If I’d made a documentary film about the scars left on America through industrialization, instead of writing Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent about it, what I would have likely ended up with is “Braddock, America.”
“Braddock, America” is a feature length documentary now in limited release set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former steel town now left to literally rust away to hell. Like so, so many other towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and throughout the Midwest, Braddock began life in the 19th century as just a place along a mighty river, surrounded by coal. Then Andrew Carnegie built a state-of-the-art steel mill. George Westinghouse followed suit and constructed his first plant in a valley adjacent to the Monongahela River. For the decades that followed, the Monongahela valley was the industrial pulse of a growing America. Most of the steel that made the United States the world’s leading industrial nation, steel for train tracks, cars, the girders of the then world’s tallest skyscrapers, was made in places like Braddock.
Workers were granted some share of the profits, protected by the strong unions they had fought for. There was once a rough kind of social contract: work hard for the mill, and in return you’d make enough to raise a family, have health care, retire on a decent pension. The system was not perfect, but it fueled the greatest economic boom and consumer society known.
Then, during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, everything changed. Steel was imported, manufacturing across the U.S. declined, and the unions were broken. Soon enough, the mills went away, leaving the people. The Rust Belt lost a manufacturing empire but never found a new role. Braddock is a place that capitalism discarded, a victim of America’s apartheid of dollars.
A Well-Made Documentary
“Braddock, America” is a well-made documentary that weaves together the past (the film begins with archive footage of the glory days), the present, and pokes at an uncertain future that haunts the whole town. There is no narrator or off-screen voice; the people left in Braddock (90 percent of the population has escaped over the years since the mills shut down) tell their stories alongside images of the near-ghost town in which they live. It is a gentle, touching portrait of good people trying to pick up the pieces, after their livelihoods were taken away by larger processes they do not even now fully understand. They display a sad stubbornness, and you watch the film both admiring them and wanting to shout at them to get out.
One scene shows a city official walking down a deserted street designating empty homes for demolition. Another one shows kids playing in a deserted school building. The town can no longer support a grocery store. A worker looks back at the mill, and calls what he and his father did there “sacramentel.” Town officials discuss their hope that additional money will come from the state to help them demolish more derelict buildings. An outside job/career coach’s presentation falls apart when none of the people in the room have any previous work experience to cite; one asks if his labor in prison counts. Abandoned homes can be bought for $3000, unless they have already been stripped by thieves of their aluminum siding and copper wiring, in which case they are worthless.
The image above, from the film, tells the rest of the story.
A Few Issues
The film suffers from a few things. Persons being interviewed are not identified, leading to some confusion. The historical clips are used in many places as filler, and disrupt the flow of the film. The film lacks a clear narrative arc; people talk– and they are interesting– and then the film ends. A touching scene in a bar where local musicians play the song “American Pie” is cut short. One key historical event discussed, a violent labor strike, appears to have taken place in nearby Homestead and not in Braddock.
Hope is Not a Strategy
The people of Braddock still express hope, or perhaps are left only with hope, as the only strategy for a way out. But like nearly every town in the Rust Belt that has tried to dig itself out, the optimism often seems misplaced and misguided over time. “Things got broken here,” says a two-year old ad for Levi’s also filmed in the town, “maybe on purpose, so we could get to work.” That did not happen. A New York Times video features Braddock’s then-mayor explaining how the town will “rise from the ashes.” He said that in 2009, and it did not happen. By the time this film was shot in 2012, that mayor was already gone himself.
The filmmakers have created a sensitive memoir to a place and time that once described America to the world, and, with some irony, now, ironically, again describes America to the world.
You can see trailer for “Braddock, America” online.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Two kinds of people are interested in Laura Pointras’ new documentary, CitizenFour, about Edward Snowden’s early contacts with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and herself. Let’s have a review of the film for each group, the Haters and the Everyone Else.
But First, a Quick Recap
Snowden worked deep inside America’s national security state. His last job was as a contract systems administrator for the NSA. Through this job he obtained a massive trove of documents which, when made public, demonstrated to the world U.S. government electronic surveillance and espionage on a scale even its worst critics had not fully described. The documents also validated the information provided by earlier NSA whistleblowers. Snowden left the U.S. for Hong Kong, where he met the journalists above, and where most of CitizenFour was filmed. Following U.S. government efforts to bring Snowden back to the U.S., he left for Moscow, likely enroute to some other place, possibly Ecuador. He instead spent weeks in suspended status at the Moscow Airport before being granted long-term residency.
With few exceptions, pretty much everyone can agree with that basic outline of the Snowden story to date, and CitizenFour does a very good job recounting most of it. It is there, however, where agreement ends. CitizenFour (the title comes from the codename Snowden choose for himself when first contacting filmmaker Pointras) cannot be understood independently from the greater Snowden story, and separate from the strong opinions of Snowden’s decisions.
Review for Real Haters
If you thought traitors like Chelsea Manning have their hate groups, they aren’t jack compared to what those on the right side (oh yes, pun intended) of the house will think of this film. To them, Pointras has created an evil-genius piece of propaganda, with the give-away starting point that she was a huge part of the Snowden story herself, throwing out any hint of objectivity. Her success at humanizing Snowden, portraying him as the amiable geek-nerd-manchild you could have a Lite beer with, is Riefenstahl-level work.
This is a celebrity “authorized biography” with all the integrity those have. Apart from making a traitor look good, they’ll say, Pointras also crudely tells only the tidy parts of the story. Snowden’s believed-espionage relationships with Russia and China are glossed over. Many details of his time in Hong Kong and sneaky flights in and out are absent. Nothing is said about why Snowden won’t return to the U.S. to defend his so-called honorable acts in court like a real man would do. Nothing is said about how the NSA keeps America safe from Americans. Snowden is a starry-eyed savior of the left who’d likely smirk from his cozy Russian lair as America is attacked again.
Review for Everyone Else
CitizenFour is impressive filmmaking. Pointras starts with the problem of telling a story most people already know, in an engaging way, trying to reach a broad audience in many cases polarized as to her subject, and her Subject. She succeeds brilliantly, and if CitizenFour is not awarded the Academy Award for Best Documentary then that award no longer is relevant.
To be fair to other films in award contention, Pointras starts from, and makes the most of, some very significant advantages. She is indeed part of the story (a fact she never hides nor diminishes) and thus enjoys a level of trust and access with her subjects almost unavailable to other documentarians. The viewer is in the room as the journalists with Snowden struggle to understand the story he is trying to tell them, working to interpret the documents he shows them and creating on the fly the most effective way to bring this information to the public. It is heady stuff.
The interplay between Snowden and the journalists is dramatic, but in the sense that it is real human stuff. When Snowden claims he does not care if he is exposed as the whistleblower– he encourages the journalists to name him– they back him off a step, and try to make sure Snowden truly knows the impact such a decision will have on him and people he cares about. Funny things happen, particularly when Snowden realizes he is explaining some technical point to people who are nowhere near his level of expertise (an exchange about password security between Snowden and Greenwald is laugh-out-loud funny.)
Pointras skillfully weaves her story, presenting it sometimes as if it was a thriller (it is), other times as a classic movie brave journalist saga (it is) and often times as a profile of a man everyone thinks they know but does not (it is that too.)
Parts of Snowden’s journey from Hawaii to Moscow are omitted. Most sentient members of the audience will understand they have to be, given the global efforts underway to nab Snowden, and the need to protect the many people who played a role who choose to or need to remain anonymous. None of that is new in a documentary– turn on the evening news and witnesses speak in shadowy profile, while most docs about the CIA or the NSA alter voices and employ false names for the same reasons. Anyone expecting Pointras’ film to be a How to Catch Edward Snowden for Dummies will indeed be disappointed.
Perhaps most powerfully, Pointras’ portrait of Snowden is of a whistleblower for a new generation. He is passionate, but in a laid-back way, confident in his actions such that his passion comes from within, maybe call it a kind of intellectual hipster patriotism. He is political, but in a small “p” way, moving through classic Left and Right into a place where many people feel more comfortable today, with a focus on issues such as privacy and authoritarianism above two sides shouting “Facist!” and “Hippie!” at each other in some news show’s clumsy attempt at their parents’ version of balance. When dealing with the older journalists in that hotel room, Snowden at times sounds like many young people do explaining how the DVR works to moms and dads dully mystified by but stuck being dependent on new technologies.
And there (partisan now, no shame) lies CitizenFour’s most long-lasting contribution. There are millions of young men and women working inside the Dark State, often times with impressive levels of access to information. Like Snowden, they have seen evidence of government wrongdoing, obscenities directed at the Constitution, harm done to ordinary citizens. Almost every one of those people will remain silent, partners to the crimes. But maybe– just maybe– one out of a million will see a role model, an example, that rings true in CitizenFour, and stand to speak.
If it was up to me, I’d have this movie play in every theatre in the Washington DC area 24/7, because s/he is out there.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Fire Dog Lake blogger Ohio Barbarian posted this review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent (emphasis added).
Yes, I know this book was featured on the FDL Book Salon back in May. I didn’t read that live; only skimmed it after the comments were closed, and I probably wouldn’t have commented on it anyway, but when I saw Ghosts of Tom Joad, a Story of the #99Percent at my local public library, I thought I’d check it out.
I’m glad I did. It’s a great book and, in my ever so humble opinion, it is every bit as powerful as the classic John Steinbeck novel to which it refers.
Set in a fictional small town in Ohio, home of a shuttered glass factory and a shattered American Dream, the protagonist, Earl, is a high school football player who graduated around 1977. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character, at least not to me. He’s basically an ignorant jock who did as little school work as possible, then dropped out after he got hurt in the middle of dumb teenage jock roughhousing, couldn’t play anymore, and went to work in the same factory where his World War II vet grandpa and his Korean War vet dad had worked before him.
He starts out, at least, as the prototypical “small town small mind” my mother and then later myself always despised. By that I mean someone whose whole world is his little town, who never really wanted to go anywhere else, and was mostly incurious about the rest of the planet. Someone who just assumed if he didn’t get some miraculous football scholarship, he’d spend his life working at the factory, get married, and raise kids in the same little town just like his recent ancestors, and that was fine by him.
In other words, he’s who Nixon’s cabinet secretary Earl Butz was referring to when the latter said, “All the average American wants is cold beer in the fridge and a warm place to shit.”
Of course, being in a Rust Belt midwestern town, our Earl is laid off after just a few months, and quickly spirals down from one McJob to the next to Bullseye, a retail store clearly modeled by the author on Wal-Mart, to more McJobs to temp work to day labor to homelessness and despair.
Van Buren takes an interesting approach, making the whole story a series of flashbacks while Earl is riding on the city bus, which is sometimes real and sometimes metaphysical, or at least metaphorical.
I didn’t find most of the characters all that sympathetic or even likable, but that’s not necessary in order to empathize with them, at least not for me. Like Steinbeck did with The Grapes of Wrath 74 years ago, Van Buren creates a world where selfishness and greed on the part of a few has caused despair and sometimes sheer hopelessness on the part of the many, and he makes it real. I think it’s quite an accomplishment.
My favorite parts of the book are astute observations by various characters about the deliberate destruction of America’s social, economic, and even moral sustainability by the top 1% for fun and profit, and the often subconscious collusion they get from most of the rest of us because of how we’ve been told to think since birth. My very favorite is, “It ain’t about left and right anymore, it’s about up and down.” A close second is “This was no accident, no invisible hand…we changed from a place that made things…into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers.”
Indeed. There’s more, much more, and the book is well-written and an easy read. I highly recommend it. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in public high schools and universities.
Note: Though I also write for the site Fire Dog Lake, I do not know the author of the review, and have never met him/her.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
As Earl takes an endless bus ride around his hometown of Reeve, Ohio, we witness the downwardly spiraling events of his life as he tries to make sense of how a boom town went bust. It’s the twenty-first century, and the factory that founded and funded this Rust Belt town is gone, taking with it the livelihood and lives of hardworking and hard-drinking men like Earl and his father before him. Men who were duped into bartering their dreams of glory for what would turn out to be the empty promise of a steady wage.
In a device that could well be employed in a Beckett drama, Earl’s mythical bus teems with a constant parade of unearthly visitors from his past—family, friends, and fellow downsized derelicts who, in their unreal way, convey the painful reality that erodes society when the American dream turns into a nightmare. A seasoned State Department diplomat, stalwart Iraq War whistleblower, and author of We Meant Well (2011), Van Buren turns his keen eye to the shameful treatment of the nation’s unemployed and homeless.
More reviews for Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent
Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a worthy read; if it was fiction it might be called “a good yarn.” The book is instead straight-up non-fiction, making it all the more interesting as a window into the world of modern espionage.
An Enthusiastic Muslim
The book is the “as told to” autobiography of Morten Storm. Storm grew up on the dark side of Denmark, a tough, a brawler, a street gang member who always looked for a fight and usually found one. He did some jail time, and lived on the outskirts of society, surviving well enough off Denmark’s generous social welfare system. Socially and spiritually adrift, he was a quick convert to Islam, driven into his new faith by a chance encounter with a library book on the life of The Prophet. The descriptions of the built-in camaraderie of the mosques shows their appeal to disenfranchised youth.
Storm quickly found a way to combine his street smarts with his new faith, gravitating into the growing European jihadi underground. He soon moved to the UK, taking up life in “Londonistan,” the slang term for England’s dark underbelly of Muslim immigrants. Like them, Storm felt marginalized, left out, looked down on and began moving in ever-more radical circles. Despite his over six foot height and bright red hair, he found himself well-accepted. An encounter with a fellow Muslim, who died almost in his arms, propelled Storm to Yemen in search of meaning for his own life. His devotion to Islamic studies and his tough attitude saw him befriended not just by his classmates, but soon by Anwar al-Awlaki himself. Storm takes on all sorts of courier missions for the cleric and becomes a member of his trusted inner circle.
Another chance event suddenly has Storm again reverse course. He falls in with Danish intelligence and Britain’s MI5/MI6 and becomes a double-agent. His second conversion is marked by a bacon sandwich and a beer with his new intel friends to seal the deal. He begins accepting money and taskings from both the British and the Danes.
Storm quickly becomes invaluable, exploiting his connections with al-Awlaki and apparently nearly every significant jihadi in Europe to the advantage of his handlers. He finally attracts the attention of the CIA, which dispatches case officers to work with him toward one goal: pinpoint the location of al-Awlaki so the Americans can assassinate him. Storm agrees and over a series of events, the American citizen cleric is indeed assassinated by an American drone (along with his 16 year old son, also a U.S. citizen.) The CIA, however, double-crosses Storm, denies him the $250,000 payment promised for his work and eventually drives the big Dane in from the cold. His last conversion is to go to the media with his tale, and leave the world of espionage behind.
Without a doubt the very best parts of the book expose a bit of intelligence tradecraft. Unlike what one sees in movies and reads in (fictional) spy books, “spying” is 90 percent working patiently with people, with just a little high-tech thrown in. The book portrays this accurately, showing the best spies are more like skilled psychiatrists than hardened killers. A few details of the recruitment process appear to have been left out, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps because of the unusual three-way sharing of Storm. In real life, case officers of the CIA (the KGB, the Danish security services, MI5/MI6…) spend a lot of time seeking out people (“agents”) who can be convinced to betray their organization or nation. Motives vary, and a smart case officer will pay close attention to what his/her agent really wants– money, adventure, sex, etc. We watch as Storm is cleverly manipulated with both money and the lure of adrenaline rushes, and as his failed fervor for Islam and desire to provide for his family is worked against him.
Of equal interest are the contrasts drawn among the three services involved in handling Storm. The Danes are friendly, clubby, out for a good time even as they subtly draw Storm in and play him off against the Brits and the Yanks. The British impress with their professionalism and appeal to Storm’s sense of adventure, setting him up for sessions in arctic survival with an ex-Royal Marine and shooting lessons with an SAS man.
Then there is the CIA. Storm saves the Americans for his most unflattering portrayal, painting them as impatient, and ready to hand over obscene amounts of money when needed, only then to double-cross their “man” inside al Qaeda when needed. The CIA has another agent, secretly, alongside Storm and never even feigns to trust either of them. The CIA’s simplistic and crude handling is one of the main drivers behind Storm’s break with the intel world.
A Few Criticisms
A few criticisms mark an otherwise decent read. Storm is not shy about his own accomplishments, taking personal credit for a number of significant intelligence successes during the years he worked as a double-agent. One does wonder how accurate such an accounting is, suggesting as it does that the combined European and U.S. spy agencies had very few other people on the inside. Storm is also quite casual, almost dismissive, about how easy it was for him to gain the complete trust of hardened terrorists, despite his very recent infidel past and quick conversion to Islam. The bad guys never really put his allegiance to the test absent a few word games, leaving the question of if al Qaeda’s operational security is really so lame why the intel agencies did not have hundreds of inside men and women. Apparently one need only send the average red-haired European Viking into Yemen claiming he is a recent Muslim convert and bam! you have infiltrated the world of terror.
Storm’s own blustery self-image and the bit of unrealness noted aside, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a decent read for anyone watching the world of intelligence who also appreciates a good story.
Film Director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, Untold History of the United States, W., Nixon, Salvador) endorsed We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
Have a look:
Read this book. If you ever wonder what happened to the American middle class over the past 30 years or to the economy in the course of the last five years.
Read it, though Ghost of Tom Joad is not an easy read. The portrait it paints is depressing. This is a hard reality to face. And Peter Van Buren doesn’t make it any easier by writing it partly as lived experience and partly as a political statement on America. There are moments of great descriptive writing and then there are whole racks of statistics that break the narrative flow.
But none of this can take away from the importance of this book. It is a compassionate look at the American Dream since 1973 through the eyes of someone whose experience has been more nightmare than dream-like. It is also a cautionary tale– recognize the path that brought us to this pass in order to find a way out of the morass. The references to Grapes of Wrath are well-woven into the story and remind us of the need for constant vigilance to prevent exploitation.
But this is not just a political commentary. Van Buren has written a very human story about a man’s life, his expectations and disappointments. It is the story about his decisions, the results that ensue, his limited room to maneuver because of a system that he doesn’t fully understand until it’s too late. It is also a story about the people who inhabit his world and their efforts to survive, against all odds. Heartbreaking, yet familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the heartland of America over the past thirty years.
Every American should read this book. And the wider world as well to understand what makes – and unmakes – the American Dream.
For those visiting for the first time from TomDispatch, Salon, HuffPo or another web site, welcome. If you found my article there, A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts, useful, please take a look at my current book on those same themes, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent
It’s available on Amazon, as well as at most other book sources. Buying a copy helps support the writing I do, and to keep this blog online.
Book Review of Ghosts of Tom Joad
Fire Dog Lake’s Bev Wright and Kevin Gosztola had this to say:
Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent is a sober reflection on the United States economy and how it has transformed in the past decades. Through the main character of Earl, readers are given a glimpse at how a person can so easily sink into a life where they are struggling to maintain a poor pitiful existence.
The reality Earl, his family, friends and residents of Reeve, Ohio, face is not their fault. They have very little power in this town, which has become a human sacrifice zone. They are bearing the impact of global capitalism, where it is cheaper to use sweat shops in Thailand or prison labor to make things. They are suffering the shift into a retail or service-based economy where Big Box stores are where one is most likely to find a job.
No salvation in being employed exists. There is no dignity for employees; unions are a scourge and a decent wage, breaks, sick days, etc, are all luxuries these corporations refuse to grant their workers. People work because they have to in order to get by and because they recognize they are lucky to have any job they can get.
There’s a “story truth” to what Van Buren writes that is similar to the “story truth” in the classic work of fiction, The Things They Carried For example, Earl gets a job at a Big Box store called Bullseye:
…My job at Bullseye was to take big boxes of things off the truck and do the break down. It was called officially by Bullseye in the associate handbook, “Inbound Event Processing.” What happened is that a computer at the Bullseye headquarters called a computer at a warehouse, which notified a computer in New Jersey to send off a buy order ultimately to a factory computer in Thailand to make some more headache pills to replace the ones we had ordered for our store. They came in a big carton of say 144 smaller boxes. I tore a pick sheet off the printer, which told me to count out thirty-six of them boxes into a plastic tub labeled PHARMACY, then count out say twenty-four more and put them into a tub labeled GROCERY, and so forth. Somebody else would come into the back room from each of those departments and take their tub. Because of me and my counting, the Bullseye store could order a big cheap box of 144 and I’d divide them up right. A computer could not do that and so almost reluctantly I had a job…
The experience of Earl may be fictional, but it feels true. When Earl’s figuring out how to use pay day loans to get by and having difficulty getting a credit card, when he is sleeping in his car and discovering what it means to be homeless and when he is facing down all the drug addiction in his hometown, it has an emotional punch to it that may not be there if this was non-fiction.
Van Buren experienced some of what is in the book himself when he had to take a minimum wage job after being forced out of the State Department for blowing the whistle on corruption stemming from Iraq “reconstruction” projects.
He also traveled to parts of the country and set up situations so he could experience what it is like to be jobless or homeless, such as how to sleep in your parked car without the cops bothering you.
One of the cities he visited was Weirton, West Virginia. It used to have a steel mill. It used be a place where residents had jobs. The mill no longer operates so now what do people do? They spend time in diners. They sit at bars. They drink alcohol all day to dull the sadness from being so poor and hopeless.
Toward the end of the book, there’s a preacher, Casey, who works at a shelter. Casey talks to Earl and others who are going on about who has it worse.
Look, until we understand at a gut level we are all in this together, if we keep thinking black and white and never see the whole 99 percent of us are dirty gray, we’ll never get anywhere. We need to think leveling up, not leveling down to create an economy, hell, a society, that is sustainable. That’s the word—sustainable—because what we are doing now is gonna kill us all.
There’s an unyielding bleakness to the story in Ghosts of Tom Joad, but it is our story. It is America’s story. It is the story of failure that Van Buren has experienced, that friends and family of Van Buren have experienced, that people who know Van Buren and know of Van Buren have experienced and that everyone participating in this Book Salon chat has probably experienced to some degree.
Anyone who has not experienced the story told in Ghosts of Tom Joad is privileged, overwhelmingly. They likely live with the fear that at any moment they could be in the position of Earl. And that is why we have to face it down because we all recognize the system is dehumanizing and really could kill us all.
We had a great time recently on FireDogLake.com discussing Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. If you missed that live chat, there’s a transcript now online.
Take a look at the full chat here, along with a nice review from host Kevin Gosztola.
Lisa Ranger, on Amazon, wrote this review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent:
Mr. Van Buren takes us on a dark journey not to some strange dystopia, but to a dismal and grimy world inhabited by a sizable slice of 21st century America. You won’t see these characters on “Dancing With the Stars”, but they are far more ubiquitous than those inhabiting the trifles the media would feed you.This world wreaks of desperation, inhabited by people who can’t quite hang on to the edge of the socio-financial cliff. This is not beach reading, but is something you need to read and to understand.
In the tradition of the early 20th century Naturalists, Ghosts reads like an update of Frank Norris’s McTeague (later filmed as “Greed”). The unprivileged in life begin with aspirations and hope, but are ground down by a relentless indifference. Under pressure, people begin to gnaw at each other as well as themselves, like pit bulls throw into the exhibition ring, and this vicious preoccupation serves their overlord’s needs well.
The book mirrors the ugly reversion to world of the robber-barons we are witnessing today, as power and money coalesce in the upper stratosphere, who know how to game the system, while the middle class continues its inexorable decline into the lower-middle echelon and inevitably, the ranks of the poor.
The world that the protagonist inhabits allows no escape. He can afford neither to live, nor to die — a Hobson’s Choice.
Let Mr. Van Buren be your guide in the Ghosts of Tom Joad. He speaks from experience, and is an impassioned spokesman for those with no voice. As he has proven with his previous book, We Meant Well, he is an acute observer and scribe of the things those in power would not like for you to see.
Kudos, Mr. Van Buren. We will await your further forays down into the zeroes. It is not pretty, but it is a duty we are glad you’ve assumed.
(This review first appeared on the Huffington Post)
If Christopher Coyne’s new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Failsneeded a subtitle, I’d be willing to offer up “We Meant Well, Too.”
Coyne’s book puts into formal terms what I wrote about more snarkily in my own book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People: large-scale attempts at reconstruction, long-term humanitarian aid, nation building, counterinsurgency or whatever buzz word is in favor (I’ll use them interchangeably in this review), not only are destined to fail, they often create more suffering through unintended consequences and corruption than would have occurred simply by leaving the problem alone. Coyne makes it clear that continued U.S. efforts at nation building in Afghanistan (Haiti, Libya, Syria…) will not accomplish America’s national goals and will actually make the lives of the locals worse in the process. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond.
Coyne’s book is a careful, detailed, academic answer to the real-world question surrounding U.S. reconstruction efforts: How is it possible that well-funded, expertly staffed and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned humanitarian actions fail, often serially, as in Afghanistan?
Central to Coyne’s explanation of why such efforts fail so spectacularly (and they do; I saw it first hand in Iraq, and Coyne provides numerous examples from Kosovo to Katrina) centers on the problem of “the man of the humanitarian system.” An economist, Coyne riffs off of Adam Smith’s “man of the system,” the bureaucrat who thinks he can coordinate a complex economy. In humanitarian terms, The Man thinks he can influence events from above, ignorant (or just not caring) about the complex social and small-scale political factors at work below. Having no idea of what is really going on, while at the same time imaging he has complete power to influence events by applying humanitarian cash, The Man can’t help but fail. There is thus no way large-scale humanitarian projects can large-scale change a society. The connection between Coyne’s theoretical and the reality of the U.S. State Department staff sequestered in Iraq’s Green Zone or holed up on military bases in Afghanistan, hoping to create Jeffersonian democracies outside the wire, is wickedly, sadly perfect.
The Man takes additional body blows in Coyne’s book. One of the most significant is in how internal political rewards drive spending decisions, not on-the-ground needs. A bureaucrat, removed from the standard profit-loss equation that governs businesses, allocates aid in ways that make Himself look good, in ways that please his boss and in ways that produce what look like short-term gains, neat photo-ops and the like. The Man is not incentivized by a Washington tied to a 24 hour news cycle to take the long, slow view that real development requires. The institutions The Man serves (State, Defense, USAID) are also slow to decide, very slow to change, nearly immune from boots-on-the-ground feedback and notoriously bad at information sharing both internally and with each other. They rarely seek local input. Failure is inevitable.
With the fundamental base of ignorance and arrogance laid to explain failure, Coyne moves on to address how harm is done. One begins with subtractive harm, how most aid money is siphoned off into the pockets of the contractors and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), plus bureaucratic and security overheard, such that very little reaches the country in need. For example, of the nearly two billion dollars disbursed by the U.S. Government to Haiti, less than two percent went to Haitian businesses. In Iraq, I watched as USAID hired an American NGO based in Jordan specifically to receive such money, who then hired an Iraqi subcontractor owned by a Dubai-consortium, to get a local Iraqi to dig a simple well. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of the money “spent” actually went toward digging the well; the rest disappeared like water into the desert sand.
Some more bad news: in today’s development world, The Man monopolizes the show. Humanitarian aid and reconstruction have been militarized, primarily by the U.S., as a tool of war; indeed, the U.S. Army in Iraq constantly referred to money as a “weapons system,” and planning sessions for aid allotments were called non-lethal targeting. They followed the same rubric as artillery missions or special forces raids in laying out goals, resources, intel and desired outcomes. USAID, State and other parts of the U.S. Government exert significant control over more indigenous NGOs simply by flinging money around; do your own thing under the radar with little money, or buy-in to the U.S. corporate vision of humanitarian aid. Many chances at smaller, more nimble and responsive organizations doing good are thus negated.
In addition to such subtractive harm, the flow of aid money into often poor and disorganized countries breeds corruption. Coyne reckons some 97 percent of the Afghan GNP is made up of foreign spending, with healthy chunks skimmed off by corrupt politicians. I saw the same in Iraq, as the U.S.’ need for friendly partners and compliant politicians added massive overhead (corruption, price inflation) to our efforts. A thousand Tony Sopranos emerged alongside our efforts, demanding protection money so that supply trucks weren’t ambushed and requiring the U.S. to use “their” local contractors to ensure no accidents would cripple a project. In Afghanistan, such corruption is casually documented at the highest levels of government, where even President Karzai boasts of receiving shopping bags of cash from the CIA each month.
(One Afghan, perhaps humorously, commented online “I would like the CIA. to know they can start delivering money to the carpet shop my family owns any day this week. But, please, no plastic bags. Kabul is choked with them. The goats eat as many as they can, but still the Kabul River is filled with them, waiting to be washed down to Pakistan, where they have enough problems of their own.”)
And of course those nasty unexpected consequences. The effect of billions of dollars in “helpful” foreign money accompanied by thousands of helpful foreign experts also dooms efforts. If the U.S. is willing to pay for trash pickup (as in Iraq, for example) or build schools and roads, why should the local government spend its time and money on the tasks? The problem of course is that when foreign money drifts away on the newest political breeze, there are no local systems in place to pick up the work. The same problem occurs on a macro scale. Huge piles of free money air-dropping in-country create their own form of shadow economy, one far-removed from both local entrepreneurship and market forces. Again, when the free money stops, there is no viable market economy in place to take up the slack. Chaos at worst, corruption and haphazard progress at best, are inevitable.
Not-such-a bonus: Foreign workers, Coyne documents, often act with impunity, if not formal immunity, from local laws. From UN workers fueling the child sex trade in Africa, to State Department hired Blackwater mercenaries gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, harm is often done under the guise of good.
Coyne tries hard to come up with some sort of solution to all this. Though he bypasses the question of whether countries like the U.S. should make reconstruction and large-scale aid national policy, he accepts that they will. What to do? Coyne posits that the only chance for success is economic freedom. Encouraging discovery via entrepreneurship and access to the free market while rolling back the state in humanitarian interventions will allow the space for genuine economic and societal progress. Coyne concludes this process is messy and will often appear misguided to outsiders, but that it is the only way to achieve society-wide development.
And good luck to those who try and press such change on the U.S. efforts. In the end, Coyne’s book is extremely valuable as a way of understanding why current efforts have failed, and why future ones likely will fail, rather than as a prescription for fixing things. That’s a bit of an unfair criticism; changing U.S. policy on such a fundamental level is no simple task and Coyne, to his credit, gives it a try. I may have meant well personally, but failed in my own efforts at reconstruction and then writing about it to do much more than lay out the details. Coyne deserves much credit for formalizing what many of us experienced, and for at least laying out the theoretical construct of a more successful approach.
Author’s site: http://www.ccoyne.com/
There are ghosts in Washington that few will talk about, roaming the halls of the Pentagon, inside the State Department and the CIA, and at the White House, moaning “Vietnam, Vietnam.” Nick Turse, in his new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, awakens those ghosts and gives them a voice, and in the process has written one of the most important books about the American War in Vietnam. As America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits again torture, assassinations, mass killings and keeps secret prisons while all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public, that Turse’s book was published in 2013 is no accident.
Kill Anything That Moves is a painstaking, detailed, minutely-cataloged 370 pages of the atrocities America committed in Vietnam . Like much of the scholarship of the Holocaust, Turse seeks to document in straight forward, simple language what happened so that no one will be able to someday pretend—as the men who run from the ghosts in Washington now do—that it never happened. To make clear his intent, Turse gives us a trail to follow, 85 dense pages of sources and footnotes.
The slaughter at My Lai is the signature event for most Vietnam war historians (the massacre took place almost 45 years ago to date, on March 16, 1968), the single instance, the aberration, the time when a small group of poorly-led soldiers went rogue and gunned down civilians. There were photos this time. Everything else, TV and movies tell us, is an exaggeration, propaganda, the drunken and drugged memories of freaked out veterans who came to hold Jane Fonda in too high a regard.
What really happened is Turse’s story. His book began with a different focus when as a graduate student in Public Health, Turse began looking into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam vets. By chance an archivist asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes might be a cause of PTSD and directed Turse to the forgotten papers of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. That group had been set up by the military in the wake of My Lai to compile information on atrocities, not so much to punish the guilty as to “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Turse tells us the group’s findings were mostly kept under cover and the witnesses who reported the crimes were ignored, discredited or pushed into silence.
Kill Anything That Moves is a hard book to read. You want to look away but finally turn the pages and read of mass killings and targeted assassinations of Vietnamese civilians, rape committed casually and coldly in sight of officers, sport killings and road rage incidents. Turse painstakingly documents each incident, in many cases starting with the War Crimes Working Group reports and then adding his own first-person interviews conducted in Vietnam with eye witnesses. Mostly aged, the witnesses speak calmly now, and Turse reports what they say without embellishment. Still, the ghosts are there and you half expect to see drops of sweat on the pages.
But however horrific the many, many individual acts of brutality are to read about, Turse’s larger conclusion is even worse. Turse comes to understand that most of the atrocities were committed with official sanction, in fact, were committed because of U.S. policy that demanded body counts, number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. He writes, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.”
Officers, seeking validation and promotion, made it clear in case after case that their troops must come back from the field with a high body count. Given that demand, standards of accountability were purposefully loose. Any Vietnamese man killed was labeled Viet Cong (VC). When that number was not enough, orders were given to sweep through areas and kill anything that moved or ran, man, woman or child, on the assumption that only a Viet Cong would run. When even that tally was insufficient, civilians were executed in place, the soldiers planting captured Chinese weapons on them to justify the ‘Count. Once reality became so flexible, soldiers lost touch with any standard, creating “rules” that allowed them to kill everyone—if she stands still she is a trained VC, if she runs she is a VC taking evasive action. If men are present the village is VC, if men are missing the village has sent its males off to fight with the VC and so either way, burn it all down.
America’s actions were, in Turse’s words, “Not a few random massacres… But a system of suffering.” The deaths were “widespread, routine and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.”
In short, the atrocities were not war crimes, they were policy.
Iraq is the Arabic Word for Vietnam
Nick Turse’s book wasn’t published by accident in 2013. While it details terrible, terrible things Americans did in Vietnam some 45 or more years ago, one need only open a web browser to see that the atrocities have not stopped—call them out now, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the secret CIA prisons across the world, the black sites in Afghanistan.
As the Iraq War sputtered to a close, at least for America, Liz Sly of the Washington Post wrote a sad, important story about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The story highlights, if that word is even permissible here, some of the long series of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq, instances where our killing of civilians, whether by accident or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance that the U.S. could in fact capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. It was true in Vietnam, and it will be true in Syria or the Horn of Africa or wherever we drag the fight on to next. Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.
While focusing on the massacre at Haditha, Sly also referenced the killings at Nisoor Square by Blackwater under the “control” of the State Department and several other examples. In a sad coda to the war, even online she did not have space to touch upon all of the incidents, so ones like the aerial gunning down of civilians captured so brilliantly in the film Incident in New Baghdad, or the rape-murder of a child and her family from the book Black Hearts, are missing. There are just too many.
Sly’s article quotes retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to David Petraeus during the Surge, explaining the fog of war, the ambiguity of decision making in a chaotic urban counter-insurgency struggle, and exonerating those who made wrong, fatal decisions by saying “when you look at it from the soldiers’ point of view, it was justified. It’s very hard.”
Though I doubt he would find many Iraqis who would agree with him, and though I do doubt Mansoor would accept a similar statement by an Iraqi (“Sorry we killed your soldiers, it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones”), his point carries some truth. I cannot let this review of Nick Turse’s book end without asking the bigger questions outside of his scope as a documentarian.
The issue is not so much how/when/should we assign blame and punishment to an individual soldier, but to raise the stakes and ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 19-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of a kid who shot when he should not have done so, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in our wars runs high.
In this rare moment of American reflection Turse’s book offers, ask the bigger question, demand the bigger answer. Those Vietnamese, those Iraqis, those Afghans — and those Americans — killed and died because they were put there to do so by the decisions of our leaders. Hold them accountable for their actions, hold them accountable for America.
Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is available from Amazon.com
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.
The Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal has some nice things to say in its review of We Meant Well ahead of my appearance at the IdeaFestival 2012, September 19-22, at the Kentucky Center in Louisville.
The reviewer wrote:
Lopsided, misconceived and overly optimistic projects start with great pomp and show but soon fail or are abandoned by the projects’ Iraqi partners: garbage-collection infrastructure, a water and sewage plant, a milk distribution network, a chicken slaughterhouse, etc., start and quickly collapse. These are just a few examples of incessant misfires.
The mission becomes a conduit of exploitation of the American taxpayer by Iraqi sheikhs, with whom Iraq is replete. Americans cannot do anything without involving a sheikh. Generally, after a project starts, the relevant sheikh pockets most of the money and loses interest in the project.
The war that had the initial grandiose objective of neutralizing Saddam Hussein’s nuclear laboratories soon morphed into bringing democracy to Iraq on a silver platter — except the platter was full of American and Iraqi blood, with democracy being invisible.
Catch the entire review!
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!
The story unfolds in a two-part series. Part One is titled “Iraq tell-all effectively ends local author’s State Department career,” with Part Two “‘We Meant Well,’ says its author, breaks ‘State Department omertà’.”
One section reveals a bit about some of my current work:
For now, Van Buren turns his sights on new opportunities. He plans to write fiction next. In the foreground, though, is his work with independent documentary film director James Spione (Incident in New Baghdad) on the documentary Silenced: America’s War on Whistleblowers. He has also met other whistleblowers that have made recent headlines, including Thomas Drake, prosecuted for exposing NSA warrantless wiretapping.
I’ll have more info on these new projects as things unfold, so stay tuned.
The blog Can’t Give This War Away offers up a review of We Meant Well:
The problem with “We Meant Well” is not whether Van Buren is right or not, it’s that it’s long past the point where a book like this makes any difference at all. He’s one more well-paid government employee who realized too late that the mission had been a fiasco from minute one. It’s not that his experience in 2009 was much different than what came before, but the previous six years had already put his mission on the path to failure. It was all too late to change.
If you’re like me, and already know we were sold of a bill of goods back in 2003, this book will validate your opinion. Yup, it’s a mess, and probably remained an even bigger mess than you dared dream. You’ll wave this book around and say, “see! I told you so!” Great.
If you’re still hanging on to some silly notion that our government actually knew what they were doing when they invaded Iraq, then at this point nothing will change your deluded mind. You bought the Kool-Aid, and you’ve made your choice. You’ll claim Van Buren hates America, blah blah blah.
Read the entire review at Can’t Give This War Away.
Two new reviews of We Meant Well you may be interested in. The first is from Demokracy.com. While the book has gathered its share of praise and angst over the core theme of phantasmagorical waste and mismanagement in the State Department-run reconstruction program in Iraq, about half of what I wrote deals with our military. Demokracy.com notes this:
Van Buren certainly had this reader snickering out loud regularly, but there was one point where he elicited a gasp that was in no way mirthful – when he described an aspect of lifesaving training the soldiers had undergone back in the states.
“The guys at Falcon who had been selected for the training all started with a big 180-pound, man-sized hog,” he writes. “The trainers blew half the pig’s face away, slit open its belly, and cut the femoral artery. The idea was to get the soldiers to ignore the horrific facial wound and the slit belly and focus on the femoral. If you couldn’t stop it from pushing blood out, your pig/soldier/friend bled to death in minutes. The soldiers topped one another with ghastly descriptions of how messed up their pigs had been. The trainers were never done. As soon as you controlled one thing, they shot, cut, or tore the pig in another way. At one point they threw the bleeding pig into the back of a pickup truck and you had to continue to work to save its life as the truck bounced down a rutted back road in North Carolina. … Soldiers who had undergone the experience were careful when and how they talked about it. No one enjoyed seeing an animal suffer, and most left the sessions with questions in their heads about right and wrong. What was a pig’s life worth?”
Read the full review from Demokracy.com online.
The second new review comes from Chronicles Magazine. Entitled “The Best are Not the Brightest,” from David Halberstram’s epic book about the men who stumbled America into the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, the review straight-forwardly places the blame for the mess in Iraq on the ever-so intelligent men and women at State, Defense and the NSC who led us into the quagmire and then abandoned the task to others to resolve.
The review is not online at the Chronicles site, but you can read it here.
Foreign Policy in Focus offers up a review of We Meant Well:
We Meant Well is a tour of the highlights and lowlights of Van Buren’s time in Iraq reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In that novel, the protagonist, an Air Force bombardier in World War II, is the only source of lucid and critical thought in a world gone mad. The most disturbing difference between We Meant Well and the masterful 1960s novel is that Peter Van Buren’s story is not fiction.
Van Buren’s central message is that we must learn from history and our mistakes, and consider the consequences of actions before we commit to them. “Courage takes two forms in war. Courage in the face of personal danger, a requirement for tactical success … and courage to take responsibility, a requirement for strategic success.” Instead of continuing to prosecute any employees who expose abuse, mismanagement, and authoritarian policies, the Obama administration should take these lessons to heart and listen to these courageous whistleblowers.
Read the full review online now at Foreign Policy in Focus.
It is quite an honor to learn that We Meant Well has been nominated in the nonfiction category for the 15th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Award.
The winner is not announced until October, but if you’d like to learn more about the award, please see the Library of Virginia web site. Past honorees have included Tom Wolfe, John Grisham and William Styron.
The blog History Unfolding, written by Naval War College professor David Kaiser, takes a look at We Meant Well.
It’s not clear how much of a future [Van Buren] still has in the foreign service. But it’s clear that we have had very little positive impact–although plenty of total impact–in Iraq, and we will have just as little, I am pretty sure, in Afghanistan. There will be no dramatic collapse, probably, like that of 1975 in Vietnam, and the effect on our society will be much less because we have a relatively small professional army now instead of a very large draftee one. (That is not to deny the enormous impact on surviving veterans, however.) The problem is not with our soldiers: it’s with the decision to try to use American military to transform two societies with which we have virtually nothing in common. We never had a chance. Van Buren’s book is interesting, because I don’t think I have ever read a book on Vietnam whose tone was comparably cynical. It really reads like All Quiet on the Western Front, even though death is nothing like such a constant presence.
Note: Kaiser guesses in the review that I am in my mid-to-late forties, though notes my picture “looks a little older”; I am 52 years old, having enjoyed my 50th birthday while in Iraq, standing atop Sumerian ruins at midnight drinking smuggled whiskey from paper cups with two Army colleagues.
Read the full review online at History Unfolding.
AL ARABIYA is one of the leading Arabic-language news sources in the Middle East, with readership concentrated in Saudi Arabia. They were kind enough to review my book, We Meant Well.
The review notes:
There’s been an increase of news reports recently assessing portions of the legacy of the work and money spent by international forces along with aid workers in Afghanistan.
If the book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped to Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” provides any insight, the legacy could be defined by a few successes, but also, sadly, an overall environment of inefficiency, ignorance and a startling cluelessness that even billions of dollars couldn’t cure.
But the humor doesn’t mask his ultimate conclusion about the nation-building efforts of America and its allies. “Our efforts, well-meaning but always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect to local work with national goals,” he writes. “Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together,” something akin to monkeys typing, an effort which might produce Shakespeare.
In “We Meant Well,” Van Buren chronicles jaw-dropping sums being spent on a dizzying array of programs. At $63 billion and counting, “we were the ones who famously helped paste feathers together year after year, hoping for a duck.”
The review in Al Arabiya follows Al Jazeera reprinting my recent article on whistleblowers facing retaliation from the US government, including my own case. I have spoken with journalists from the UK, Iran, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, France and Japan. It remains something between amusing and just plain sad that while these news sources feel it important to bring a variety of opinions to their readers, and while even the US Army asked to hear me speak about reconstruction, all the State Department can seem to do is label me as insubordinate, like they are but some lousy naked emperor, embarrassed. It is not about agreeing, but agreeing to listen. Oh well.
I recently had the great honor to speak before the Maine Mid Coast Forum on Foreign Relations. The group included not a few retired State Department and CIA officials, as well as many academics, business people and the like, all with considerable overseas and foreign policy experience.
Previous forum speakers have included U.S. and foreign government officials, diplomats, representatives of international organizations, academicians, working journalists, exchange students, international businesspeople, and other foreign policy specialists. In addition, each spring since 1989 the Forum has played host to a dozen or so international Nieman Fellows and their families for a weekend of discussion and relaxation. Some of their previous speakers have included Juan Cole, Tom Ricks, Ira Glasser, Andrew Bacevich, Matthew Hoh– heady company to join.
The Nation said about We Meant Well:
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 virtue of the telling is, of all things, its hilarity, the politically incorrect, pop-inflicted gallows humor exposing the litany of bungles through the damning lens of farce. “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head,” Van Buren quotes an Iraqi as saying. “Everyone comes in and puts flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
If the image suggests a tea party held at Abu Ghraib, it may prove as representative of the flippancy and ineptness of a State Department-run Iraq as the photos of torture were of an earlier phase of a shapeless, unnecessary war.
Read the entire review to learn more, or grab the current issue of The Nation at your fave bookstore.
Dan White over at Dandelion Salad offers up a thoughtful review of We Meant Well. Among Dan’s points is reminding readers that many of the failures of reconstruction and occupation in Iraq were simply repeats of the failures of reconstruction and occupation in Vietnam 40 year earlier. With a big sigh, Dan reminds us we never seem to learn from history:
We made as amateurish a mistake as possible at the highest levels of government–starting a war with no coherent objective–and Van Buren’s account of his days in the field attempting to alleviate that error and its consequences shows an even worse if possible amateurism and incompetence at the working level in our postwar efforts.
Dan also writes one of the best summaries of the failure of reconstruction I’ve seen:
The entire of the reconstruction effort was some armed bureaucratic functionary money wasting process wherein US civilian personnel who knew nothing of the country or language, who had just parachuted in-country for a one-year spell, who had no expertise in any of the important aid areas, and who largely lacked expertise in anything other than office skills, picked up various aid projects, most all of which had the stink of the trendy and fashionable stupidities that only college educated people who read lots of glossy magazine articles are capable of, carelessly disbursed to shady Iraqi characters relatively and absolutely large sums of money with no proper accounting of its disbursement, on projects that almost always failed at accomplishing their stated objectives, most all of which were sociologically inappropriate for that country in the first place anyway, and none of which addressed the critical issues of water, power, and sewerage.
Be sure to read the entire review, online now at Dandelion Salad.
P.S. Dan also reviews My Nuclear Family: A Coming-of-Age in America’s Twenty-first-Century Military, by Christopher Brownfield, saying that the “what is important in it is that it is an astoundingly good inside the beast account of the US’ governing and reconstruction efforts in Iraq [during the CPA days], written by the right person, with the right qualifications, for the job at hand.”
Incident in New Baghdad, reviewed below, was just nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Short!
Congratulations to filmmaker James Spione and Army Specialist Ethan McCord. Be sure to read our previous coverage of this essential documentary.
The task of bringing home the realities of what our soldiers brought home falls to filmmakers
It took years of bad movies (The Green Berets) and vague-enough-for-prime-time allusional references (M*A*S*H) before the semi-metaphorical Deer Hunter gave way to trippy Apocalypse Now (and even then it had to feature one of the most testosterone-laden war scenes ever put on film) before we could confront stories like Platoon and start talking about Vietnam. So it is not surprising that the most recent Iraq War is still looking for its movie.
The Hurt Locker was both awful as a film (plot? beginning, middle and ending?) and had nothing to do with Iraq besides using it as a marketing tool, as well as being beyond even Hollywood standards of inaccurate. The British film Battle for Haditha is much better, but a bit too preachy at the end. Its Rashomon-like approach, telling the story of a roadside bomb attack and the massacre that followed from three perspectives (Marines, insurgents and local family) was cool, however. All the Gen X/Gen Kill TV shows focus too much on the first weeks of the war when everything was fireworks. Those first ten weeks belong almost in a different part of the store.
There is also a Turkish film called Kurtlar Vadisi (Valley of the Wolves: Iraq) which posits the US turned its mighty invasion force to attack Turkey. The plucky Turks win of course, but not before cameos by American crazy men Billy Zane and Gary Busey, the latter of whom plays an smuggler harvesting kidneys from the dead to resell in Israel.
Two Iraq War Movies You Need to See
The reality of our Iraq War is far away from helibourne assaults set to Ride of the Valkyries. Soldiers who sustained themselves over multiple tours talk about nine one-year wars, each distinct and horrible in its own way. The common denominator is that there isn’t one: an early tour as a stay-on-base Fobbit might focus on being mortared while swimming in one of Saddam’s palace pools, while a later war mission to conduct patrols without purpose is remembered in nightmares and flashbacks. Scary, horrifying, terror as much over what you saw as what you did, terror over what was done to you rather than what you did. A passive-aggressive war that wrecked minds as well as limbs.
Two Iraq War movies you need to see focus us on those minds with grace and subtlety as far beyond the crazed Vietnam Vet of Taxi Driver as the passing decades will allow.
Before he became famous for (allegedly) leaking the WikiLeaks Iraq War documents, Bradley Manning (allegedly) leaked unedited gun camera footage that showed Apache helicopter gunship crews almost gleefully killing innocent Iraqi civilians in July 2007. James Spione’s Incident in New Baghdad, nominated for an Academy Award as best short documentary, tells the story of Army Specialist Ethan McCord’s dramatic first-hand experiences on the scene. Specialist McCord was an infantryman sent to the site of the massacre, where he encountered two Iraqi children, horribly wounded but still alive. McCord killed no one, never even fired his weapon that day, but found himself forever changed by what he saw among the dead and dying. Anger, confusion and guilt combined; call it Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
The film tells his story by juxtaposing images from the ground with McCord back home in Kansas recounting his experiences and reflecting on them. Told sympathetically but without sympathy, the film forces the viewer into McCord’s world, unblinkingly jumbling images of McCord holding a wounded Iraqi child as he thinks of his own son back home with sticky war porn shots of the street dead and GI Joe gun cam footage. McCord speaks of his anger and rage, how he threw a bowl of ice cream against the wall when his daughter asked for more chocolate, how he finally sought relief by speaking out after realizing his own family had become afraid of him. The story does not end when the film does; McCord still wrestles with a life. The images from the film are instead left around the viewer, as they are for McCord, like accumulated dirty snow.
Nick Brennan’s A Marines Guide to Fishing is a second important Iraq War film to see. Fictional as opposed to Incident’s documentary format, Brennan told me in an interview that “I do think this story is stronger and unique as a work of fiction because it provides for a certain level of separation and dramatization that you don’t get in documentary work, as well as allowing me to incorporate the stories of dozens of vets I met with during research.” The film stars Matthew Pennington, an Iraq vet himself in a first acting role. Pennington is a victim of PTSD, seeking understanding by re-experiencing as an actor his own trauma.
Derived from its main character’s failed search for solace through fishing, A Marine’s Guide tells the story of a young veteran’s return to his old job in a New England dockyard on his first “Alive Day” — the one year anniversary of the day he was almost killed overseas. Cool in its colors, Fishing focuses first on the vet’s relationship with his children over an ironic image of toy soldiers, before moving on to its subject’s first attempts to reintegrate into the workplace. With a Vietnam veteran as his boss, it seems like an easy transition until a young co-worker, standing in for ignorant Americans everywhere, starts asking questions about kill counts and seeking war stories “just like in the video games.” Struck by a flashback to the day he lost his leg in an IED attack, the film ends with Pennington (himself forever tied to a prosthetic leg after a real roadside bombing in Iraq) on a pier at sunset, his prosthetic by his side, decompressing. His sympathetic boss tells him to take all the time he needs to bounce back, but ends the film with the warning “You stay out here too long, you’ll never get back.”
Bringing It Home
The Iraq War was unlike Vietnam in ways no doubt PhD candidates are even presently dissertating on, as Vietnam was from the earlier Good War. Yet despite each conflict’s story, we understand now the constant is the men (and women) coming home. In that sense, perhaps the film most analogous to Incident in New Baghdad and A Marine’s Guide to Fishing is not Apocalypse Now or Taxi Driver or Platoon but WWII’s The Best Years of Our Lives.
That movie asked a weary nation, layered in deep-rooted ambivalence toward its veterans’ real emotional demands, the question our modern filmmakers now put to their viewers: you sent them over there, America, to do what you said needed to be done. They did it, and now they are home. How will you care for them, how will you help heal them, now that you think you’re done with them?
Neither Iraq War film is complete; both do more to simply introduce the problem without sticking around to see how a solution plays out. But not every vet suffering is as articulate, and not every vet is as ready to discuss how he feels as the men in these films are, and so that they might raise questions and start conversations across kitchen tables in America, these are important movies, and ones you should not miss.
Incident in New Baghdad is currently only available at film festivals; it will be screening in Wichita, Kansas on February 10th, and at the Boulder International Film Festival in Colorado later that month. See this site for a current list. A Marines Guide to Fishing is for sale as a DVD .
With a blog name like Ranger Against War, you can expect a book review of We Meant Well to cut right to it:
Ranger is torqued that his country busts him for a paltry sum, while his Army and State Department wiped Iraqi asses with newly-minted benjamins. Why embark on a foreign policy dependent upon gaining the hearts and minds of Iraqis? We don’t care if they love or hate us — no American soldier’s life should be spent on such a meaningless goal.
Our government should focus primarily on its own citizen’s hearts, minds and bodily welfare. When one buys love from unwilling participants, one is pimping or whoring. WOT also means “War on Truth”, and a war on truth equates well with a reign of terror.
Ranger also found the quote that should have opened my book, from Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government, by P. J. O’Rourke:
It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money
I say: Rangers Lead the Way. Read the whole review at Ranger Against War.
The Foreign Service Journal is the in-house publication of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), a kind of professional association/kind of union for Foreign Service personnel, State Department and otherwise. The Journal recently published two reviews of We Meant Well in its January 2012 edition.
The first review, by Journal editor and former Foreign Service Officer Steven Alan Honley, describes the book as “both poetic and prosaic (and frequently profane).” The review goes on, however, to lapse into something of an ad hominem swipe that appears to miss the point of the book, that the State Department was as poorly prepared and equipped to succeed in the misadventure in Iraq as I was (it was a metaphor, Steven). For example, the review uncovers “just how far out of his depth Van Buren was,” something perhaps also hinted at by We Meant Well’s subtitle, “How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”
The reviewer sets aside a paragraph to label my decision in Iraq, when I refused to pay for a shakedown from one of our contractors, as an example of how “ineffectual and arrogant (my) approach was,” suggesting a better approach might have been to stall for time by seeking “guidance” from the Embassy or haggle with the contractor over the amount of the pay off.
I still can’t make heads or tails out of the argument– you mean we were supposed to pay shakedowns? Is that where things went wrong in Iraq? Leaders were not supposed to model ethical behavior and should defer their decisions to their bosses, showing their own lack of resolve? Anyway, maybe this is why things worked out so well for everyone in Iraq, with advice like that. Please do read the whole review online and decide for yourself.
The second review, by Army Special Forces Major Marcus Hunter, is entitled “Unconstructive Dissent.” Hunter takes the position that the utter failure of the reconstruction was caused mostly by mistakes as “the micro level,” though he does acknowledge some upper level mistakes. He feels that the reconstruction effort needed more constructive dissent before the fact, and bemoans the idea that I wrote this book after returning from Iraq, plus that in theory I have made money from writing about what happened in Iraq. I always like the money argument, because it makes no sense. If I promise I never made any money is my book somehow better? Huh? Marcus, every book in the library was a for-profit thing for someone. Wait here’s another tip– journalists, professors and reporters all get paid to write things. Better dismiss them out of hand as well and just read things written by unicorns and I guess yourself (you did write the review here for free, right?) A Special Forces Major, with Iraq combat pay and SOF bonuses, all neatly tax-free, made money in Iraq too.
Regarding dissent, Marcus must have missed the chapter when I was called into the Embassy and told by the DCM to shut up with my dissent and start spending money (“A Midcourse Correction”). He missed the oft-repeated fact that my boss, and his boss, and the Secretary of State knew exactly what the PRT’s were doing, and in fact were the ones telling us to do it and not showing much interest in the results. He must have missed the chapter called “A Chick Event” where I tried to explain to our Colonel how dumb holding another women’s empowerment seminar was and got blown off. The tail whacking I have received from State as a result of my book shows exactly how interested State is in hearing dissenting opinions. Marcus also missed the hundreds of pages of reporting by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) which detailed in a large scale (hundreds of millions of dollars wasted) what I exposed on a small scale (tens of thousands of dollars wasted). He must have missed the chapter called “Promises to Keep” where I lamented that the Embassy cut my funding for a women’s clinic and refused to hear of its success. Anyway, read the whole review to see how things should have been handled.
I usually don’t comment on reviews because typically they represent nothing more or less than one person’s thoughts on a book. You can’t please everyone. However, I wanted to comment on these two reviews because they mirror almost exactly the problems within the State Department that caused the failures in Iraq.
Paying the Shakedown: I actually get it Steve. You get more bees with honey than vinegar, in many parts of the world some form of corruption is ingrained in the culture, sometimes you have to go along to get along, etc. All have some truth, but years into the war in Iraq, don’t you think the amassed evidence of turning our backs on things for short term “successes” had played itself out? How do we create a culture that respects law by joining in the corruption? When we pay one shakedown, any guess what happens the next time? The Iraqis watched us carefully, concluded early on that we were mostly talk and that we could be manipulated, bought off and treated like rubes in the marketplace. Any connection between that and how well everything worked out in Iraq for us? And hey, how’s it going 10 years in, in Afghanistan? Do the right thing seems a reasonable bit of advice. How many shakedowns did you pay off and how many decisions did you wishy-washy palm off as an FSO Steven? For me: none, not in Iraq, not anywhere else I served, however that translates into “arrogance” in your world.
As for dissent, Marcus, I do not offer any in this book. I simply (profanely, perhaps) documented what happened to me in Iraq. Based on the emails I have received, my experiences were far from unique. The crappy results of our efforts support that. Maybe it works inside Special Forces, but in the big Army I did not see many examples where Generals and Colonels were happy to hear contrary opinions from below. Keeping all the dirty laundry inside where the public can’t see it works well I heard– how’d that play out for the Army with the conditions at Abu Graidh? The Special Forces guys I interacted with in Iraq at FOBs Falcon and Hammer only wanted to repeat a dead-end cycle of giving away food bags or medicine, documented in another chapter in the book you may not have read, “Humanitarian Assistance.” I tried to talk with them about the negative impact of handouts but they just laughed it off and reminded me they were trained professionals. I tried to talk with them about their having too close a relationship with local thugs that undermined our efforts to stand up a local government as an alternative to empowering Tony Soprano. I tried to explain how when they kicked down doors at night four hours before we were to arrive in the same area with a reconstruction project it made all of us look disorganized and silly and helped assure our work would not be well-received. No interest in an alternative opinion there, they just kept throwing candy to Iraqi children and ignoring the angry stares of the embarrassed and ashamed parents and wondering cow-like why we never seemed to get ahead of the curve.
I would have loved to write a book about how fulfilling my year in Iraq was, how much good I saw and did, how the whole of government came together to rebuild a war-torn country and truly establish it as a democracy that cared for its people. It would have been easy to tow the party line and bang up a weaker brew of Three Cups of Tea, celebrating myself and not having to put up with all the negativity the State Department has shat my way since. Sort of a longer version of the happy-talk pablum in State Magazine every month. But speaking of the harder rights over the easier wrongs, in We Meant Well I admit my own errors and take responsibility for my actions. Is that a first for a book by a serving government official? Maybe a first for just about anyone involved in the Iraq War? Anybody else at State willing to discuss with the people where we might have done better? Now that seems a bit more like arrogance than Steven’s definition.
I would have loved to include chapters about how my bosses, upon hearing concerns from me, either took up my suggestions or patiently explained the errors in my thinking, using the opportunity to help me develop as a leader instead of as touchpoints for vindictiveness and bureaucratic revenge. I would love to write in the forward to the next edition of We Meant Well that albeit with a few bumps, the State Department was willing to recognize some worthwhile points in my book. Really, nothing in 288 pages?
But none of that happened.
Iraq remains a violent, unstable place, with quality of life for many people worse off after the application of $63 billion in reconstruction funds and almost nine years of efforts. Our diplomats can only exist there by living in fortresses. The Iraqis SOFA-kicked our asses out, and the last Army units had to sneak away at night so they didn’t get rocketed as the door hit their asses. Yeah, yeah, we got rid of Saddam. In 2003, nine freaking years and 4479 American lives ago.
So anyway guys, unless and until State as an organization is willing to look critically at itself, it will continue the slide into irrelevancy begun way back in the McCarthy era and goosed into higher gear post-9/11 with the militarization of foreign policy. Instead of cheerleading itself and shooting when someone dare talk about the family outside the family, let’s look at what happened. Let’s stipulate I am a lousy guy, that I was incompetent (Marcus writes “And above all, don’t pull another Van Buren!”), I am mean to kittens, hate children, whatever. So with that out of the way why don’t you speak to the actual events of the reconstruction outlined in We Meant Well and leave your personal remarks about me to your own non-profit books?
A smaller blog called Julie’s Jottings had this to say about We Meant Well:
Some of the passages will be indelibly imprinted in your mind. The one that comes to my mind was the chapter describing a medical training course involving pigs, designed to teach soldiers how to immediately respond to life-threatening battlefield injuries.
You may think you understand the Iraq War but We Meant Well is a fascinating look at the war from a totally different perspective.
Read the whole review now.
Dan Green’s new book, The Valley’s Edgetells two stories: his time as a State Department political reporter assigned to a rural Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan, and his later stint at the American Embassy in Kabul. The two tales– and the contrast between his early sense of accomplishment in the field and his later disgust at the bureaucracy in the Embassy– serve as bookends not only to his volume, but also to the seemingly endless war itself.
Green spends about two thirds of his book on his work at the PRT, deep in Pashtun territory, nestled among the Taliban, 2005-2006. Violence is at angry but workable levels, allowing Green and his military team to develop projects and report on the messy, corrupt and complex local politics in his province. The stories give the reader a detailed look at the day-to-day work of counterinsurgency, literally, from the ground. A lot of work is done on the fly, in the spirit of positive improvisation, as the men and women try to find ways to affect change and build stability among the Afghans. While in hindsight the team accomplished relatively little of any lasting strategic value (no one else did either), the tone is positive and upbeat, more of a sense of trying alternatives than beating one’s head against a mud brick wall.
The final portion of the book covers Green’s time in the real belly of the beast, the massive American Embassy in Kabul, 2009-2011. Here the whole tone of the book changes. Gone is the easy camaraderie of the PRT, the expeditionary spirit that might have a chance at yielding results, the inter-agency cooperation essential to a counterinsurgency fight. Replacing these things, Green finds, is a bloated State Department bureaucracy, much more concerned with creating memorandums of understanding and carving out bureaucratic territory than seeking any real solutions. Green departs Afghanistan somewhat bitter, and his writing successfully allows this to work its way through his otherwise objective prose.
As many know, I wrote my own book on PRT work, albeit in Iraq, so some comparisons are in order. Between the two countries, at least during the time Green and I overlapped without knowing each other, Iraq’s reconstruction was run entirely by State, or at least State liked to believe that to be true. Though the military outspent us 10:1 on projects, the whole affair had a stuffy, State feel to it with no memory of anything better having preceded it. Neither reconstruction effort accomplished much, with the work in Iraq shut down arbitrarily as the US planned to withdraw while the PRTs in Afghanistan continue to plod ahead. My experience, as well as my book, was more personal, with my emotions well on display, and humor used in place of what some call a lack of historical detail. Green set out to write a proper history, and fills his volume with names, dates and places. His work is thus more valuable to a serious reader or a historian, perhaps at times at the expense of some readability.
The sad, almost amazing thing is that despite the radical difference in approaches and writing styles, Green and I come to roughly the same conclusion: it didn’t work. Weighed down by bureaucracy, limited thinking, sloppy staffing and inter-agency fussing, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan are safe, stable places despite our spending $63 billion and $70 billion on PRT efforts, respectively. Lives were lost, decent Americans trying to do well, and many chances to do better were thrown away. Green’s book leaves you wondering what the final story of Afghanistan will look like when some future historian (or PRT officer) writes it, but it does not look good.
As America continues its nation-building, counter-terror wars around the world, it is imperative that we all learn more about how they are waged on the “hearts and minds” civilian side. Dan Green’s The Valley’s Edgewill contribute well to your continuing education.