Review: We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People

6 Star Special, America (Founders, Current Situation), Budget Process & Politics, Civil Affairs, Complexity & Catastrophe, Congress (Failure, Reform), Corruption, Crime (Corporate), Crime (Government), Culture, Research, Diplomacy, Economics, Empire, Sorrows, Hubris, Blowback, Executive (Partisan Failure, Reform), Humanitarian Assistance, Insurgency & Revolution, Intelligence (Government/Secret), Iraq, Military & Pentagon Power, Misinformation & Propaganda, Nature, Diet, Memetics, Design, Peace, Poverty, & Middle Class, Power (Pathologies & Utilization), Public Administration, Security (Including Immigration), Stabilization & Reconstruction
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Peter Van Buren

5.0 out of 5 stars 5.0 out of 5 stars Six Stars & Beyond–Open Heart Surgury on a Corrupt Ignorant Government,September 29, 2011

FINAL REVIEW

The author himself begins the book with a reference to Dispatches (Everyman’s Library Classics & Contemporary Classics) followed by Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition, to which I would add A Rumor of War. This is a great book, an important book, and I salute the Department of State people with integrity that approved it for publication, while scorning the seventh floor craven autocrats that have bullied the author for telling the truth. This book is the real deal, and I have multiple notes along the lines of gifted writing, humble *and* erudite, quiet humor, ample factual detail, gonzo-gifted prose, an eye for compelling detail, *absorbing,* a catalog of absurdities and how not to occupy a country.

Late in my notes I write “Reality so rich it stuns. A time capsule, priceless deep insights into occupation at its worst.”

And also write down an alternative subtitle: “The Zen of Government Idiocy Squared.”

This is a book, from a single vantage point, of the specifics of “pervasive waste and inefficiency, mistaken judments, flawed policies, and structural weakness.” Speaking of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), the author says “We were the ones who famously helped past together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck.”

We learn that at the peak in 2007, there were 31 PRTs with Private Military Contractors (PMC) paid to provide security, and 13 embedded PRT (ePRT), where the US Army provided security and all else (housing, transport).

62 agencies competed with or ignored one another in Iraq, all of them “fragmented and under-staffed.” One PRT served a population the size of Detroit with a staff of six.

The staffing that the diplomatic surge provided (once allowed by the mercurial and perhaps insane Donald Rumseld and frat-boy Paul Bremer was “mostly amateurs. Out of 610 PRT personnel in mid-2007, 29 spoke Arabic, or 5%. [This is of course what happens when a mercurial government compounds its own ignorance with an insistence on unilateral US citizen staffing, excluding multinational participation at the tactical level, where legions of Arabic-speaking, Islam-understanding real experts are available from many countries.]

The PRTs received three weeks training (neither the author nor I make stuff like this up). Week One is a dummies guide to Islam. Week two focuses on spreadsheets used to track the billions being blown into thin air. Week Three is what we in the CIA call “crash and bang”–the cursory basics of shooting and using a car as a weapon to escape.

QUOTE (14): “Missing from the training was any history of the war and our policy, any review of past or current reconstruction projects, any information on military organization, acronyms, and rank structure, any lessons learned from the previous years’ work, or any idea of what the hell a PRT was and what our job was going to be.”

Recurring themes throughout the book, which assuredly should be a war college and government entry level reading staple, include:

+ enthusiastic ignoring of reality by all parties
+ chaos at all levels across all boundaries
+ no one asked the Iraqis what they wanted–ever
+ no one did market research in support of any thing they proposed
+ the one constant was illegal DVDs, many made in China
+ the one thing not lacking in Iraq was money by the billion
+ Embassy isolated, flip-flopping, totally divorced from reality
+ US loose money took Iraq from 20th to 4th on the global corruption index
+ We did not play well together
+ We overpaid for everything, with no accountability anywhere
+ Constant struggle to determine if what we paid for even existed
+ Cognitive distance between and among all participants
+ Good projects like the 4H Club did not require money, and were shut down

The author has one chapter on the “tribes” imposed by the US on the Iraqis, including soldiers, KBR white (good old boys), KBR brown (doing the dirty work), KBR green (security), other contractors including Filipinos and Ugandas, Iraqis, and Iraqi-American translators.

Early on one gets a finely-crafted sense of the “Mad Max” nature of the environment, and I have a note to myself: devastating detail on the mediocrity of it all, the pervasive corruption (corruption is not just about honor, it also includes being stupid and irresponsible at taxpayer expense–see my Journal: Reflections on Integrity UPDATED at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog).

The below quote is in my view a microcosm of the insanity of the entire $80 billion a year US secret intelligence community that provides “at best” 4% of what the President or a major commander needs to know, and nothing for everyone else.

QUOTE (30): Speaking of the overhead surveillance blimp, “With the appropriate clearance, you could watch the video feed from your desktop computer as the soldier in charge zoomed in on patches of real life outside our walls. In the odd way that soldiers entertained themselves, dogs going at it were always worth zooming in on, and one troop claimed to have a night-vision enhanced video clip that will never make Wiki-Leaks, showing a man in close carnality with a donkey.”

I’ve spent my life in the real world, including decades in residence across Asia and Latin and Central America, but have never encountered a level of inter-locking detail such as this author provides on the basics–each factoid that he presents is an indictment of the incapacity of the US Government – including its $80 billion a year “intelligence” community – to actually get in touch with ground truth. Four words capture the essence of the mass of detail: trash, water, sewage, power.

I’ve known Turkey was playing the US for big bucks in Afghanistan, this is the first time I read in detail about how Turkey gamed the US system to secure massive amounts of funding for work that could have been done by indigenous Iraqis for 1-2% of what Americans paid Turkey (as well as KBR and the others of course — roughly 60 billion from Congress, 90 billion captured, 18 billion donated, and nothing to show for it.

The essence of American hubris and hypocrisy at the tactical level is captured by the author in this quote:

QUOTE (76): “…instead of holding local elections as the starting point for converting the country into a democracy, we appointed local sheiks as local leaders, with the promise of elections to follow, someday. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

It merits comment that most of us knew we should not have invaded Iraq; that General Shinseki honestly appraised Congress of the 400,000 needed to keep the peace after the invasion; that General Garner was on the verge of succeeding when Dick Cheney pulled him out and sent Paul Bremer in to assure the failure of the US; and that the US Government is not designed to serve the public interest, but rather — since 1980 — to optimize the transfer of wealth from the US taxpayer to the banks and corporations that comprise the various taxpayer-funded special interest groups that are inherently antithetical to the public interest.

Worthy of note for me were two major discussions of homosexuality among US forces in Iraq, the first righteous, that no one seemed to care about one’s sexual proclivities; the second, which should not have surprised me but it did, to the effect that there is much more homosexual activity, including among normally “straight” men, and all of it is aided by Facebook pages and other social networking means that get down to the specific Forward Operating Base (FOB).

The chapter on the three colonels, pp. 122-130 is not fair to many, but is consistent with both the stories out of Afghanistan, where one reserve officer was ordered home for writing about the number of useless colonels, and with more recent stories in the media about “toxic” US Army leadership culture. Self-promotion rules, and books on counterinsurgency are for show, not for reading.

QUOTE (130): “One of the difficult parts about counterinsurgency was that it was hard to tell when you had won. You measured success more by what did not happen than what did, the silence that defined the music. Silence did not play well with self-promotion, but it sure as hell beat the sound of IEDs.

There are many specific examples throughout the book, but the one that will stay with me forever is the chicken processing plant built at a cost of $2.58 million, that ended up killing and processing twenty-five chickens.

QUOTE (144): “How many PRT staff members does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One to hire a contractor who fails to complete the job and two to write the press release in the dark.”

QUOTE (152): “Our job was not to think in or out of the box but to retrace endlessly the outline of the box itself.”

On page 157 hundreds of soccer balls decorated with flags go to waste because the Saudi flag has a Koran verse in it and no one would kick that. The Chinese sub-contractors knew to leave off the Israeli flag, but not the Saudi flag. For me this is a tiny reminder of Winston Churchill’s wisdom, “The Americans always do the right thing, they just try everything else first.” The depth of the ignorance, naivete, and downright irresponsible attitudes across the US Government stun me to this day.

The chapter on the CIA is narrow (misses NSA and other pieces) and half-admiring and half-sad, ending with the observation that while State can know its failures today if it is honest, it will be decades before the truth comes out on the failure of intelligence.

QUOTE (208): The devolution of counterinsurgency into counterreality was hardly limited to my ePRT, or to the State Department.”

QUOTE (222): “Our American goal [insert any idea here] was irrelevant. They had a system in place that predated our idea by approximately five thousand years. More was not better.”

Late in the book I learn the author’s FOB was mortared 70+ times and read some very good stuff on wounds, training to treat wounds, and the reality of treating wounds. This is followed by the factoid on page 240 that out of 4471 US deaths in Iraq, 913 have been suicides (here in the USA we are reaching 18 veteran suicides a day, and one hushed-up self-immolation of a veteran in New Hampshire). In 2009 and 2010, there were more suicides among US troops in Iraq than combat deaths. In June 2010, there were 32 suicides in one month.

The chapter on “What Victory Looks Like,” pp 245-254 is destined to be an extract of great value to courses across the spectrum from public administration to ethics to economics 101.

QUOTE (253): “We meant well, most of us really did. Hubris stalked us; we suffered from arrogance and we embraced ignorance.”

The last sentence of the book, on page 268, helps explain–above and beyond all that went before–why the Department of State “mandarins” are freaking out, remembering that in the class war that the rich have won, Secretaries of State are part of “they” not part of “us.”

QUOTE (268): “No thanks really but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned us there.”

The book has 60 notes, most of them pointing to online sources. As a 30 year veteran of the classified world, I am certain that there is nothing classified in this book; that the State Department personnel involved in clearing the book were righteous and professional; and that anyone at the State Department harassing the author is ripe for impeachment or a civil lawsuit.

I certainly do encourage everyone to buy this book, it will join Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Losing the Golden Hour: An Insider’s View of Iraq’s Reconstruction (Adst-Dacor Diplomats and Diplomacy Book), and Still Broken: A Recruit’s Inside Account of Intelligence Failures, from Baghdad to the Pentagon as classics–I mean that in the very respectful sense–of how not to do diplomacy.

There are roughly five parts to the demise of the American “Empire,” in this order:

1 Lost of electoral system integrity leading to two-party tyranny and complete corruption in Congress and the Executive.

2 Out of control Department of Defense regardless of who is in charge, with Donald Rumsfeld *barring* the Department of State from presenting and then executing its well thought out, in advance, plans for post-war occupation and reconstruction.

3 Shallow Department of State unable to surge anything, with a fortress mentality from the years when Madeline “Gerbil” Albright decided that her legacy would be bunkers no one could get in or out of.

4 Corrupt tendency to rely on contractors for “surge” when what really happens is they steal away the shallow bench from within, and we end up with no government and rotten contractors.

5 Zero intelligence because intelligence is irrelevant in this town. Paul Pillar just wrote the definitive book on the political side of that problem, see Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform. We are wasting $80 billion a year to provide “at best” according to General Tony Zinni, USMC (Ret), 4% (four percent) of what the President or a major commander needs, and nothing for anyone else. So are we surprised to have Iraq turn into a three trillion dollar keystone cops meet griftopia sinkhole?

I mention the above in part to observe that the Department of State does the best it can with almost zero resources, in the face of grotesquely over-bearing and very ignorant Department of Defense “leaders,” and to observe that even Jesus Christ himself could not succeed in Iraq as long as Dick Cheney was hijacking the White House, George Bush was trapped in a family farce, and Donald Rumsfeld was nearly lunatic with the abuse of power. See in passing:

Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency
The Bush Tragedy
Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy

PLEASE buy this book and then share it (I donate all my books to the George Mason University Library, without marking them up, for a modest tax credit). The day must come when those who are in power not only avoid the mistakes this author points out, but also embrace the messenger rather than trying to shoot him.

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