Saturday, July 5, 2014

"We Meant Well:" Failure is the Only Option

“We Meant Well:” Failure Is the Only Option
P. Schultz
July 5, 2014

            Every so often I come across a book that rattles my mind, or what is left of it. And this is what happened when I read the book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, by Peter Van Buren, who as a Foreign Service Officer [FSO] served a year in Iraq as part of Provisional Reconstruction Team {PRT] or, more precisely, part of a ePRT or embedded Provisional Reconstruction Team. He was serving his time on a forward operating base or FOB, embedded with other FSOs and with soldiers from the US Army.

            What makes this book so captivating is that it is a purely empirical account of the United States’ efforts to “reconstruct” Iraq in order to turn it into a prosperous, secure, and free democracy. You know, just like the United States. By “purely empirical” I mean Van Buren did not bring any theories to Iraq, whether supportive of or critical of, say, the prevailing counterinsurgency theory. His writing is not informed then by anything other than what he saw and what he experienced in his year in Iraq.  

            What he experienced is pretty much captured by his opening paragraph in a section entitled, “My Arabic Library.” Here is what he has to say:

“About eighteen months before I arrived in Iraq, one of my predecessors had ordered My Arabic Library, $88,000 worth of books, an entire shipping container. My Arabic Library was a Bush-era, US government-wide project to translate classic American books, so we now have Tom Sawyer, The House of the Seven Gables, and Of Mice and Men in Arabic. The Embassy had big plans for the books, claiming ‘It is so important that the children of Baghdad, the next generation of leaders of Iraq, obtain basic literacy skills. A love of learning and literacy will mean better job opportunities for them when they grow up. They will be able to better support their families and help build a more prosperous Iraq.’” [p. 1]

            As Van Buren points out, nothing came of this project, not surprisingly, with the books being “dumped…behind the school” by its principal. And this happened only after the books failed to sell on the black market.

            One wonders about this incident in several ways. One way, not related to Iraq, is how those who created this library understood the books they were having translated into Arabic. Tom Sawyer is hardly a book that would lead a sensitive reader or teacher to use it to highlight the virtues of the United States. After all, Tom is something of a scoundrel, a successful one but still a scoundrel at that. When I used this book in college level politics courses, often a student would say that the book had disillusioned them about their country.

            But regarding Iraq, what would make anyone think that these books would prove even interesting to Iraqi students, to say nothing of being enlightening? I know there is this thought out there about “the canon” and its importance, but to apply this thinking in a war torn country like Iraq seems not only weird but also delusional. This incident does reflect Van Buren’s claim that we Americans resembled no one so much as Mr. Magoo when in Iraq, thinking that the Iraqi only wanted to be like us. And why would they want to be like the U.S. when it was the U.S. who invaded and largely destroyed their country?

            There is another level to Van Buren’s critique of our efforts in Iraq post-invasion, viz, that not only were some of the things we were doing foolish and even silly but also that some of the things we were doing only made things worse. In his chapter entitled, “Humanitarian Assistance,” Van Buren points out this project consisted of the Army handing out bags of food or of school supplies. These give aways always drew a crowd which was fine with the Army because it created a good photo op, say, with “a soldier holding a kid in his arms, [or] a soldier smiling at a hijab-clad woman.” [114]

            But the photo-op was just that and nothing more. As Van Buren puts it: “The soldiers knew what to say around their officers and the Army media: best thing about being in Iraq, great to see kids happy, just doing our job, glad we could help. What they said afterward, spitting Skoal into an empty Gatorade bottle, was fuck these people, we give’em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.” [p. 115]

            Moreover, these events did harm rather than good. Van Buren again: “In a counterinsurgency campaign, there were several ways to make friends, most of them slow and difficult, like building relationships within a local community based on trust earned and respect freely given. Each iteration of handouts caused you to lose respect from a proud group of people forced into an uneven relationship….The Colonel who ordered these HA drops thought that them made him friends with the locals. He waited in vain for the groundswell of happiness set in motion to cause local people to start turning over to us info about the insurgents in their midst.” [p.115]

            The Colonel was making his situation worse, not better, by offering what was labeled “Humanitarian Assistance.” In fact, as Van Buren implies there was little that was “humanitarian” about it, as illustrated by the following: “This time, the Colonel was wrong. This was not Dances with Wolves; we were not going to be adopted into anybody’s tribe. I remember when we tried to give away fruit tree seedlings a farmer spat on the ground and said, ‘You killed my son and now you are giving me a tree?’ How many HA bags was a dead son worth?” [Pp.115-116]

            And this illustrates the delusional logic of the soldiers who spoke candidly among themselves about their feelings toward the Iraqis, viz., that “we give’em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.” But it wasn’t the Iraqis, it was the United States Army that started blowing stuff up and it did so without asking these Iraqis if they wanted the army to do it. What the soldiers and the Colonel do not, and perhaps cannot, see is that what is labeled “Humanitarian Assistance” has all the characteristics of a bribe or of a really cheap form of compensation. Bombing people and then bribing them or trying to buy their friendship with handouts will not pacify that people, nor should it. It will only make them hate you more.

            What appears from Van Buren’s account of his year in Iraq is the futility of U.S. policy in Iraq. Not only did it not work but it could not work; it was not a workable situation and, regardless of what “counterinsurgency theory” said, failure was the only option. It still is.

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