This article is about Van Buren’s book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People:
“Nobody seemed happy,” he writes in a typical passage of Thanksgiving dinner inside the dining facility at his base, one of two on the southern outskirts of Baghdad where he worked, “but everyone did get a lot of food, though like our reports of success, much was ladled out while little was swallowed.”
The passage echoes his main complaint: The day-to-day reconstruction projects, he argues, were done as much to satisfy the bureaucratic need to demonstrate measurable progress as actually to make measurable progress.
He describes clashing with his superiors for trying to cancel programs that were clearly failing, like one to give sheep to widows that instead went to a corrupt sheik. He derides the distribution of humanitarian assistance as little more than photo opportunities that allowed commanders to check a box on progress reports.
“P.R. would fire off hundreds of frames of the same shot, of a smiling Joe handing a Transformer toy to a beaming Iraqi kid,” he writes. “If the photographers had zoomed out a bit they’d have seen the Iraqi faces grow more sullen the older the recipient. For every 3-year-old smiling over a Snickers bar, there was a gray-haired mother accepting a blanket without making eye contact.”
The Americans, he continues, were oblivious to the hostility the invasion caused among the Iraqis they were trying to help. When his team gave away tree seedlings, one farmer responded by spitting on the ground. “You killed my son and now you are giving me a tree?”