Peter Van Buren–We Meant Well

PVBIraq reconstruction: embrace the suck

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People stands shoulder-to-shoulder with many other great war books. The food is bad and the environment gritty. The Colonel’s in charge; body armor’s strapped on; everybody piles into helos or Humvees to leave base. A young soldier, comrade torn by hot shrapnel, ignores the bloody gristle staining his cheek to stop the damn bleeding.

Throughout Peter Van Buren’s story, the screech of mortality hangs overhead.

This is not diplomatic writing. This is not a dissent-channel cable from the front line of the war on terror. Politics and controversy inform the narrative all right, but enough has been said already about those elements, the irony, absurdity, politics, problems in general with breaking people’s stuff and paying hundreds of billions of dollars to fix it up all over again.* These things anger me, but I’m not wasting time on the things in Van Buren’s account that make me mad.

Rather, the prominent reflection I find in the shine and high polish here is one of humanity. Beyond Van Buren’s blackest humor, his sharpest eye, is the writing itself: engaging, emotionally charged, expressive of faith in humanity and country. Without a trace of jingoism, Van Buren gives us a patriotic lament—for a nation led down the blind path of destruction, for a nation victimized by this blindness. It is equally a lament for the human souls forced to slog this unnecessary march.

Van Buren’s sober, honest narrative about his year embedded with the U.S. military during the reconstruction of Iraq evokes both his own humanity and the humanity of those around him, the soldiers he’s embedded with and the Iraqis they’re assigned to assist—and, still, to fight.

Of the young soldiers playing hoops at dusk on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer he writes: “In this place, a fortresslike home in the middle of a war in Iraq, where things existed not to be beautiful, only necessary, they were the beautiful. The way they moved, the sweat on their arms, the grace in their exertion, the failing sun behind them were all beautiful”. Or, taking stock of the personalities he lives and works alongside: “Deep in the soldiers’ language was a wry, sad humor that dispelled misery while acknowledging it existed… Better the bitching came out as a joke, a mockery, in great phrases like Embrace the suck or Love the suck. The suck was anything/everything wrong. On good days, such as frozen shrimpette night at the DFAC, people said, “We suck less tonight.””

Van Buren must have had more than one young soldier’s death to memorialize. He certainly recounts the heroism of troops fighting to save each other’s lives. So why does the camp’s reaction to one soldier’s suicide rate a full chapter? And how is the rendering so flawless and appropriate? The Captain, team leader of the departed, admits not knowing the soldier—he didn’t even have a nickname.

Simply, we will miss him anyway because he was one of us. The word that raised the sentence beyond simple declaration was “anyway.” It was important to believe we all meant something to one another because we were part of this. When it rained, we all got wet. We could hate the war, hate the President, hate the Iraqis, but we could not hate one another… Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, today, at this place, we all missed him anyway.

Detractors (at State, in uniform, political- or other mercenary/contractor-type) may take exception to the tone and content of this earth-scorching account of waste and worse. The writer, at times, portrays his role in affairs somewhere between that of maddening counterpart and passive obstructionist. But, reading closely, none should question the humanity and patriotism from which his actions and this story flows.

Maddening to the end is Van Buren’s irony. He’s written a book that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other great books about war, yet is a war story like no other. But then its subject matter—the War on Terror—is a war like no other.

* “One diplomat’s darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and the State Department have done—or tried to do—since the invasion of Iraq.” New York Times


Views expressed on this blog are my own & don’t necessarily reflect the views of my employer