Monday, February 27, 2012

"We Meant Well": A Book Report

"We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" by Peter Van Buren. This book is part of a book series available through the American Empire Project.

"Better an Archduchess should be fucked than the monarchy". This summation of Habsburg diplomacy was uttered after Napoleon Bonaparte was married to Marie Louise, daughter of Francis I, Emperor of Austria. Substitute "Iraq" for "Archduchess" and "the American Empire" for "the monarchy", and you have an equal summation of the subject matter of this book, which I recommend to you.

When I first acquired this book from the library (and actually, not my first choice, but "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" by David Graeber is not due back until the 21st of March), the book had two dog-eared pages in it. When I finished reading, it had succumbed to eighteen more folded corners. I cannot possibly include all the quotations I would wish to include, so again, the best thing to do is read the book.

At a personal level, when a person endures suffering and privation, it is a hard enough portrait to experience. Multiplied by the millions, taken to the national level, it overloads our capacity to think and to feel. And so, we shut down our humanity, academize the pain, squalor and indignities into tidy geopolitical issues. This book attempts to strip away these tawdry and dishonest decorations, and attempt to provide a narrative of just how bad it can be. The treatment the people of Iraq underwent, at the hands of the US State Department is and was, for the most part, criminally incompetent. The author uses the term "disresponsible", a step beyond irresponsible, as in "should have taken the responsibility, but shucked it off. Oh, not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the risibly clueless professional caste of the elite American diplomatic 1% corps. Plenty of blame is there to be spread, in turn, down the line, through the parasitic contractor companies, to the level of the corrupt local sheiks and thugs.

This is not to say that reading this book is one long bummer, although there are some chapters that are so goddamn depressing as to make it an act of will to read to the end. The book is darkly funny, as in any building exercise, where the attempt is made to mold the vanquished in the image of the victor, the road to hell, paved with taxpayer dollars, cannot help but occasionally be deeply darkly funny. And van Buren is up to the task of finding those few elements of cynical humor, with choice bits well-represented by all four corners of Hippocratic humours: blood, phlegm, black, and yellow bile in just the right proportions.  Starting, of course, with the book title. No wry observation, when it comes to competency, could be more devastating than the term "We Meant Well". Anyone who has ever worked in an organization larger than Dunbar's Number, be it a multi-national corporation, large religious orders, or the Austro-Hungrarian Empire, will feel right at home in this book.
"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 Coalition Provisional Authority), plus another $18 billion donated by countries like Japan and South Korea. In 2009, we had another $387 million for aid to internal refugees that piad for many reconstruction-like projects. If that was not enough, over a billion additional US dollars were spent on operating costs for the Provisional Reconstruction Teams. By comparison, the reconstruction of Germany and Japan cost, in 2010 dollars, only $32 billion and $17 billion respectively".
Despite two decades of forced privation and occasional bombings on the parts of the Bush 1 and Clinton administrations, despite the corrupt and criminal rule of Saddam and his spawn, prior to the Bush 2 invasion, unemployment numbers were estimated at around 30%, average number of slum dwellers under Saddam totaled around 20%. In 2010, unemployment numbers were at least 50%, the United Nations in 2009 estimated 57% of all Iraqis lived in slums.

I conclude, not my usual style, with a jacket blurb from someone I respect.
"Long after the self-serving memoirs of people named Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld are consigned to some landfill, this unsparing and very funny chronicle will remain on the short list of books essential to understanding America's Iraq War. Here is nation buidling as it looks from the inside - waste, folly, and sheer silliness included" - Andrew J. Bacevich 

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