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A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction of 2011 title From a State Department insider, the first account of our blundering efforts to rebuild Iraq—a shocking and rollicking true-life tale of Americans abroad Charged with rebuilding Iraq, would you spend taxpayer money on a sports mural in Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhood to promote reconciliation through art? How about an isol A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction of 2011 title From a State Department insider, the first account of our blundering efforts to rebuild Iraq—a shocking and rollicking true-life tale of Americans abroad Charged with rebuilding Iraq, would you spend taxpayer money on a sports mural in Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhood to promote reconciliation through art? How about an isolated milk factory that cannot get its milk to market? Or a pastry class training women to open cafés on bombed-out streets without water or electricity? According to Peter Van Buren, we bought all these projects and more in the most expensive hearts-and-minds campaign since the Marshall Plan. We Meant Well is his eyewitness account of the civilian side of the surge—that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed. Leading a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team on its quixotic mission, Van Buren details, with laser-like irony, his yearlong encounter with pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers, and oblivious administrators secluded in the world's largest embassy, who fail to realize that you can't rebuild a country without first picking up the trash. Darkly funny while deadly serious, We Meant Well is a tragicomic voyage of ineptitude and corruption that leaves its writer—and readers—appalled and disillusioned but wiser.


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A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction of 2011 title From a State Department insider, the first account of our blundering efforts to rebuild Iraq—a shocking and rollicking true-life tale of Americans abroad Charged with rebuilding Iraq, would you spend taxpayer money on a sports mural in Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhood to promote reconciliation through art? How about an isol A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction of 2011 title From a State Department insider, the first account of our blundering efforts to rebuild Iraq—a shocking and rollicking true-life tale of Americans abroad Charged with rebuilding Iraq, would you spend taxpayer money on a sports mural in Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhood to promote reconciliation through art? How about an isolated milk factory that cannot get its milk to market? Or a pastry class training women to open cafés on bombed-out streets without water or electricity? According to Peter Van Buren, we bought all these projects and more in the most expensive hearts-and-minds campaign since the Marshall Plan. We Meant Well is his eyewitness account of the civilian side of the surge—that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed. Leading a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team on its quixotic mission, Van Buren details, with laser-like irony, his yearlong encounter with pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers, and oblivious administrators secluded in the world's largest embassy, who fail to realize that you can't rebuild a country without first picking up the trash. Darkly funny while deadly serious, We Meant Well is a tragicomic voyage of ineptitude and corruption that leaves its writer—and readers—appalled and disillusioned but wiser.

30 review for We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ensiform

    The author, a career diplomat who takes his job seriously, spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams, meaning he tried to clean up some of the messes caused by charging in first and asking about strategy later. Of all the many books I've read about the post-9/11 wars, this is possibly the most disturbing. It is a deeply cynical, dryly funny, enraged, and occasionally moving memoir. Van Buren denounces all the The author, a career diplomat who takes his job seriously, spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams, meaning he tried to clean up some of the messes caused by charging in first and asking about strategy later. Of all the many books I've read about the post-9/11 wars, this is possibly the most disturbing. It is a deeply cynical, dryly funny, enraged, and occasionally moving memoir. Van Buren denounces all the half-hearted measures undertaken that just made things worse. One of the problems Van Buren identified was a lack of historical memory at work from the higher ups who make the calls, only a fever for fads and fashions, such as championing women and widows as the flavor of the month without accurately assessing the culture change that must precede such upheavals. The people in charge had courage in the face of battle, Van Buren writes, but no courage to be responsible. It was all high-publicity window dressing and no long-term effort. Proposed fixes were the product of short attention spans and sloppiness: there was an emphasis on progress models and rubrics and checklists, but ever-changing mission statements would be handed down to those checking off the lists. No higher-ups wanted an accurate report, they only demanded to hear positive news. This made it very hard for actual progress to take place. Since personnel generally had one-year tours in Iraq, there was no reason for real change to happen. Everyone wanted to either serve their year under the radar, do the safe thing, and follow orders, or get a high-profile success story out in the last few months that never had any follow-up or funding. All that mattered was a headline and a huge price tag for a mission to be deemed a success. For example, a bigwig would get the bright idea of building a shiny new milk processing plant in the desert. Wonderful! Progress! Modernization! The people could now buy safe milk. But they didn't have refrigeration or safe roads, so no one had any milk anyway. The result was a lot of back-patting and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, during which locals would approach Americans and ask when the power would be turned on. Van Buren was disciplined and demoted for publishing this book. I bet he would agree it was worth it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    A little too snarky even for my snark-friendly tastes. The problem with the flood of sarcasm for me was that it undermines his authority in his deadly serious portrayal of the rampant corruption and pointlessness of "postwar" Iraq. It is hard to tell whether he is a faithful reporter of what is happening or someone with a chip on their shoulder. There are a couple of passages that will stay with me; those passages are typically when he is discussing successes or events so horrible that he doesn't A little too snarky even for my snark-friendly tastes. The problem with the flood of sarcasm for me was that it undermines his authority in his deadly serious portrayal of the rampant corruption and pointlessness of "postwar" Iraq. It is hard to tell whether he is a faithful reporter of what is happening or someone with a chip on their shoulder. There are a couple of passages that will stay with me; those passages are typically when he is discussing successes or events so horrible that he doesn't need to crack wise. I am not sorry to have read it. I just can't recommend it without reservation.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jas

    Snark done very well. Peter Van Buren captures the absurdity of the forever war perfectly as he repeatedly crucifies our focus on performance rather than effect. Clearly a cathartic release for him, this book should be required reading among the aid community and the myriad of military folk who consider themselves specialists in CA/CIMIC. Many will be thankful of his forthright account. Those that they worked for will likely have a very different view.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Susie

    When I was sixteen, my father agreed to watch the antiwar documentary, Hearts and Minds, which was about how we failed to win the appreciation of the Vietnamese as LBJ had hoped for with his famous "Hearts and Minds..." speech. After the movie, my father said to me, "Susie, that documentary was so one-sided that it inky reinforced the beliefs that people who are already against the war have and does nothing to enlighten or persuade those who are neutral or pro-war.". I have always been unhappy w When I was sixteen, my father agreed to watch the antiwar documentary, Hearts and Minds, which was about how we failed to win the appreciation of the Vietnamese as LBJ had hoped for with his famous "Hearts and Minds..." speech. After the movie, my father said to me, "Susie, that documentary was so one-sided that it inky reinforced the beliefs that people who are already against the war have and does nothing to enlighten or persuade those who are neutral or pro-war.". I have always been unhappy with our activities in Iraq. nonetheless Peter Van Buren has written the Iraq version of that old documentary. I might have enjoyed his story if it had been a letter home when one is forgiven leaving out details that make the story less provocative or dramatic. His concessions to successful projects were so inconsequential that he might as well have left them out altogether. But you know what my friend, Ann H always says, "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.". He had a good story to tell.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Ehrle

    I had the honor of reading this book in preview. It had a great story tone, but told a very real tale of mismanagement and its effects on a country and people. The stories were engaging and almost light at times, yet the message remained heavy. 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. I had the honor of reading this book in preview. It had a great story tone, but told a very real tale of mismanagement and its effects on a country and people. The stories were engaging and almost light at times, yet the message remained heavy. 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.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Michael Woodard

    This reads like a real life version of Catch 22. What is in this book should outrage people from any part of the political spectrum.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    This short, page turning book, tells the story of Peter Van Buren's 2008/9 tour of Iraq with the Department of State. By the time of his arrival, the major damage had been done. The Bush administration not only failed to find WMDs, it failed to deliver water, electricity, or even trash pick-up. Iraq has a Mad Max feel and is too dangerous for the energetic young people with campaign contributing parents described in Green Zone (Imperial Life/Emerald City Movie Tie-In Edition) (Vintage). Iraq is This short, page turning book, tells the story of Peter Van Buren's 2008/9 tour of Iraq with the Department of State. By the time of his arrival, the major damage had been done. The Bush administration not only failed to find WMDs, it failed to deliver water, electricity, or even trash pick-up. Iraq has a Mad Max feel and is too dangerous for the energetic young people with campaign contributing parents described in Green Zone (Imperial Life/Emerald City Movie Tie-In Edition) (Vintage). Iraq is now for those pressured into service by "State" or "rotated" into it by the military. One of the themes is that with enthusiasm for nation building gone, Americans in Iraq are marking time. Those in policy positions are building resumes and keeping their heads down. Living on heavily armed and fenced FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) they design programs that have have little relationship to the needs of the Iraqi people. They seek approval for these projects from bosses who are even more removed from Iraqis than than they are. The projects have their own logic, and fiscal accountability is not part of the equation. Long term projects will not build careers, but those yielding good PR and photos ups will. This careerism is fully exemplified on p. 197 by an unnamed neocon supporter of the war who does not talk about reconstruction, Iraq or democracy but of book deals and literary agents. The results are exemplified by a $2+ million milk collection facility where if enough milk were ever to be produced, and if there were a market for that milk, and if there was transportation/refrigeration and reliable electricity and water, perhaps someone would use this station. Similarly there is a chicken processing plant such that if there were chickens there would somehow have to be a reliable supply of water or electricity. Both facilities grace resumes and are supported by news stories and photos, but neither functions. Laura Bush opened a hospital that is yet to receive a patient. Similarly many entrepreneurial and educational initiatives were undermined by corruption, violence. No one involved in this shuffle is noticing that even if 12 widows are trained to sew, and if they can market that skill, it is a mere band aid on a terribly broken society. The book is more than a litany of the failed projects; it describes life on one of these FOBs. It describes the soldiers, the contractors, the food, the day beer was served, how to get a hair cut, how to get laundry done, toilet facilities, the heat, calls home and how deaths are mourned and absorbed. It will outrage you all over again, what $1 billion a week bought the US while at home it cut schools, parks and police. Many families paid for this with a life. For a good description of the occupation's effect on the people of Iraq, I highly recommend: Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq. The author, an Arabic speaking reporter went beyond the Green Zone and the FOBs to actually engage the Iraqi people.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    A tell-all expose of American mismanagement of the reconstruction of Iraq. The author is a career foreign service officer who spent a year in Iraq leading a State Department reconstruction field team, working with local Iraqis to help build a post-war economy: supervising projects meant to spark business ventures, infrastructure building, and individual entrepreneurship. Every well-meaning project, save for the founding of a 4H club for children, immediately goes down the tubes due to pervasive A tell-all expose of American mismanagement of the reconstruction of Iraq. The author is a career foreign service officer who spent a year in Iraq leading a State Department reconstruction field team, working with local Iraqis to help build a post-war economy: supervising projects meant to spark business ventures, infrastructure building, and individual entrepreneurship. Every well-meaning project, save for the founding of a 4H club for children, immediately goes down the tubes due to pervasive Iraqi corruption: money disappears into crooked hands, equipment is stolen, newly-constructed buildings are either abandoned or repurposed by local strongmen. But even if there were no Iraqi corruption, the projects are doomed to failure anyway. During the 2003 invasion we destroyed Iraq's civil infrastructure ... roads, utilities, waste disposal ... and after some initial efforts we apparently gave up on rebuilding it; Iraqis are notably worse off today then they were before 2003, and our reconstruction projects cannot succeed without water, sewers, electricity, police protection, educated workers, or people with the money to buy products. Van Buren exposes the Catch-22-ish nature of the American occupation at all levels, from the protected diplomatic and military fat cats of the Green Zone to the grunts at the FOBs, from the contractors to the spooks of the CIA. Meaningless goals are promulgated inside the Green Zone; field agents struggle to dream up projects to support those goals; money is thrown at the projects; no one follows through. Billions of unaccountable dollars have been turned over to sheiks, strongmen, and thugs. Every in-country American with any power or supervisory role is jockeying for promotion; no one stays in country long enough to see any project through to fruition; there is no accountability; and now that the national attention has shifted to Afghanistan, no one gives a shit what happens in Iraq. It would be funny if it were fiction; instead it's depressing ... because it's all true. I mentioned at the beginning of the review that the author is a career FSO. I suspect he was close to retirement when he wrote this book, because he surely has no career now.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    I went into this book kind of hoping for something extraordinary and came out of it with a shrug and a, "yea, I kind of knew all this." The book is a look back at Peter Van Buren's tour as a State Department ePRT in Iraq, during 2009-2010. The team's job was to find good projects to prop up the local economy and get the Iraqi's on their feet, great idea. What it turned out to be was lot of wasted money tossed around on projects that really weren't thought all the way through. Factories, conferen I went into this book kind of hoping for something extraordinary and came out of it with a shrug and a, "yea, I kind of knew all this." The book is a look back at Peter Van Buren's tour as a State Department ePRT in Iraq, during 2009-2010. The team's job was to find good projects to prop up the local economy and get the Iraqi's on their feet, great idea. What it turned out to be was lot of wasted money tossed around on projects that really weren't thought all the way through. Factories, conferences, classes, all turned into photo-ops and then we moved on to the next shiny object while what ever we did before crumbled and was left undone. The locals learned how to manipulate our system for free money, because "why do the work to maintain society, if we can just wait for you to pay us to do it anyways?" And instead of actually building up power and water and other basic needs, we went for the quick easy projects to get headlines. This is not to say everything we did was terrible and a lot of it was paved with good intentions, but the majority of what we did just fell into corruption and people just going through the motions, until their time was up. That sums up about 50% of the book. The other 50% is about life on the FOB in Iraq. The different type of KBR employees, Army soldiers, Uganda guards, and others. The title hajji shops were you can get any movie or TV show for super cheap, because piracy is everywhere. The haircut guys that know like three phrases. Dealing with family back home. This section of the book is actually somewhat worth while to someone who never spent time deployed in Iraq. It gives you a sense of what it is kind of like. I know I caught myself recalling bits and pieces of my life during then. And around page 190 when it talks about Powerpoint, dead on in how ridiculous it all is. Should you read it? Probably not. It sheds light on nothing really new. We went into Iraq to conquer and had no real idea how to nation build or teach people how to rely on themselves. Heck we have terrible corruption with handouts here in America, what did we expect? One can only hope that some of the lessons learned (tossing money at the problem, doesn't fix it) will be applied in Afghanistan, but we know they won't.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Apparently the author is still a foreign service officer with the Department of State - how that is possible after he publishes something like this is hard to imagine. Still, his book's web site includes a disclaimer that the information there is not meant to represent U.S. policy or the Dept of State's views. The book describes the author's year at two different Provincial Reconstruction Team sites in Iraq, talking about what it was like living and working closely with the Army, contractors, an Apparently the author is still a foreign service officer with the Department of State - how that is possible after he publishes something like this is hard to imagine. Still, his book's web site includes a disclaimer that the information there is not meant to represent U.S. policy or the Dept of State's views. The book describes the author's year at two different Provincial Reconstruction Team sites in Iraq, talking about what it was like living and working closely with the Army, contractors, and others as well as what they tried to accomplish in reviving Iraq - which mostly he considers wasted effort (although his views are more nuanced than that). The book takes a mostly chronological approach, starting with his decision to "volunteer" (or else) to go despite no real relevant experience (as a career consular official) because of the huge need for FSOs in Iraq. He then describes his travel there and the two different sites where he worked and what life there was like. The description of the activities to rebuild Iraq end up being less than half the book I would guess, but that reflects his time there. There are still plenty of examples of the hopeless initiatives that they funded and how they attempted to work with the Iraqis. The book is reasonably well and consistently written, although the author adopts a kind of cynical humor that sometimes feels forced - as though he was compelled to have a cynical remarks every 200 words or something. I felt the author avoided the self-congratulatory tone that some books of this sort have, which is in his favor. I knew most of the acronyms already, but I wonder if most readers wouldn't find this like a Tolstoy novel run amuck - a bit difficult to follow what is being discussed. Also, he jumps back and forth between the two sites where he spent his time and I sometimes lost track, although I guess it didn't matter. I don't think there are many things out there with this kind of approach - worth a look.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Joe

    Van Buren describes his year in Iraq (from 2009-10) with a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team. The story would be almost funny, if it wasn't sickening: incredible sums of money absolutely wasted, trying to build up the structure of a stable state while absolutely basic necessities -- clean water, power, a reasonable assurance of simple safety -- were unavailable. Most of the projects were pointless, and everyone directly involved knew it, but the people in charge of decisions (and m Van Buren describes his year in Iraq (from 2009-10) with a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team. The story would be almost funny, if it wasn't sickening: incredible sums of money absolutely wasted, trying to build up the structure of a stable state while absolutely basic necessities -- clean water, power, a reasonable assurance of simple safety -- were unavailable. Most of the projects were pointless, and everyone directly involved knew it, but the people in charge of decisions (and money) were far removed from the situation and wanted to press on. I think most people know that Iraq is not a stable society, and most people know the US has spent an incredible amount in trying to accomplish that task, so the main point in this book isn't really news. But, it does a great job filling in the details, from someone that was actually there. Van Buren also adds in a significant amount of detail, trying to paint a general picture of the situation that soldiers, security, and other foreigners found themselves in. Unfortunately, I found this part of the book to distract from the rest of it: it really amounted to either a small number of anecdotes, or else vague impressions, and it almost felt like it was trying to bulk up the book. The book is basically about the folly of wasting money on minor, ineffective projects, while basically ignoring the enormous problems that completely destroy whatever small potential benefit could have been had. Van Buren should have stayed focused on that, instead of diluting it down.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Doug McNair

    A very depressing memoir of what, if the author is to be believed, was the biggest clusterf*ck in the history of U.S. foreign policy. If body count was the measure of success in Vietnam, projects approved and American money spent was the measure of success in the reconstruction of Iraq. And everyone tasked with that reconstruction had an incentive to look the other way and just keep shelling out cash even though all the money spent failed to achieve any of the desired results. Ironically, the mo A very depressing memoir of what, if the author is to be believed, was the biggest clusterf*ck in the history of U.S. foreign policy. If body count was the measure of success in Vietnam, projects approved and American money spent was the measure of success in the reconstruction of Iraq. And everyone tasked with that reconstruction had an incentive to look the other way and just keep shelling out cash even though all the money spent failed to achieve any of the desired results. Ironically, the most successful reconstruction project was the establishment of 4H clubs; something that cost almost nothing and that was quickly taken over by Iraqi parents wanting to do stuff with their kids. All the expensive stuff was done in the belief that the Iraqis really wanted to be Americans and live like Americans, and when we found that they didn't, it was politically and professionally unacceptable to admit it. So bureaucratic inertia just kept us spending money with no effect until we had to go, leaving our children and grandchildren to pay for it all.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sam Reaves

    Whatever your politics, it's hard to argue that our invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the desired outcome, and this book by a Foreign Service officer who was there helps explain why it became a debacle. Peter Van Buren headed a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Anbar province; his job was to set up economic development projects to provide jobs for the populace and lure them away from insurgency. The problem, as Van Buren recounts in meticulous and often humorous detail, was that most of the projec Whatever your politics, it's hard to argue that our invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the desired outcome, and this book by a Foreign Service officer who was there helps explain why it became a debacle. Peter Van Buren headed a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Anbar province; his job was to set up economic development projects to provide jobs for the populace and lure them away from insurgency. The problem, as Van Buren recounts in meticulous and often humorous detail, was that most of the projects made no economic sense (or, often, any other kind), being essentially vanity projects for the State Department careerists secluded in the gigantic American embassy in Baghdad and/or sweetheart deals for the contractors who piled into Iraq in the wake of the military occupation. Massive, astonishing amounts of money were wasted or stolen outright, and the benefit to the traumatized Iraqis was negligible. Van Buren participated, protested and was reprimanded for his scruples; he has written a funny, bitter and very scathing book about this disgraceful episode.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Judi

    My God. This would be hysterically funny if it weren't so damn sad. We know war is hell; Van Buren shows us that reconstruction is, too. And that it isn't only the military that wastes huge amounts of money. And that no one has a clue about the people whose land we occupy. I don't know if Van Buren still has his job with State, but they could learn from him and this scathing assessment of State's role in Iraq. You just can't make this stuff up. My God. This would be hysterically funny if it weren't so damn sad. We know war is hell; Van Buren shows us that reconstruction is, too. And that it isn't only the military that wastes huge amounts of money. And that no one has a clue about the people whose land we occupy. I don't know if Van Buren still has his job with State, but they could learn from him and this scathing assessment of State's role in Iraq. You just can't make this stuff up.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lou

    Darkly humorous, but mostly sad The story is one of daily boredom, danger and more boredom. This memoir is written in a off-kilter slow swerve stream of consciousness. There are more than a few Iraq War memoirs written by folks there for the military or a private contractor. But this one gives a glimpse of the most unseemly cog in the slow grind of war occupation: the State Dept. Read this now.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Susie

    Peter Van Buren's story sheds light on so many things: what it's like to be stationed in Iraq for a year, life on a base, the effect of the the invasion of 2003 on the people of Iraq, the bureaucratic ineptitude involved in "capturing the hearts and minds" of the Iraqis and why we are in so much financial trouble. It's a quick read but insightful about a war we barely pay attention to anymore. Peter Van Buren's story sheds light on so many things: what it's like to be stationed in Iraq for a year, life on a base, the effect of the the invasion of 2003 on the people of Iraq, the bureaucratic ineptitude involved in "capturing the hearts and minds" of the Iraqis and why we are in so much financial trouble. It's a quick read but insightful about a war we barely pay attention to anymore.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Val

    What a searing tragedy. Raw, dark, sad, and eye-opening. A well-written look at America's petulance and ineptitude. What a searing tragedy. Raw, dark, sad, and eye-opening. A well-written look at America's petulance and ineptitude.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nigel Pinkus

    A terribly funny book, if it wasn't for a terribly disturbing situation in Iraq. There were pastry classes for unemployed Iraqi women (for the 1-2 hours of electricity/ day); money for a sports mural, money for Baghdad Yellow Pages, money for a newspaper (with zero readership), money for a Baghdad Zoo (in a war zone) and even money for an English Lang. Academy for Iraqi Bureaucracy (even though the Iraqi government wasn't invited). It was beyond funny it was absurd. The country has been at war ( A terribly funny book, if it wasn't for a terribly disturbing situation in Iraq. There were pastry classes for unemployed Iraqi women (for the 1-2 hours of electricity/ day); money for a sports mural, money for Baghdad Yellow Pages, money for a newspaper (with zero readership), money for a Baghdad Zoo (in a war zone) and even money for an English Lang. Academy for Iraqi Bureaucracy (even though the Iraqi government wasn't invited). It was beyond funny it was absurd. The country has been at war (including Desert War), and has experienced civil war and is still experiencing conflict since at least from 1990. That's thirty years! But, there was worse to come, much worse. There was money for projects, but foiled by incompetence, 'pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers, oblivious administrators' and 'bizarre decisions and wrongheaded priorities'. Even though, there was money for reconstruction, and (if you haven't guessed it already) there was lots of it, there was no leadership, no guidance and no policy and, at one stage, there wasn't even an operating government in Iraq. Sorry, I'm sorry, but back to the money. Oh, let me see, yes, $40 million was spent on a prison that was never opened; $104 million was spent on a failed sewerage system in Fallujah and a whopping $171 million was spent on a hospital that never saw a patient. Oh yes, that was just slim pickings because wait, there's more. A lot more! Bechtel, a US defence contractor, spent an estimated $4.6 billion on sewerage projects that were either never finished, blown up, abandoned or for projects that were never started! hhhmm, to top it all off, Betchel ended up finishing no projects, yes that's right, no sewerage projects were ever finished while Bechtel was in Iraq. All in all, it was estimated (only estimated, mind you) that approximately, $63 billion was spent on the Reconstruction of Iraq. That looks like this: $63 000 000 000 or, breaking the figure down another way, it would be $63 million, not ten times or 100 times or even 200, 500 or 800 times, but a 1000 times. A thousand times! (63 million x 1000 = 63 000 000 000). Or, if it was explained in savings: If you could save $100,000/ year, it would take you 630,000 years to save it all. And when the US military finally left Iraq, the people still didn't even have running water! Lastly, this reader will always remember the scenes described in the following chapters: 'Water and Sewerage' (no running water, no operating sewerage plants, little electricity for the Iraqi people); 'Milking the US Government' (money for milk when there was no water for cows, no feed for cows, no trucks to transport the milk & the milk was undrinkable because of the high levels of TB in it); 'Humanitarian Assistance' (HA just for the cameras, but NOT in any way shape or form was it for the locals); 'Everyone was looking the other way' (a story of corruption, greed & waste); 'Seeing the Dragon' (a story of staying alive in a war zone) and 'Missing Him' (the story of high suicide rates in the US Military). Oh, and here are some memorable quotes: "Create chambers of commerce to facilitate investment". p.161. "Facebook didn't exist when the war started (March 2003), but it sure as hell was here now". p.201. "If bullshit was water, we'd all drown." p.160. "Reality, even when enthusiastically ignored, is a stern teacher". p.132. "There were a lot of ways to die in Iraq and only a few ways to live". p.238. "The reality was we were imprisoned on military bases which meant we had cursory relationships with Iraqis and were always seen as fat-walleted aliens descending from armoured cars". p.247-8. "We (the Americans) have the watch, but they (the Iraqis) have the watch, says an old joke". p.249. "We got funding, create projects, spend money and move on. We knew the formula". p.216. "The frustration with State Department is that they are happy to be. And whether or not anything actually gets done is not important to them". p. 251. Finally and lastly, but certainly not least: "Not thanks really but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organisation I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned us there". p. 268. I'll leave it at that, shall I? Iraq. Tragic and destroyed for oil. Compulsive reading. 5 STARS.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Haroon

    Trust me. You'll have to read this book. I first came across Peter Van Buren on The American Conservative's website; I was intrigued enough to read his byline. "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" certainly sounded interesting, so I went ahead and requested it from my local library. Thanks benign socialism. Van Buren was a State Department employee sent to Iraq, in the aftermath of the invasion, to help rebuild that country in the image of a s Trust me. You'll have to read this book. I first came across Peter Van Buren on The American Conservative's website; I was intrigued enough to read his byline. "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" certainly sounded interesting, so I went ahead and requested it from my local library. Thanks benign socialism. Van Buren was a State Department employee sent to Iraq, in the aftermath of the invasion, to help rebuild that country in the image of a secular Western democracy. That the government that started that war had theocratic Christian features will go unmarked upon. What's important is how darkly comic, absurdly funny, sarcastically biting, and deeply distressing this book is. Van Buren's is a first-person account of a man send to a country he doesn't understand. He outlines the ridiculousness of the mission to rebuild Iraq, as projects like roads to nowhere, milk factories, pastry classes, and NGO conferences with no ostensible purpose attract tens of thousands of dollars of funding, wasting taxpayer dollars and accomplishing nothing at all, not least because the country is bombed, broken, lacking electricity, elemental services, and political stability. Indeed, we spent more money trying to rebuild Iraq--after destroying it, mind you--than we spent on rebuilding Japan and Germany after World War II. And what do we have to show for it? At one point, Van Buren suggests we would have been better off spending that money at home. And oh my goodness how we would have. With hundreds of billions of dollars--I'm not kidding, and even though you'll laugh out loud reading this, neither is he--we could have saved the middle class, rebuilt our infrastructure, stayed research-and-development competitive with China, strengthened Western alliances, and rebooted education. In turn, our political elite wouldn't have discredited themselves so entirely that the hearts and minds of a lot of American people were prepared for a Donald Trump to enter their political imaginations. Yes, I think you can draw a reasonably straight line from one to the other, if even it's too early for Van Buren to. (The book was published in 2012.) "We Meant Well" is not the most brilliantly written book. It's not going to be facing forward on your bookshelf, showing off. But it will be hard to stop reading. It will be hard to forget. And it might do more to shape your view of American foreign policy, and elite hubris, than almost anything you've ever read.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Franz

    A very depressing book, albeit at times sadly hilarious, written by a former career State Department official. Van Buren writes in detail about his year in Iraq doling out money to try to pacify and repair the country. In summary, "In addition to the $63 billion Congress had handed us for Iraq's reconstruction, we also had some $91 billion of captured Iraqi funds (that were mostly misplaced by the Coalition Provisional Authority [the US agency governing Iraq after invasion]), plus another $18 bi A very depressing book, albeit at times sadly hilarious, written by a former career State Department official. Van Buren writes in detail about his year in Iraq doling out money to try to pacify and repair the country. In summary, "In addition to the $63 billion Congress had handed us for Iraq's reconstruction, we also had some $91 billion of captured Iraqi funds (that were mostly misplaced by the Coalition Provisional Authority [the US agency governing Iraq after invasion]), plus another $18 billion donated by countries such as Japan and South Korea. In 2009, we had another $387 million for aid to internal refugees that paid for many reconstruction-like projects. If that was not enough, over a billion additional US dollars were spent on operating costs for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. By comparison, the reconstruction of Germany and Japan cost, in 2010 dollars, only $32 billion and $17 billion, respectively." [Emphasis mine.] What an example of hubris, incompetence, ignorance, arrogance when we put the American government into the hands of people who have no clue about governing and no confidence that people in government can make a difference. Quite a contrast with the New Deal officials who helped rebuild our WW II enemies. As the blurb on the back of book says, a true-life Catch-22.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Carlson

    U.S. Foreign Service Officer, author Peter Van Buren confirms what has been written before in We Meant Well; How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Iraqi People. The title really says everything as this was one of the biggest blunders of the George W. Bush's presidency. The most disgusting part was when people in the United States were losing their homes to foreclosure our government was shipping pallets of cash to Iraq to hand out to anyone. No expertise on actually helping re U.S. Foreign Service Officer, author Peter Van Buren confirms what has been written before in We Meant Well; How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Iraqi People. The title really says everything as this was one of the biggest blunders of the George W. Bush's presidency. The most disgusting part was when people in the United States were losing their homes to foreclosure our government was shipping pallets of cash to Iraq to hand out to anyone. No expertise on actually helping rebuild this country but Americans took the cash and left.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mariah Canton

    I really enjoyed this book. I think it is an incredibly worthwhile read for anyone; it addresses the invasion of Iraq on real terms with a narrative style that is intriguing and entertaining, if a little flippant at some points. I would highly recommend this book because of the needed perspective it offers.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Roger Smitter

    Author Peter Van Buren launches the book with a blistering statement about the nonsense of going to Iraq and what the US was doing in the country. That theme continues to about the half way when the steam goes done some and we see why the US did the wrong thing. The second half provides information that shows the first half of the book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Bridges

    Did a decent job pointing out what didn’t work in Iraq and all the dollars wasted by State. Still, the author doesn’t do much to highlight his own role and almost comes off as an independent observer, making this little more than a glorified bitch sesh.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    An excellent book detailing all the best intentions laid to waste in Iraq. The lack of thought or progress on anything is deplorable. The author provides solid advice as to how to fix the problem, get us out of there. I wholeheartedly agree.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Janet

    Fascinating look inside State Department activities. I have recently finished Colin Powell's book, so this was an interesting juxtaposition. Fascinating look inside State Department activities. I have recently finished Colin Powell's book, so this was an interesting juxtaposition.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Will

    An entertaining book about something incredibly bleak, wasteful, and awful.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Christine Saper

    Significant analyses of the failed policies, events and failures of the US Iraqi invasion. I really recommend this book, and it is especially important now in 2019.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Malik

    In summation, the author spent year in Iraq experiencing the harshness of war and the incompetence of American agencies. Really shows just how destructive American foreign policy can be.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Angela

    Interesting inside look, but the author’s “everyone is the problem but me” tone got kind of annoying. (The title is the only admonition of fault, and I doubt the author actually wrote it?)

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