baghdad. Even on the sad tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, State somehow still has 10,500 personnel on the ground. Finally, now, State has caught a glimmer of reality and ironically on the tenth anniversary date itself, announced that they will cut the head count to 5,500, of which over 4000 will be contractors and cooks. It is still a huge number of people, but it is slightly closer to the typical size of such a mission.
With personnel soon down to about one-fourth of capacity, one wonders what life in the sprawling U.S. Embassy compound must be like. With three empty offices for every occupied one, for a huge cafeteria and gym designed to serve thousands now catering to only hundreds at a time, the place must feel like one of America’s decayed downtown old cities, like Buffalo or Louisville. In the Green Zone, have they boarded up windows? Thrown white sheets over the furniture? Do they turn off street lights in some parts of the compound, as they do in abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit to save money?
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, once intended as a monument to American power in the heart of conquered Iraq, now looks just like our own decayed U.S. cities. Now there’s your symbolism, and while the State Department may not fully get it, the rest of the world likely does.
Because of this blog, I occasionally receive emails from people who also participated in the reconstruction programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most writers are civilians, a few military. With the writer’s permission, I publish some of the letters here.
Today’s I publish to call attention to the very real issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). All of us suffer from it, some more than others, some more aware of it than others. For me, I benefited from good care (which I had to pay for myself but it was worth it). I have also found most veterans’ groups I’ve run across welcoming– it takes all of 30 seconds to establish that we civilians experienced most of what they did and have more in common than we have apart. To be frank, writing the book and blog are also part of my catharsis. To anyone out there suffering, get help. It makes things better. Anyway, here’s the letter.
I’ve been reading your blog since its inception and ordered your book while serving with a PRT in Afghanistan. While devouring your book in my “hooch”, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Everything you reported on in Iraq was happening AGAIN in Afghanistan. You actually saved me the time of writing my own book “How I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people”. I felt as if I had found the Holy Grail and ran around my PRT encouraging others to read We Meant Well. My State Department colleague was less than thrilled and was busy bidding on her next assignment while my PRT military colleagues were so burned out (due to multiple deployments) that they either didn’t care or knew that in true military tradition they were there to follow orders and helpless to do anything about the hellhole we found ourselves in. I was stunned that no one appreciated what I had found. They wanted me to quit talking and just do my time (i.e..stop being a trouble maker). Some members of the PRT were in denial and believed COIN was working while others knew that we were failing and didn’t need your experience to remind them.
It has taken me more than a year to write to you as I’ve been dealing with a great deal of anger and feared I would send you a 10 page rant outlining the insanity of wasted lives and resources that I witnessed during my 12 month deployment. I was offered additional time in Afghanistan but declined. I was afraid my already mild PTSD would be completely unmanageable after another deployment. Our well-deserving veterans are fortunate to have the VA to access once they come home (although I’m told the waiting list for mental health services is horrendous) and find other vets to talk to. These wars have now created yet another fine mess. There are now well over 200,000 people (from various nations) which include former diplomats, civilians who worked directly for the USG, contractors, NGO aid workers and even journalists that come home to no support whatsoever. I can only imagine the broken marriages, broken homes, alcoholism, isolation and other social ills that plague those with full blown PTSD and TBI. To my knowledge, no one is writing about that or even acknowledging it exists outside the military.
Unlike your “no experience necessary” chapter, I did have years of international development experience. But, I saw plenty that fell into the “no experience necessary” category and it was frightening. Not to mention the out of shape and the overweight (of all ages) who could not get in and out of an MRAP without assistance. No wonder civ-mil had its problems. This is all so terribly sad. I’m still trying to figure out a way to move forward after becoming so disillusioned with my government and the military. It’s now taken me three months to send this.
In addition to expressing gratitude for your book, I’m also writing to you in memory of the USAID officer, serving in Kunar Province, who was killed in August 2012 (link added). I find it appalling that his death and those of his three military colleagues got about 10 seconds of TV news coverage in the states. If anyone tells me that they died for my freedom, I may seriously lose it. From what I can conclude, they died for the profits of defense contractors, the careers of some high ranking military officials, the pockets of crooked Afghans, and most of all for self serving politicians and diplomats. My freedom had nothing to do with it. You tried to tell them but they didn’t listen. Instead, they tried to kill the messenger. Without knowing it, you’ve been a good friend these past 21 months and I apologize for taking so long to say thank you. Best of luck as you continue to fight for justice.
I meant well,
Name Withheld by Request
Courtesy of Cryptome, a picture speaks for itself…
As a former BDE ops officer and former MiTT team leader, I can say I know Iraq. Your book was dead on. We were there at the same time. I especially liked you comparing the KBR guys to the dudes that won’t stop hanging around high school. Yep, that is what we all thought of those ass clowns. My brothers fought in Iraq and I lost my best friend to an IED in 2004. Anyways, thanks for the fast read and the laugh-out-loud moments.
Everyone is special in his/her own way, so take what applies below and leave the rest.
– Your State Department person is unlikely to have had any military service, or any training into the way the military works. Unless you clearly do not have to, make sure s/he understands who out-ranks whom, what acronyms mean and what will be expected of him/her at a meeting (sit quietly, agree with General, offer real options, etc.). Your Statie is unlikely to arrive knowing the difference between the S-2 and the S-4.
– At the same time, State people usually have a lot of experience blending in to foreign cultures. S/he may talk the talk like a 25 year O-6, but unless you clearly do not have to, make sure s/he understands who out-ranks whom, what acronyms mean and what will be expected of him/her at a meeting (sit quietly, agree with General, offer real options, etc.). Some State people will inadvertently overdo it, maybe too many war movies, so it is OK to advise against calling the visiting CSM “Sarge” or trying to out profane the “guys” in the “unit.”
– Inside an embassy, almost everyone but the ambassador calls each other by his/her first name. People are “asked” to do things and expected to understand when “ask” means “an order.” Even though State people may say “I’d like you to…” or “If you get a chance…” those words may or may not mean what they sound like. It is usually considered a bit uncool or crass to issue “orders” or “demand” things even when that is what you are clearly doing. State people can read these things like dogs understand each other by sniffing, but you may not get what’s going on. If a State person says “It is my strong recommendation…” for example, that means “Goddammit, do it now.” “I’ll consider it” or “That requires some study” are the same as “I’m busy that night” in the dating world.
– Explain to your Statie who to talk to about problems. S/he will have at least courtesy meetings regularly with your boss’ boss and that would be a bad place for the Statie to casually bring up a minor complaint about his CHU. While some Staties are indeed out to jerk you around, in most cases it is benign ignorance. Tell your Statie to come to you personally with any issues, however small.
– Telling your Statie to pack for a helo trip, or be prepared to overnight means nothing to them. Be specific: one small backpack you can carry yourself, boots not shoes, bring a sleeping bag, etc.
– State does not do Powerpoint well. If you are expecting slides or a presentation, get someone to help your Statie get ready. Be very specific: if you only need one slide, say that. If you need photos, a chart, whatever, don’t assume, specify.
– State is a very vertical organization. Everyone is at least a Major and thinks they are a Colonel. At the same time, very little authority is explicit or delegated. Expect even minor decisions to take time and be run up the chain. Whereas a decision run up through channels to a Four Star is a big deal, it is not uncommon in State for even relatively minor things to be “cleared” by the Deputy Chief of Mission or Ambassador as part of State’s deeply ingrained CYA culture. It may not mean that much, so don’t over-read into it.
– The State Department culture is very clearly comfortable with men and women in all roles. Sexual harassment is not tolerated in any form, even what some might call “friendly kidding around.” Gay Staties are very openly accepted and acknowledged. Ambassadors will travel with their partners on government travel. While usually age and rank in State track, State does accept entry-levels of all ages, and the promotion system can send relatively young people into higher positions. Your Statie’s attitude on these things may differ from yours.
– State rarely has any money. Think of the relationship like an old-timey date– you’ll pay. Most State people are encouraged to believe that DOD has unlimited personnel, money and resources. If you say something can’t be done for lack of these, however truthful, your State person will think you are not telling the truth.
– There is no physical fitness requirement at State. Medical clearance is mostly a negative thing– the Statie doesn’t have a life-threatening heart condition– and not a positive thing. Assess the physical demands of a task before sending a State person out into the field or make provisions to accommodate.
– Commitment will vary. Personnel rules at State require most employees to “volunteer” to do some time in conflict zones whether they really want to or not. Many lack the service ethic. Don’t be too surprised if your Statie bitches openly about having to be there and does very little. Perhaps offer the option to “backstop the operation from the FOB” instead of going outside the wire?
– At the same time, many “field” positions have been created by State to satisfy some Washington-level political need, and your Statie, even if pumped-up herself, may not have anything pushed to her from the embassy and will need to be kept busy.
– Be honest and clear about living conditions. Most of the State people will be flexible if prepared right, but simply saying “we’ll be at COP Hammer for two days” is not enough. Best to say “two days unless weather closes down the helos, it’ll be four to a dry CHU, probably MREs for two out of three meals, no good Internet.”
– State does not issue gear to its people. Whatever your Statie has s/he bought at LL Bean and carried over in a suitcase. The shopping list was spread like chlamydia, from the last Statie to the next. It is not their fault. Help them if appropriate, maybe even a shopping trip to the Exchange. Your Statie having the right boots will make everyone’s life easier. At the same time, gently turn the volume down from 11 for the Statie festooned with belts and web gear and GPS’ and patches and pouches.
– Information sharing at State is poor. Information is hoarded like loot, to be exchanged and traded. Don’t assume your Statie has been briefed, is informed or has shared. Check, or take the responsibility necessary to ensure your mission works. That one part of the embassy knows something does not mean anyone else there knows it. Info sharing in/out of the Political and Security sections is notoriously poor.
– State is big on “consultations,” in person chats among itself. State people are paranoid about their written communications being thrown back at them (Wikileaks) and will always worry about Freedom of Information Action requests and refer to fears that “this’ll end up in the Washington Post.” Be prepared for them to have to spend a lot of time at the home office figuring out what’s up, and don’t expect to get anything sensitive done in writing, even if classified. More than the military, what State says on paper and what they do in practice vary.
– The biggest brownie points within State are given for “reporting,” often long, literary pieces “from the field” (again, see Wikileaks). If you want to make your Statie look good, throw him/her some tidbits or expose them to some tribal meeting or something to report on. As noted, don’t expect secrecy, but often State prizes most highly slice of life pieces anyway, “taking the pulse of the people” kind of soft stuff. This reporting is referred to as a cable, the term coming from long ago (last year) when actual telegrams were sent via wire back to Washington.
– Almost everything that matters in State is affected by the very specific words on the yearly performance evaluation, EER. Your Statie will be consumed by this throughout the spring, as preparation and negotiations (it is an interactive process) begin in March or so and continue into May. This is the most stressful time of the year for most State people. Especially at the lower levels where the Statie lacks a clear “corridor reputation,” what is said on the EER will significantly affect them. Similarly, State’s next-assignment system is equally hazardous and complex to navigate. This is usually done starting in late summer into early winter, and is also a huge source of anxiety and State stress, FYI.
– All Statie’s are assigned to “cones,” area of specialty. The formal ones are political, economic, consular, public diplomacy or administrative. Security is part of admin but really a world of its own. Ask your Statie about her cone as an icebreaker. Like in the military, “where have you been assigned before?” is a very easy neutral question. Statie’s usually like to say city names instead of country or base names, so it’s Tokyo, not Japan or Yokosuka.
– State personnel assigned to the embassy often do not want to travel into the field, and/or cannot arrange travel out. It may not mean anything that no one senior from the embassy ever visits, or that your Statie’s every meeting with his boss takes place when summoned to the embassy. When seniors do visit, they may feel they should only see their own State person to avoid bothering you and slip back out. If protocol requires a courtesy call or a briefing to senior leaders, best to make this clear way ahead of time if possible. If a senior embassy person does come by on short notice and fails to meet with the Colonel, it may mean nothing. In most cases no harm is intended.
– At the same time, it will be good relations with your Statie to have him sit in on your higher-ups visits. S/he’ll report back to the embassy and brownie points will be awarded for the “access,” especially if the Statie fancies himself a “liaison.”
– In war zones, State offers its people usually three R&Rs a year. No temps or replacements will be sent. There is usually no one in the co-pilot’s seat waiting to fill in, and if there is a deputy s/he will not take charge. Plan for long gaps when whatever it is that your Statie is doing won’t be done. State rarely allows for any significant left-seat/right-seat hand off time. Overlaps, if they occur at all, are usually a matter of a few informal days as the incumbent tries to get out as soon as possible by announcing how well-prepared her new colleague is.
BONUS: A now-classic 1998 essay, DEFENSE IS FROM MARS STATE IS FROM VENUS, by Colonel Rickey L. Rife of the Army War College, is well-worth reading, especially for its still-relevant discussion of decision making styles at State and within the military.
A more official happy-talk depiction of State for a DOD audience is also somewhat entertaining.
Despite the utter failure of our reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, one thing is certain: our future wars will continue to feature civilian-military mixed efforts. This is the sadistic high school football coach’s version of “we’re gonna do this over and over until you losers get it right.”
Getting along is not easy; military personnel will always vastly out number civilians and so most of the adapting needs to happen on our side of the equation, not theirs. The military has its own culture, which you do not share.
Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson has an article in Small Wars Journal aimed at helping civilians who work with the US military to understand it. His piece is very good, and worth reading, but does not go far enough. Some additional ideas, in no particular order:
1) Earn respect by being very good at whatever it is you are doing there. Don’t expect second chances to move from the dumb ass to the useful category. Don’t be a know it all either, especially if your knowledge is mostly book learning.
2) 0900 means be there no later than 0845. Don’t operate on civilian time. If you’re late for a movement, you’ll be left behind.
3) If you are entitled to privileges beyond what the military gets, share if you are allowed (sat phone, laptop, movies, books) or keep quiet about it (booze).
4) Follow the rules even if you can get away with not following the rules to earn respect. Shave, keep your hair cut, don’t dress like a slob.
5) Start off formal, work back toward casual. Expect to be invited to call senior officers by their first names. Expect to decline to do so unless in private.
6) Anything to do with real military stuff, such as defensive plans or drills, shut up, pay attention and follow along. Don’t end up dead weight that has to be carried along.
7) Speaking of which, always be able to and always do carry your own gear. Even if you are short, weak and slight, hump what is yours and do not let a soldier carry it for you (they will try). If you can’t carry it, leave it behind. Check how much room you’ll have for stuff on various forms of transport, like MRAPs and different model helos.
8 ) Expect to be tested. Expect things to be thrown your way to see what you’ll do– meet deadlines, help out, or skip things and get away with being lazy. Soldiers have to figure out who they can trust and who they can’t.
9) Socialize. If you are one of many civilians, try hard not to split off into a civilian group at meals.
10) Adopt a sports team if you don’t follow one. There is not a more neutral topic in the military than sports. It’ll be a while before you can argue politics or news, but sports is always a decent topic and opinions are encouraged. You don’t have to be a walking encyclopedia, just be able to join in. Surprise people by being “normal.”
11) Listen carefully to how soldiers complain. Complaining is a right of being in uniform, but you must be careful not to exceed the boundaries, or to make it seem like you are not being cared for.
12) Do not criticize another soldier, even if the troops are doing it. They’re insiders, you’re not. Do feel free to poke fun at yourself to show that you are not an asshole like the last civilian. Just because soldiers of different races can make racial jokes with one another, don’t think you can.
13) If told to wear body armor, or a helmet, or gloves or whatever, just do it. Don’t try to get away with not. There may or may not be a good reason, but that is not your concern.
14) If you don’t understand an acronym, ask. Otherwise people will expect that you understood and expect you to do whatever is expected. Nobody will translate everything for you and as long as they do you are an outsider.
15) Don’t play soldier. Don’t wear military gear you don’t need, don’t over use slang or profanity, don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, or know from books. Be polite and respectful but don’t overdo the Sirs and Ma’ams. Be who you are, though maybe a slightly more laid back and in-shape version of who you are.
16) If you agree to do something, absolutely do it. This is not an environment to say “Let’s get together sometime” without meaning it.
17) Share hardships. Expect to always be offered the best food, the best sleeping arrangements, the ride instead of walking. Decline sometimes, say yes when it seems better than pissing someone off by declining (hard to judge– that’s why you get the big bucks).
18) Special for State Department heroes: don’t ask officers to fetch coffee for you, don’t wear bow ties, don’t speak in passive-aggressive slights, don’t complain when your shoes get dusty, don’t wear white pants to the field, don’t show up without a Powerpoint, don’t ask soldiers to take notes for you, don’t talk about your next assignment to Paris, overall just don’t be a dick and make it harder on the rest of us.
A few years ago, I retired the Department of Health and Human Services. During my last years of federal service, I was an international assignee.
Because I was both new to and naive about USG “foreign service” my tour was eye-opening. As I found myself routinely unable to complete “impossible tasks” assigned to me, I felt obliged to “explain” to my foreign service superiors what they failed to grasp about laboratory work. Slowly I realized that Van Buren is correct: my task was to spend money. I was supposed to “demonstrate” that the money had “been spent”. In my case, I was supposed to demonstrate that I had “built laboratory capacity” and “strengthened laboratory infrastructure”. Because laboratory-testing demonstrations are not as dramatic as chicken-processing demonstrations, I am especially grateful for his book. He tells the story I have to tell on a grander scale and in a more entertaining way.
I wish that those who understood the pretentiousness of our “do something” foreign policy could hear what Van Buren has to say. He is not the only foreign service assignee to have witnessed our national ineptitude.
A new review of the paperback edition of We Meant Well is available on the site Political Theology:
As a disabled veteran of combat service in Vietnam (I was a grunt), I find most observations and/or writing about war to border on the absurd if not totally out of touch with what it’s really like to have the choice (non-choice?) offered in times of battle. Mr. Van Buren has the integrity and intelligence to allow those who were there to tell their stories without embellishment or censorship and recognizes that for the grunts and the Iraqi’s this debacle was neither glorious nor successful. He even dares to tell the story of a suicide of a soldier and how that effected his unit. And he isn’t afraid to see the absurdity of everyday life as lived “on the ground” and not in the embassy. If you will pardon the personal memory, his description of a visit to the “Green Zone” reminded this vet of trips out of the “field” and into the rear while doing my time in Vietnam. Nothing reminds one more of the absurdity and idiocy of war than the contrast between those who plan and those who implement.
This is a book which Presidents and Presidential candidates should read before they decide that we need to invade and/or dominate a society/country if for no other reason than to remind them that cultures are created not by consultants or policy wonks but by history and those who participate in that history. And it is a book to be read by church folk, believers that we might think about and be confronted with Micah’s notion that God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Read the entire review at Political Theology.
Leon Panetta declared that the US is at a “turning point” in the Afghan War. “Turning Point,” like “robust,” is one of those words that when used by someone in government should make you run away. Still, it is the holiday season and we want to be light of tone, I’l let this one pass for Leon given that he just shut the lights off as the last US soldier left Iraq.
And what better way to sum up some early history of the Iraq invasion and celebrate the holidays at the same time than with the gift of music. Here is the book for my upcoming operatic version of We Meant Well.
1945-1973: several Vietnam Wars play out, with the Japanese, French and finally, the Americans. US loses over 50,000 soldiers in what Lyndon Johnson calls, “that bitch of a war,” failing in fighting a counterinsurgency. US convinces itself the anti-colonialist, nationalist North Vietnamese insurgents are the spearhead of a global Communist attack against the US and its allies, the domino theory. People say, “If we don’t fight them over there, we’ll fight them in California.” Many terrible things happen, some lessons are learned.
Pause; Overture Resumes
Several of what author Peter Beinart calls “Potemkin Vietnams” occur, in Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Kosovo and the like. Some lessons previously learned are forgotten.
1980: Iran-Iraq war starts.
1984-87: US protects non-Iranian tankers in the Gulf from Iranian attack, allows Iraq to attack Iranian tankers.
1987: Iraq mistakenly attacks the USS Stark, kills thirty-seven American sailors. All is forgiven as Iraq is a US friend engaged in killing Iranians.
1988: Iran-Iraq war ends in a tie.
1990: Iraq invades Kuwait.
1991: Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm pushes Iraq out of Kuwait. Not much else changes, most previous lessons are forgotten, new lessons mislearned that US military power alone can quickly and cleanly change complex world events. This strategy will prove as useful as one that seeks to pay a mortgage by buying lottery tickets.
Curtain Raises to Reveal Smoking Ruins of Twin Towers on Stage
October 3, 2001: US semi-invades Afghanistan and, fighting mostly with proxy local forces, pushes Taliban out of power. US takes bin Laden’s bait and stirs up wrath of Muslim world.
January 21, 2002: In his State of the Union address, Bush discovers the Axis of Evil and starts an open-ended global war.
March 19, 2003: US invades Iraq. Iraq becomes everything bin Laden hoped for — US ground forces killing Muslim civilians live on satellite TV. The war that makes little sense in the aftermath of 9/11 except as revenge.
May 1, 2003: Mission Accomplished. Bush’s pouch featured on an aircraft carrier.
“This month will be a political turning point for Iraq,” Douglas Feith, July 2003
“We’ve reached another great turning point,” Bush, November 2003
December 14, 2003: We got him. Saddam is captured.
Curtain closes as Americans cheer loudly at happy ending of disgraced evil dictator Noriega bin Laden Saddam (played by James Edwards Olmos)
“That toppling of Saddam Hussein… was a turning point for the Middle East,” Bush, March 2004
April 28, 2004: Images of torture at Abu Ghraib become public; US stirs up wrath of Muslim world by continuing occupation of Iraq. After failing to take the bait in Afghanistan, US accomplishes al-Qaeda’s goal of permanently pissing off Muslims everywhere while entering Vietnam-like counterinsurgency quagmire.
“Turning Point in Iraq,” The Nation, April 2004
“A turning point will come two weeks from today,” Bush, June 2004
June 28, 2004: US transfers sovereignty to Iraq. Bush writes note to Condi saying “Let freedom reign!”
“Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point,” Columnist Max Boot, July 2004
January 12, 2005: WMD search in Iraq is declared over. None found.
“Tomorrow the world will witness a turning point in the history of Iraq,” Bush, January 2005
“The Iraqi election of January 30, 2005… will turn out to have been a genuine turning point,” William Kristol, February 2005
“On January 30th in Iraq, the world witnessed … a major turning point,” Rumsfeld, February 2005
May 30, 2005: Dick Cheney tells Larry King, “The insurgency is in its last throes.” Larry mentions radio and TV were invented just so more people could hear his voice.
October 15, 2005: Iraqis vote to ratify Constitution. Many, many photos of Iraqis with purple fingers showing they voted.
October 25, 2005: Bush states Iraq is the central front in the Global War on Terror and Muslim extremists fighting in Iraq seek to create an Islamic Caliphate stretching from Indonesia to Spain. This essentially duplicates the Vietnam-era domino theory.
December 15, 2005: Iraqis vote to elect members of Iraqi Assembly. Many, many photos of Iraqis with purple fingers showing they voted.
“I believe may be seen as a turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.” Senator Joe Lieberman, December 2005
“The elections were the turning point. … 2005 was the turning point,” Cheney, December 2005
“2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq… and the history of freedom,” Bush, December 2005
Curtain closes as Americans cheer loudly at happy voting images.
Intermission while audience ponders attack on Iran.
February 22, 2006: The Golden Mosque in Samarra is badly damaged in a bomb attack that ignites the Sunni-Shia sectarian war.
“We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it’s a new chapter in our partnership,” Bush, May 2006
“We have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush, May 2006
June 15, 2006: US troops killed in Iraq reaches 2500.
“This is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.” Bush, August 2006
September 24, 2006: Bush calls Iraq violence “just a comma” in history.
October 4, 2006: Al-Qaeda letter says “The most important thing is you continue in your jihad in Iraq… Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest, with God’s permission.”
“When a key Republican senator comes home from Iraq and says the US has to re-think its strategy, is this a new turning point?” NBC Nightly News, October 2006
November 9, 2006: Iraqi health minister reports 150,000 Iraqis killed so far.
December 30, 2006: Saddam is hanged.
January 3, 2007: Death toll of US soldiers in Iraq reaches 3,000.
“Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq.” American Enterprise Institute, January 2007
Curtain closes as Americans cheer loudly at death porn images of Saddam’s body on TV.
January 10, 2007: Bush announces Surge.
January 11, 2007: Republican senator Chuck Hagel calls Surge “The most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.”
“Shrine Bombing as War’s Turning Point Debated,” Tom Ricks, March 2007
April 16, 2007: US dead reach 3300.
June 18, 2007: Foreign Policy Magazine shows Iraq ranks second on its failed state index.
September 5, 2007: Bush tells the press “We’re kicking ass” in Iraq.
“This Bush visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror,” Frederick W. Kagan, September 2007
“Bush Defends Iraq War in Speech… he touted the surge as a turning point in a war he acknowledged was faltering a year ago,” New York Times, March 2008
July 22, 2008: Surge ends.
“The success of the surge in Iraq will go down in history as a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda,” The Telegraph, December 2008
February 6, 2009: Another election, more photos of inked fingers.
March 7, 2010: Yet another election, more photos of inked fingers.
June 2, 2010: US deaths breach 4,400.
September 1, 2010: Obama declares combat operations over, albeit while leaving 50,000 troops occupying 92 bases in Iraq. The official name of the war changes from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn. The weather remains the same.
Curtain closes, then reopens with entire cast on stage for finale.
On June 8, 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader who led a brutal insurgency that included online beheadings, killed in an airstrike. According to Fox News:
US President George W. Bush said Zarqawi’s death “is a severe blow to al-Qaeda and it is a significant victory in the war on terror.”
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the killing of Zarqawi was “enormously important” for the fight against terror in Iraq and around the world. “Let there be no doubt the fact he is dead is a significant victory in the battle against terrorism in that country and I would say worldwide,” Rumsfeld said.
On April 19, 2010, four years later, the two top al-Qaeda in Iraq figures were killed. According to the AP:
US forces commander Gen. Raymond Odierno praised the operation. “The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.”
On August 25, 2010, just four months later, the Army issued a press release titled “Iraq Attacks Show al-Qaeda Remains as Threat,” concluding “A wave of attacks in Iraq today demonstrates that al-Qaeda in Iraq is still capable of operating.”
Curtain remains up with house lights on as Act comes to a close. Audience removes shoes and is searched for al-Qaeda sympathizers.
I was so thankful that you wrote such an exacting account of what was really going on over in Iraq. I was in Iraq in 2005 and saw first hand the waste fraud and abuse going on not only by the state dept. but even more so by the Army and the Army Corps of Engineers. You just barely touched the tip of the ice-berg. As a lowly GS-8 I tried in vain to get someone in the upper management to do something about what was going on. I had sent e-mails to my supervisor and as high as General Strock. Never got one return email.
It was as if there was an elephant in the room syndrome. I have been so angry ever since my tour there. I don’t trust the military command, and the Corps of Engineers is full of really incompetent people. I’m also ashamed to say there were so many people over there who really wanted to get things done but were so
hampered by management and military command, but didn’t have the integrity to speak out for fear of being sent home or getting in trouble with their sponsoring agency.
Thank you again. Your book should be required reading for every politician and every tax paying American.
When I did time as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader in Iraq, “womens’ empowerment” was a major theme for us. As part of rebuilding Iraq, we were supposed to encourage women to throw off their hijabs and/or shackles and vote, own businesses, that sort of thing. The Iraqi women (never mind the men) never seemed too engaged on the issue, but that did not stop us in our efforts. I’ve got a couple of chapters in We Meant Well on the topic, highlighting the disastrous final “Chick Event” held, as well as the equally unsuccessful “Sheep for Widows” and “Bees for Widows” projects.
Despite our efforts at liberation (womens’ and otherwise), Iraq seems to be slipping at least sideways if not backwards on these fronts.
As reported by Iraqi blogger Kassakhoon, and according to the Al-Mada newspaper, a state-run woman-related body has issued dictations on what is not allowed to be worn by female employees in government ministries and institutions. The daily posted a document issued by the Supreme National Committee to Develop the Iraqi Woman in which it refers to previous documents from the Cabinet’s Secretariat General and the Oil Ministry dated back to last October. Banned clothing now includes tight body shirts, tight pants, colorful and showy shirts, short skirts and slipper-like flat shoes.
The Sioux City Iowa Journal, not a typical liberal left outlet, sadly concludes that the war in Iraq was not worth it:
Ending with little fanfare or celebration and no longer a front page story, it is now fair to ask the question, “Was it worth it?” Unless you can check reasoning and logic at the door, the answer seems to be a resounding “no.”
The article goes on to ask:
Who paid the price for this war? Many. The numbers are staggering: 4,487 U.S. soldiers gave their lives in Iraq, 32,753 were wounded, 103,160 – 113,728 Iraqi deaths have been documented (other estimates are as high as 654,965 – Iraqi record-keeping is ad hoc at best), five million Iraqi children were orphaned as of 2007 and sadly, the number of casualties will continue to increase as post-combat-related suicides continue at an alarming rate and families cope with the difficulties of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Finally, the article references We Meant Well on the failure of reconstruction:
The attempted reconstruction of Iraq was the largest nation-building program in history, even exceeding the cost of the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II. At a cost to taxpayers of more than $63 billion, the plan was lavishly funded, yet fraught with pervasive waste, inefficiency, mistaken judgments, and flawed policies. It spent money indiscriminately in the hopes that some good might come from it. (For a detailed account, read “We Meant Well” by Peter Van Buren.)
So how has all this war and “rebuilding” worked for the country of Iraq? Not so well. Sectarian violence and random killings are pervasive. The government appears largely dysfunctional and is the 10th most “failed” country in the world. Sixty to 70 percent of Iraqi children suffer psychological problems. Malnutrition rates are high, safe drinking water is rare and electricity sporadic. And, they hate us.
A very sad legacy. Read the entire article online now at The Sioux City Iowa Journal.
Some images remain like scars on my memory. One of the last things I saw in Iraq, where I spent a year with the Department of State helping squander some of the $44 billion American taxpayers put up to “reconstruct” that country, were horses living semi-wild among the muck and garbage of Baghdad. Those horses had once raced for Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and seven years after their “liberation” by the American invasion of 2003, they were still wandering that unraveling, unreconstructed urban landscape looking, like many other Iraqis, for food.
I flew home that same day, a too-rapid change of worlds, to a country in which the schools of my hometown in Ohio could not afford to pay teachers a decent wage. Once great cities were rotting away as certainly as if they were in Iraq, where those horses were scrabbling to get by. To this day I’m left pondering these questions: Why has the United States spent so much money and time so disastrously trying to rebuild occupied nations abroad, while allowing its own infrastructure to crumble untended? Why do we even think of that as “policy”?
The Good War(s)
With the success of the post-World War II Marshall Plan in Europe and the economic miracle in Japan, rebuilding other countries gained a certain imperial patina. Both took relatively little money and time. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan cost only $32 billion and $17 billion, respectively (in 2010 dollars), in large part because both had been highly educated, industrialized powerhouses before their wartime destruction.
In 2003, still tumescent with post-9/11 rage and dreams of global glory, anything seemed possible to the men and women of the Bush administration, who would cite the German and Japanese examples of just what the U.S. could do as they entered Iraq. Following what seemed like a swift military defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the plan had gotten big and gone long. It was nothing less than this: remake the entire Middle East in the American image.
The country’s mighty military was to sweep through Iraq, then Syria — Marines I knew told me personally that they were issued maps of Syria in March 2003 — then Iran, quickly set up military bases and garrisons (“enduring camps”), create Washington-friendly governments, pour in American technology and culture, bring in the crony corporations under the rubric of “reconstruction,” privatize everything, stand up new proxy militaries under the rubric of regime change, and forever transform the region.
Once upon a time, the defeated Japanese and Germans had become allies and, better yet, consumers. Now, almost six decades later, no one in the Bush administration had a doubt the same would happen in Iraq — and the Middle East would follow suit at minimal cost, creating the greatest leap forward for a Pax Americana since the Spanish-American War. Added bonus: a “sea of oil.”
By 2010, when I wrote We Meant Well, the possibility that some level of success might be close by still occupied some official minds. American boots remained on the ground in Mesopotamia and looked likely to stay on for years in at least a few of the massive permanent bases we had built there. A sort-of elected government was more or less in place, and in the press interviews I did in response to my book I was regularly required to defend its thesis that reconstruction in Iraq had failed almost totally, and that the same process was going down in Afghanistan as well. It was sometimes a tough sell. After all, how could we truly fail, being plucky Americans, historically equipped like no one else with plenty of bootstraps and know-how and gumption.
Failure Every Which Way
Now, it’s definitive. Reconstruction in Iraq has failed. Dismally. The U.S. couldn’t even restore the country’s electric system or give a majority of its people potable water. The accounts of that failure still pour out. Choose your favorites; here are just two recent ones of mine: a report that a $200 million year-long State Department police training program had shown no results (none, nada), in part because the Iraqis had been completely uninterested in it; and a long official list of major reconstruction projects uncompleted, with billions of taxpayer dollars wasted, all carefully catalogued by the now-defunct Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction.
Failure, in fact, was the name of the game when it came to the American mission. Just tote up the score: the Iraqi government is moving ever closer to Iran; the U.S. occupation, which built 505 bases in the country with the thought that U.S. troops might remain garrisoned there for generations, ended without a single base in U.S. hands (none, nada); no gushers of cheap oil leapt USA-wards nor did profits from the above leap into the coffers of American oil companies; and there was a net loss of U.S. prestige and influence across the region. And that would just be the beginning of the list from hell.
Even former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s accomplice in the invasion of Iraq and the woman after whom Chevron Oil once named a double-hulled oil tanker, now admits that “we didn’t understand how broken Iraq was as a society and we tried to rebuild Iraq from Baghdad out. And we really should have rebuilt Iraq outside Baghdad in. We should have worked with the tribes. We should have worked with the provinces. We should have had smaller projects than the large ones that we had.”
Strange that when I do media interviews now, only two years later, nobody even thinks to ask “Did we succeed in Iraq?” or “Will reconstruction pay off?” The question du jour has finally shifted to: “Why did we fail?”
Corruption and Vanity Projects
Why exactly did we fail to reconstruct Iraq, and why are we failing in Afghanistan? (Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, is the Afghan version of We Meant Well in detailing the catastrophic outcomes of reconstruction in that never-ending war.) No doubt more books, and not a few theses, will be written, noting the massive corruption, the overkill of pouring billions of dollars into poor, occupied countries, the disorganization behind the effort, the pointlessly self-serving vanity projects — Internet classes in towns without electricity — and the abysmal quality of the greedy contractors, on-the-make corporations, and lame bureaucrats sent in to do the job. Serious lessons will be extracted, inevitable comparisons will be made to post-World War II Germany and Japan and think tanks will sprout like mushrooms on rotted wood to try to map out how to do it better next time.
For the near term a reluctant acknowledgment of our failing economy may keep the U.S. out of major reconstruction efforts abroad. Robert Gates, who succeeded Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, told a group of West Point cadets that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Still, the desire to remake other countries — could Syria be next? — hovers in the background of American foreign policy, just waiting for the chance to rise again.
The standard theme of counterinsurgency theory (COIN in the trade) is “terrorists take advantage of hunger and poverty.” Foreigners building stuff is, of course, the answer, if only we could get it right. Such is part of the justification for the onrushing militarization of Africa, which carries with it a reconstruction component (even if on a desperately reduced scale, thanks to the tightening finances of the moment). There are few historical examples of COIN ever really working and many in which failed, but the idea is too attractive and its support industry too well established for it to simply go away.
Why Reconstruction at All?
Then there’s that other why question: Why, in our zeal to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, we never considered spending a fraction as much to rebuild Detroit, New Orleans, or Cleveland (projects that, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq in their heyday, have never enjoyed widespread support)?
I use the term “reconstruction” for convenience, but it is important to understand what the U.S. means by it. Once corruption and pure greed are strained out (most projects in Iraq and Afghanistan were simply vehicles for contractors to suck money out of the government) and the vanity projects crossed off (building things and naming them after the sitting ambassador was a popular suck-up technique), what’s left is our desire for them to be like us.
While, dollar-for-dollar, corruption and contractor greed account for almost all the money wasted, the idea that, deep down, we want the people we conquer to become mini-versions of us accounts for the rest of the drive and motivation. We want them to consume things as a lifestyle, shit in nice sewer systems, and send everyone to schools where, thanks to the new textbooks we’ve sponsored, they’ll learn more about… us. This explains why we funded pastry-making classes to try to turn Iraqi women into small business owners, why an obsession with holding mediagenic elections in Iraq smothered nascent grassroots democracy (remember all those images of purple fingers?), why displacing family farms by introducing large-scale agribusiness seemed so important, and so forth.
By becoming versions of us, the people we conquer would, in our eyes, redeem themselves from being our enemies. Like a perverse view of rape, reconstruction, if it ever worked, would almost make it appear that they wanted to be violated by the American military so as to benefit from being rebuilt in the American fashion. From Washington’s point of view, there’s really no question here, no why at all. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to be us? And that, in turn, justifies everything. Think of it as an up-to-date take on that classic line from Vietnam, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Americans have always worn their imperialism uncomfortably, even when pursuing it robustly. The British were happy to carve out little green enclaves of home, and to tame — brutally, if necessary — the people they conquered. The United States is different, maybe because of the lip service politicians need to pay to our founding ideals of democracy and free choice.
We’re not content merely to tame people; we want to change them, too, and make them want it as well. Fundamentalist Muslims will send their girls to school, a society dominated by religion will embrace consumerism, and age-old tribal leaders will give way to (U.S.-friendly, media-savvy) politicians, even while we grow our archipelago of military bases and our corporations make out like bandits. It’s our way of reconciling Freedom and Empire, the American Way. Only problem: it doesn’t work. Not for a second. Not at all. Nothing. Nada.
From this point of view, of course, not spending “reconstruction” money at home makes perfect sense. Detroit, et al., already are us. Free choice is in play, as citizens of those cities “choose” not to get an education and choose to allow their infrastructure to fade. From an imperial point of view it makes perfectly good sense. Erecting a coed schoolhouse in Kandahar or a new sewer system in Fallujah offers so many more possibilities to enhance empire. The home front is old news, with growth limited only to reviving a status quo at huge cost.
Once it becomes clear that reconstruction is for us, not them, its purpose to enrich our contractors, fuel our bureaucrats’ vanity, and most importantly, justify our imperial actions, why it fails becomes a no-brainer. It has to fail (not that we really care). They don’t want to be us. They have been them for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They may welcome medicines that will save their children’s lives, but hate the culture that the U.S. slipstreams in like an inoculation with them.
Failure in the strict sense of the word is not necessarily a problem for Washington. Our purpose is served by the appearance of reconstructing. We need to tell ourselves we tried, and those (dark, dirty, uneducated, Muslim, terrorist, heathen) people we just ran over with a tank actually screwed this up. And OK, sure, if a few well-connected contractors profit along the way, more power to them.
Here’s the bottom line: a nation spends its resources on what’s important to it. Failed reconstruction elsewhere turns out to be more important to us than successful reconstruction here at home. Such is the American way of empire.
The default media plan at State is to follow anything negative in the press with a planted puff piece. Rather than tackle the facts in a negative story (seeking to refute them with other information, or to make corrections), State’s modus is to seek ink that just says everything is actually wonderful, without mentioning the offending original articles.
Following a scathing Associated Press investigation into the failure of State to reconstruct Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake (Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, $329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery), State first tried an “Op-Ed” by the ambassador blithely mumbling that all was well. That was back in late July.
It took almost a month more, but State did finally select its author for what appears to be a real puff piece, in this case some hack named David Brown at the hometown Washington Post (slogan: still dining out on that Watergate thing). Brown’s work at the Post has been mostly on health issues, mainly HIV/AIDS, with the odd bit about Warren Buffet’s prostrate (not good) and Dick Cheney’s artificial heart (“doing exceedingly well”). As such, he was obviously the perfect guy to write authoritatively on reconstruction in Haiti.
Without too much surprise, Brown tells us of the wonderful work State, via its USAID arm, has done in one micro-neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. The short version is that in this one neighborhood, 500 people have new houses, lots of locals were employed to do the work, and civic improvements accompanied the new homes. It is a real success story. Read it yourself.
Here are the questions I sent to the Washington Post Ombudsman about the article. Should I receive a reply, I will feature it on this blog. Had the article addressed these points it might have floated above puff piece.
Did David Brown locate this rebuilt neighborhood on his own, or did State direct him to it? Did Brown fly to Haiti specifically to do this story? What role did State/USAID play in his access to the neighborhood? Was he accompianied by anyone from State/USAID at any time? Brown does not seem to cover Haiti, State or reconstruction issues. How did he end up with this story?
The story says $8.5 million US tax dollars were spent repairing or replacing 500 homes. That works out to a very rough figure of $17,000 per home. Haitian GDP is about $1300 a person a year, among the world’s impoverished. Is $17k per home expensive? Typical costs? What does the figure actually mean?
Why did reconstruction seem to succeed so well in this one micro-area while failing broadly? Are there lessons to be learned and applied elsewhere in Haiti or is this an anomaly?
The Associated Press piece focused in part on how little reconstruction money actually makes it to Haiti instead of being siphoned off by US contractors. Brown’s article claims all but four workers used on this project were Haitian. At the same time, he notes that the project sent only $1.4 million of the $8.5 million total into the local economy. That seems to suggest over $7 million bucks went somewhere else. Where did it go?
Brown’s article, which ran on the front page of the Post and continued inside, quoted only two people connected with the project by name, the project manager paid by USAID and one engineer paid by USAID. Why were there no quotes from any of the Haitian residents of the new dwellings? Why were there no quotes from any local Haitain officials? Did the WaPo editors cut out such quotes? Did they not ask Brown to obtain such quotes? How did Brown fact-check the details given to him by the USAID-paid people? DID Brown fact check those details?
As I learned in Iraq, building things is relatively easy given massive amounts of money. The real magic is sustainability. Brown tells us “Groups of houses share 23 septic tanks and 100 bucket-flush toilets, which can be locked for privacy. Twenty solar-powered lights illuminate streets.” What plans and whose money are in place to repair and maintain that technology? Who/how will the septic tanks be drained or pumped out? What happens when the first solar light needs replacing? Will any of this be there working a year from now? If so, under what plan? The article calls the work in Haiti a “renaissance,” a pretty dramatic word that is empty, meaningless and damned temporary unless there is a sustainability plan in place.
Almost all the details in the story are unsourced. Brown talks about the number of septic tanks, a kidnapping and decisions taken collectively by the neighborhood. He does not say where any of this information came from. Where did this information come from?
Another big problem was that wider paths and outdoor places to sit were neighborhood priorities but there was not any unoccupied land for them. As the project evolved, 201 households agreed to reduce the size of their plots, 171 agreed to reshape them, and 51 agreed to share their plots with another family by living in two-story houses.
This is a huge thing to have accomplished. In reconstruction work, the easiest thing to do is simply to redo what was destroyed, urban problems and all. Destroyed too-narrow streets are replaced with new too-narrow streets because it proves inexpedient to resolve the many disputes. How did this process actually work out in Haiti? Did it really happen? If it did, the method used should be a critical element toward replicating this success throughout Haiti. Did State/USAID lead negotiations? Was there some sort of local micro-government?
Since it is unlikely that such agreement spontaneously emerged, leaving out the process raises questions about whether Brown had any idea what he was writing about, or was simply a notetaker for USAID’s propaganda machine.
Over to you, Washington Post Ombudsman.
BONUS: The Haitian government has hired an ex-Bill Clinton administration guy to act as a lobbyist, seeking to influence US decision-makers on aid and rebuilding issues.
Please note that despite the extensive coverage of my article, including CBS, the article was not included in the daily State Department web summary. The primary site, TomDispatch.com, is still electronically blocked on all State Department computers for whatever the hell “Wikileaks Content” is. I am certain The Onion regrets the error.
Joshua Foust over at The Atlantic serves up a terrific article on how the US has used (poorly) “chicken diplomacy” in various ways. A very worthwhile read.
Foust quotes from We Meant Well:
The U.S. has engaged in its own odd chicken diplomacy as well. Peter Van Buren, a career Foreign Service Officer with the State Department, published a memoir last year of his time serving in Iraq. One of the the most memorable chapters in his book, appropriately titled “Chicken Sh*t,” is about efforts to revive the Iraqi chicken industry. Van Buren describes the lavish funding a nearby chicken factory received to get new equipment and to hire people.
The factory, it turned out, was worthless. Brazil dominated the the global market for frozen whole chickens and Iraq just couldn’t produce poultry cheaply enough to compete (Brazil defends this domination zealously). Worse still, van Buren recounted for NPR, the factory didn’t have refrigeration because it did not have electricity — which makes the idea of a frozen chicken factory rather moot. But rather than admitting failure, van Buren and his team actually created a false factory for when touring VIPs came by, hiring random people to sit on the production line while it processed worthless chickens they could never sell, all to impress a Congressional delegation or administration official into thinking the Iraqi economy was thriving under U.S. leadership.
Interested in reading the full chapter Chicken Sh*t from the Iraq Reconstruction?
Also, some photos of the chicken factory.
In the almost two years since I left Iraq, sadly little has challenged the thesis in We Meant Well that we failed in the reconstruction of Iraq and through that failure, finally and completely lost the war. The last US troops gratefully departed Iraq in 2011. The cost of the war is thus calculable, finite in its grimness: 4486 Americans and over 100,000 Iraqis dead, tens of thousands wounded, thousands more whose minds were destroyed by what they saw and did as surely as any IED would shred their flesh.
The Iraq we created is a mean place, unsafe and unstable. Life goes on there, surely, but a careful reading of the news shows that the angry symphony of suicide bombers and targeted killings continues, just continues. That remains our legacy, and while the US public may have changed the channel to a new show in Syria, the Iraqis are held in amber, replaying the scenes I saw in 2009-2010 and which are recounted in this book. It remains beyond anyone to claim victory or even accomplishment.
If Iraq opened my eyes, what happened at home threw sand in them. After this book was first published in September 2011 some coworkers set up a pool to guess when I would be fired. The over/under was November, three months, and I put $20 down on the long end, feeling if I couldn’t be optimistic on keeping my job, nobody else would. Though I did keep it in a fashion, I was never able to collect on the bet. Most of the people in the betting pool now shun me, fearful for their own fragile careers at the US State Department. Well, I did not expect to be welcomed as a liberator. I also did not expect that in return for this completely true if absurd account of how the United States wasted over $44 billion in the reconstruction of Iraq, the Department of State would send me home to sit for months in faux telework exile before retirement. You learn a lot of things writing a book.
People ask the question in various ways, sometimes hesitantly, but my answer is always the same: I do not regret what I did. After some 24 years in government, I had seen my share of divergence between what the government said in public, and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the lies were just to hide some mistake or flaw, ugly, but with little real harm done in the bigger picture. What I saw in Iraq was different. There, the space between what we were doing, the waste and mismanagement, and what we were saying, the endless propagandized successes, was filled with numb and hurt soldiers. That was too much for even a seasoned cubicle warrior like me to ignore.
Nation-building—reconstruction—didn’t work in Iraq, and it is not working in Afghanistan. It is important to go over those things once in a while, because government fibbers are always lurking around with more false or exaggerated claims for Syria, Iran or Pakistan. Let’s agree to ask a few questions next time.
The nice people at Washington Diplomat magazine are running a nice piece on We Meant Well.
The article is mostly in Q&A format and the author, himself a former Foreign Service Officer, asked some good questions:
Q: But surely you can understand that if lots of FSOs decided to write critical books like yours while still on active duty it would create chaos?
A: I can understand that argument. But this is part of living in a free society. As Donald Rumsfeld said, “Democracy is messy.” The State Department promotes the rights of people to speak back to their governments. The Arab Spring — we want people in Syria to shout back at their government, but we won’t let our own employees do that.
Q: Did you consider resigning after or during your experience in Iraq?
A: People ask me why haven’t you resigned or if I’m a whistleblower — a Bradley Manning with a better haircut — and I don’t buy any of that stuff. I have no interest in resigning. What I did was write down what happened to me. If you came to Iraq with me, that’s what you would have seen.
You don’t have to be Bradley Manning. I think it’s reasonable for people to believe that they can write about and talk about what goes on in government. The vast majority of people in government who make the vast majority of decisions which impact us aren’t elected. They’re just people like me, and so there is an obligation for people inside the government to tell people outside the government what goes on in there.
Q: Do you have regrets?
A: Not really, my career was essentially over. I’m leaving something else behind and I’m not done yet. I told the PRT story to the world. I left something so my family knows what I did in Iraq and I sent a message for my kids that some things in life are worth standing up and getting kicked in the ass for, and the State Department may yet have to change the way it looks at the writing of its employees — that part is still yet to be written.
One of the problems with the Foreign Service is we’ve never recovered from the McCarthy era. We gave up being an aggressive advocate in the foreign affairs arena during those years and we’ve never come back. It’s all about going along and play along and it rewards people who do.
A lot of things the military does have finite, measurable results. With State, the goals are amorphous — to secure friendly relations, to empower women, etc. — it’s stuff that isn’t measurable, and so it’s easy to just kind of float around.
The people who get promoted don’t have opinions; they’re the people who just do whatever they’re told. I don’t think that’s good for America.
Read the whole article online now at Washington Diplomat Magazine!
Foreign Policy has an excellent photo essay on how images of children are exploited by the US military and others for propaganda purposes.
The image shown here, by the way, is from the Doura Art Show, chronicled in my book. The US spent over $20,000 of your tax money (thanks 99%!) to hold an art show in the beleaguered city of Doura, in southern Baghdad.
In addition to exploiting kids, your tax money also paid for this piece of sculpture:
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