Books by Van Buren, Peter

Van Buren, Peter. We Meant Well. New York: Henry Holt, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8050-9436-7.
The author is a career Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department. In 2009–2010 he spent a year in Iraq as leader of two embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (ePRT) operating out of Forward Operating Bases (FOB) which were basically crusader forts in a hostile Iraqi wilderness: America inside, trouble outside. Unlike “fobbits” who rarely ventured off base, the author and his team were charged with engaging the local population to carry out “Lines of Effort” dreamed up by pointy-heads back at the palatial embassy in Baghdad or in Washington to the end of winning the “hearts and minds” of the population and “nation building”. The Iraqis were so appreciative of these efforts that they regularly attacked the FOB with mortar fire and mounted improvised explosive device (IED) and sniper attacks on those who ventured out beyond the wire.

If the whole thing were not so tawdry and tragic, the recounting of the author's experiences would be hilariously funny. If you imagine it to be a Waugh novel and read it with a dark sense of humour, it is wickedly amusing, but then one remembers that real people are dying and suffering grievous injuries, the Iraqi population are being treated as props in public relation stunts by the occupiers and deprived of any hope of bettering themselves, and all of this vast fraudulent squandering of resources is being paid for by long-suffering U.S. taxpayers or money borrowed from China and Japan, further steering the imperial power toward a debt end.

The story is told in brief chapters, each recounting a specific incident or aspect of life in Iraq. The common thread, which stretches back over millennia, is that imperial powers attempting to do good by those they subjugate will always find themselves outwitted by wily oriental gentlemen whose ancestors have spent millennia learning how to game the systems imposed by the despotisms under which they have lived. As a result, the millions poured down the rathole of “Provincial Reconstruction” predictably flows into the pockets of the bosses in the communities who set up front organisations for whatever harebrained schemes the occupiers dream up. As long as the “project” results in a ribbon-cutting ceremony covered by the press (who may, of course, be given an incentive to show up by being paid) and an impressive PowerPoint presentation for the FOB commander to help him toward his next promotion, it's deemed a success and, hey, there's a new Line of Effort from the embassy that demands another project: let's teach widows beekeeping (p. 137)—it'll only cost US$1600 per person, and each widow can expect to make US$200 a year from the honey—what a deal!

The author is clearly a creature of the Foreign Service and scarcely conceals his scorn for the military who are tasked with keeping him alive in a war zone and the politicians who define the tasks he is charged with carrying out. Still, the raw folly of “nation building” and the obdurate somnambulant stupidity of those who believe that building milk processing plants or putting on art exhibitions in a war zone will quickly convert people none of whom have a single ancestor who has ever lived in a consensually-governed society with the rule of law to model citizens in a year or two is stunningly evident.

Why are empires always so dumb? When they attain a certain stage of overreach, they seem to always assume they can instill their own unique culture in those they conquer. And yet, as Kipling wrote in 1899:

Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

When will policy makers become as wise as the mindless mechanisms of biology? When an irritant invades an organism and it can't be eliminated, the usual reaction is to surround it with an inert barrier which keeps it from causing further harm. “Nation building” is folly; far better to bomb them if they misbehave, then build a wall around the whole godforsaken place and bomb them again if any of them get out and cause any further mischief. Call it “biomimetic foreign policy”—encyst upon it!

March 2012 Permalink