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Review of “We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people” by Peter Van Buren

It strikes me that not all theology or theological nourishment can come from books catalogued under the rubrics of the Dewey Decimal system as such.   Peter Van Buren in his narrative history of his year in Iraq serving with the United States State Department is one of those which might seem strange as a place to go to remind ourselves that the prophet’s admonition that along with doing justice and loving mercy, one is also expected to practice humility and that it is so often so difficult for institutions, societies, churches, and, yes, nations to do that when they are seeking to make real their vision, their understanding of what others ought do, how they ought to live. Humility involves respect and recognition of the rights and responsibilities of others as well as the ability to recognize the log in one’s own eyes as well as the gnat in the other’s.

Mr. Van Buren is a career diplomat/bureaucrat who has spent his career working for the United States in various capacities around the world.  He has helped in such diverse places as Japan, Africa, and other far-flung assignments as a representative of this country and received several awards from the State Department for his service.  His journey to Iraq offered him an opportunity to confront corruption, self-aggrandizement and self promotion, tragedy, and war.  And he writes about it with stark realism, gallows humor, warmth, and honesty.   This is post-invasion Iraq.  Sadaam is dead.  The United States is represented by armed forces who seek to make the place safe by force and unarmed bureaucrats who seek to make it safe by turning it into Kansas.  And, Mr. Van Buren, reminds his readers “Toto, you ain’t in Kansas anymore”.

The Iraq of this book is torn apart by sectarian violence as well as American invaders who want to help build a society that is Western, democratic, and non-sectarian.  The first thing forgotten by the United States, it seems, is that culture trumps policy papers.   Mr. Van Buren offers us a chance to think about what it means to invade a country which the invader doesn’t understand, seeks to dominate and yet wants to be loved and respected by its people.   It offers a real opportunity to consider our (American) paternalism and/or empire seeking and how it affects both those we send in our name and those unfortunate enough to populate the country to which we go.  Of the billions spent on “rebuilding and/or development projects” and observed by the author, most if not all ended in failure (water purification plants that failed due to lack of trained operators and/or electricity, poultry processing plant that had no market for its products, or a computer lab with no electricity).  In fact the one success was a 4-H program started by a woman from Wisconsin(of course) and which focused on allowing the participants and their parents to take it over.   It focused on raising locally donated goats.

Not ignoring the violence and destruction in which he found himself, Mr. Van Buren also reminds the reader that his time there was only made possible by the safety provide by soldiers and other military personnel.  As a disabled veteran of combat service(?) in Vietnam (I was a grunt), I find most observations and/or writing about war to border on the absurd if not totally out of touch with what it’s really like to have the choice (non-choice?) offered in times of battle.   Mr. Van Buren has the integrity and intelligence to allow those who were there to tell their stories without embellishment or censorship and recognizes that for the grunts and the Iraqi’s this debacle was neither glorious nor successful.  He even dares to tell the story of a suicide of a soldier and how that effected his unit.   And he isn’t afraid to see the absurdity of everyday life as lived “on the ground” and not in the embassy.   If you will pardon the personal memory, his description of a visit to the “Green Zone” reminded this vet of trips out of the “field” and into the rear while doing my time in Vietnam.   Nothing reminds one more of the absurdity and idiocy of war than the contrast between those who plan and those who implement.

This is a book which Presidents and Presidential candidates should read before they decide that we need to invade and/or dominate a society/country if for no other reason than to remind them that cultures are created not by consultants or policy wonks but by history and those who participate in that history.   And it is a book to be read by church folk, believers that we might think about and be confronted with Micah’s notion that God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.   How do we build a community, participate in world and seek a nation which embodies such not just for those in the community, in this nation but those effected by it?   Peter Van Buren makes one think about the trade-off we’ve made choosing safety based on dominance while ignoring the call to do justice and love mercy wrapped in a blanket of humility.


Tom Williams is a Presbyterian minister whose career has included tent making as well as interim ministry and a disabled Vietnam veteran having spent most of 1969 as a grunt with an infantry unit there.

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