One diplomat’s darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and the State Department have done — or tried to do — since the invasion of Iraq. The title says it all: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People –Steven Myers, New York Times
When it comes to our own missteps in the region, you won’t find a more shocking, saddening—and yes, hilarious—account than Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, the State Department insider’s firsthand account of how the U.S. is bungling the reconstruction of Iraq with symbolic rather than substantive efforts to provide relief (Van Buren’s image of the U.S. outfitting a local school with computers—rather than electricity—is unforgettable). –Publisher’s Weekly, early review
In this shocking and darkly hilarious exposé of the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq, former State Department team leader Van Buren describes the tragicomedy that has been American efforts at nation building, marked by bizarre decisions and wrongheaded priorities.
A story of the American ambassador and his lawn elegantly evokes the disconnect between American intention and Iraqi suffering: despite blistering heat, seed-stealing birds, and the astronomical cost of water, the ambassador demanded–and achieved–an emerald green garden within the embassy walls. “We made things in Iraq look the way we wanted them to look,” Van Buren writes.
With lyrical prose and biting wit, this book reveals the devastating arrogance of imperial ambition and folly. –Publisher’s Weekly, later review
If Joseph Heller’s war began in 2004 instead of 1944, this would be the book entitled Catch-22. Once I picked up We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I could not put the book down. I could not believe so much that appears to be fictional satire could instead relate actual events. Very highly recommended. –Seattle Public Intelligencer
I’ve read just about every memoir out of Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade, military or otherwise, and this stands as one of the best — certainly one of the most self-aware and best written. –Garrett M. Graff, Editor, Washingtonian
Despite the risks of such frankness for Van Buren—he is currently the subject of a State Department investigation—he writes with the sardonic candor of a man too intent on recounting the absurdities he has witnessed to worry about what he has to lose. — The Nation
Peter Van Buren is reviled by some, celebrated by others. Earlier this autumn, he published what some angry diplomats consider a piss-and-tell book, a memoir of his time leading an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq. In fact, one might argue that Van Buren has succeeded in writing a most accessible and plain-spoken book about America’s efforts in Afghanistan. It just happens to be about Iraq.
Snarky, but true. And not without a heart. No matter how sharp-tongued and bushy-tailed he gets, he doesn’t hesitate to let his guard down, and to document the transcendent, disguised as the mundane. –Red Bull Rising
Peter Van Buren, a Foreign Service Officer, spent a year at two forward operating bases in Iraq helping to “reconstruct” that country. With its ironic title, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, his work, a remarkable deconstruction of that effort and more generally of the debacle of American-style armed “nation-building,” will be a classic in the annals of anti-interventionism. He’s also a natural as a writer. Think of him as the State Department’s Michael Herr, though in its first rave reviews his book is being compared to Joseph Heller’s classic World War II novel Catch-22. –TomDispatch
Now, a handful of wars later, comes We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, by a veteran State Department officer who spent a year working in the black hole of the notoriously inept, $63 billion Iraqi reconstruction program.
If this ain’t Catch-22, it’s awfully close. For sure, it’s not a novel, but as they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
But like Catch-22, We Meant Well is held together by Van Buren’s hilariously rendered absurdities, from his encounters with self-important Iraqi and American officials and their fictitious reconstruction projects to the U.S. command’s annual — which is to say, once a year– distribution of a single can of beer to the troops. I laughed ’til I cried. But I think that was the point. –Jeff Stein, SpyTalk
Laugh-out-loud stories about how the United States failed to rebuild Iraq… One of the rare, completely satisfying results of the expensive debacle in Iraq. –Kirkus Reviews, “starred.” Kirkus Reviews also named We Meant Well one of its top non-fiction titles of 2011.
A foreign service officer exposes the truth about American aid to Iraq, using satire, irony and sometimes laugh-out-loud humor to convey grim reality. –Kansas City Star. The Star also named We Meant Well one of the top 100 Books of 2011.
Although not previously a professional writer, Van Buren writes superbly. Every page of his presumably true memoir is laugh-out-loud funny — funny, that is, if readers don’t mind guffawing at expensive so-called expert consultants who had never been to Iraq and did not speak the local language, military commanders who issued idiotic orders almost without exception and the waste of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars annually.
In more than 250 pages of text, Van Buren can think of almost no expenditure that made sense or helped with the long-term goal of stabilizing Iraq and moving it toward American-style democracy. Read it and weep, or laugh — or probably both. –Dallas Morning News
In his unsparing account of one year on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, Van Buren describes how the State Department, in concert with the U.S. military, threw billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money away through waste, fraud, and abuse and failed to help the Iraq people maintain the most basic necessities, like clean water, health care, and sewage, despite all the funding and promises to the contrary. Describing his time in Iraq the way he did breaks all protocol of the typically silent — and compliant — Foreign Service officer. –Antiwar.com
A burn-his-bridges (book by a) foreign service officer. This is a scathing, gallows humor look at a massif of missteps – my favorite is the $3 million order for mobile water-purification units, which didn’t work on Iraq’s highly saline water. Van Buren is merciless: “We were the ones who famously helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck.’’ –Boston Globe. The Globe also choose We Meant Well as one of the six book about the Iraq War to read.
A book Robert Altman might have loved. I’m about to praise a book by a first time author whose work reads as if he simply wrote down what happened right in front of his eyes, one thing after another, yet who has give us something riveting and true and possibly important, a potential classic. Van Buren’s willingness to tell what, preposterously, really happened, keeps the reader on the line. He is angry, and he’s bitter, but he also has a gift for black humor, and comes across as decent guy who is trying to be fair. –The Progressive Reader
Checkbook Diplomacy. In shopping for hearts and minds in Iraq, the State Department made some bizarre impulse purchases. –Foreign Policy
I very much liked US State Department veteran Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Insightful, disturbing, and at times darkly funny, I was constantly reminded of Robert Fisks’s poignant observation that it seems the only thing we ever learn is that we never learn. –Open Canada
Van Buren’s prose is accessible, colloquial, somewhat macho, with sustained skepticism and moments of humor. –Washington Post
Van Buren alternates engaging but ultimately depressing chapters about the many ways reconstructing Iraq has failed with vignettes about the effort’s cast of characters – private contractors, Army brass, diplomats and spies, some arrogant, some lonely, some homesick. The reader unquestionably needs the respite, but the characters who provide comic relief in a chronicle of relentless failure in fact create the very failure we need to escape.
This eye for meaningful details, combined with Van Buren’s plain-spoken storytelling, is what makes the book work. He could tell contractors on sight, he says, because they all wore clothing with a plethora of pockets. “If you filled all the pockets, you wouldn’t be able to climb stairs.” From the popularity of line-itemed programs for widows to the Green Zone’s plentiful cargo pants, Van Buren identifies the styles of our war – and demands we think about its substance. –Christian Science Monitor
Reality so rich it stuns. A time capsule, priceless deep insights into occupation at its worst. Six Stars out of Five and Beyond– Open Heart Surgery on a Corrupt Ignorant Government. –Public Intelligence Blog
For those of us old enough to remember Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which chronicled the absurdities of US military life during World War II… Van Buren’s We Meant Well should be seen in a similar vein. Hilarious, horrifying and heart-wrenching. –Whirled View
A State Department insider reveals what he believes to be costly and misguided efforts by American forces to reconstruct Iraq. –National Public Radio
A first-hand account of the faltering and often misguided attempts at reconstruction in Iraq undertaken by the U.S. government. –Democracy Now
An informative, amusing and horrifying account of the disposition of the $172 billion that the United States, Iraq itself involuntarily and other countries provided for Iraq reconstruction. what Mr. Van Buren writes really becomes amusing — or shocking, depending on how sensitive one is to seeing U.S. taxpayer dollars seep into the Mesopotamian sand. – Former US Ambassador Dan Simpson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 2009 and 2010, Van Buren points out, suicide caused more deaths among the U.S. military than combat. While often depressed during his tour and missing his family “terribly,” the very rational Van Buren opted, thank God, for staying alive, keeping sane by scrupulously observing the situation around him. The result is this black-humor book, personal and often very funny, which recounts, from an “on the ground” perspective, the pathetic and tragic American attempt to remake the cradle of civilization. –American Diplomacy
Peter Van Buren’s sensible, funny, and ultimately sad portrait of failed nation-building will need to be resurrected and read and re-read, especially in our schools and media offices, the latter because so many publications and TV commentators were cheerleaders for the invasion. –Spero Forum
We Meant Well is an insider account of the civilian side of the surge in Iraq. The challenges and failures should be lessons for Afghanistan. –Afghanistan101
Van Buren also describes in great detail what life was like for the American military in Iraq, the monotony of base life enlivened by brief forays into heightened alertness and even terror. In some ways, this book is terribly depressing, redeemed by Van Buren’s sardonic style and all-around snarkiness. There were moments I laughed out loud. –5MinutesforBooks.com
Learning from one’s mistakes is one of life’s most important skills. And if we are really serious about learning the mistakes of nation building in Iraq, Peter Van Buren’s book should be required reading not just for decision makers but for everyone heading to those PRT gigs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan and where ever else it is we are conducting reconstruction and stabilization efforts these days.
In addition to being an engaging storyteller, the author was smart enough not to fill his book with too much government jargon and acronyms that you need a dictionary just to read it. People back home, if they’d bother to pick up the book will find it a fast read. It is also a book that will be a helpful addition to our understanding of what is wrong in Iraq, provided that we care and want to know. For the plenty squeezed and suffering American taxpayers, this would be a hard book to read. –Diplopundit
Billed as bitingly funny, though I’m not sure I’m laughing; an important book from someone who was there. – Library Journal
We Meant Well, both title and concept, is how pro-war policymakers and pundits rationalized the bloodshed and chaos by doing good things for post-Saddam Iraqis. Largely ignorant of Iraq’s history, culture, and language, Washington’s elite foreign policy circles actually believed the con men and living room warriors who conjured up visions of WMDs and of spreading America’s economic empire by war and thereby transforming the country into a fair and open society. — History News Network
Peter Van Buren’s searing first-hand testimony is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the true depths of the disaster we created in Iraq. With startling candor and mordant wit, Van Buren lays it all out there: the colossal waste and fraud, the clueless hubris, the banal bureaucratic ineptitude of our efforts to “reconstruct” a country with pet projects and plans that have little chance of success in a land where the underlying institutions and infrastructure have been so thoroughly destroyed. A fascinating, heartbreaking, hilarious and moving account of our American Empire at work. — James Spione, Director, Academy Award-nominated “Incident in New Baghdad”
A great read to see the real story of what our country has done in Iraq. It’s not a blame book, but a book without rose-colored glasses. — Shelfari.com
To the extent that Peter Van Buren’s book brings to light wasteful, ineffective and counterproductive undertakings by the U.S. government in Iraq, it must be regarded as a public service. Surely even the most ardent supporters of ousting Saddam Hussein and establishing democracy in that country would want to know whether we are actually achieving our government’s stated objectives — and if not, why not? Kudos to Mr. Van Buren for having the courage to call it as he saw it. — Amazon.com reader
Long after the self-serving memoirs of people named Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld are consigned to some landfill, this unsparing and very funny chronicle will remain on the short list of books essential to understanding America’s Iraq War. Here is nation-building as it looks from the inside—waste, folly, and sheer silliness included. –Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War
The road to Hell is paved with taxpayer dollars in Peter Van Buren’s account of a misspent year rebuilding Iraq. Abrasive, honest and funny, We Meant Well is an insider’s account of life behind blast walls at the height of the surge. –Nathan Hodge, author of Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders
We Meant Well is a must-read, first-hand account of our disastrous occupation of Iraq. Its lively writing style will appeal to a wide audience. –Congressman Dr. Ron Paul
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