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WE MEANT WELL by Peter Van Buren Kirkus Star


How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People

by Peter Van Buren

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9436-7
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Laugh-out-loud stories about how the United States failed to rebuild Iraq.

After 2005, the State Department suddenly received orders to reconstruct the country. In the loop after years of neglect, it scrambled to find qualified personnel but never succeeded. The main criteria seemed to be a willingness to live in Iraq for a year at a salary of $250,000 and three paid vacations. A career Foreign Service bureaucrat with a daughter requiring college tuition, Van Buren volunteered. After a hasty “Islam for Dummies” orientation (“dudes kiss, no serving bacon, no joking about God”), he flew to Iraq, collected his helmet, body armor and armed guards (mandatory when off base) and set to work. The author’s hilarious vignettes do not conceal his outrage. “The more projects the better” mantra trumped inconveniences such as market research. A clothing factory opened and quickly closed in the face of far-cheaper Chinese imports. Researchers doubted Iraqis would pay double for fresh chicken what they currently paid for the frozen Brazilian variety, but American contractors built a chicken-processing facility anyway—and proved the researchers right. Easy, feel-good projects were popular, producing cheerful photos of troops giving free stuff to happy kids, while avoiding sullen Iraqi adults observing from afar. Long-term development proved difficult because Iraq’s government refuses to assume salary and maintenance costs once American contractors finish, leaving the nation dotted with empty school, clinics and other facilities. A few moving essays reveal a desperately unhappy nation, but mostly this is a delightful companion to Richard Galli’s classic Vietnam hearts-and-minds satire, Of Rice and Men (2006).

One of the rare, completely satisfying results of the expensive debacle in Iraq.