Our original mission in Iraq, while most unwise and certain, really, to lead to enormous problems, was well within our capabilities: the destruction of Saddam Hussein's Army and his regime. Now Van Buren, who is really an Asian specialist, arrived on the scene rather late. (Both the military and the Foreign Service have had to meet an extraordinary demand for officers in Iraq and, now, Afghanistan. Very few of them, of course, have appropriate language skills, and Van Buren got just a few weeks of training before he went.) Yet despite the success, by the time he arrived in 2008 or 2009, of the surge, the country evidently remained in a state of anarchy. It is not a joke to say that for every American like him, we needed several contractors to feed, house, and above all, guard him. Vietnam, where Saigon remained a functioning, westernized city right up until the end, was never like this. Interestingly enough, the Iraqi government, having gotten rid of American military personnel, is now making noises about expelling contractors as well. A friend of mine in a good position to know suggested that that might mean the end of our Embassy in Iraq as well, since the hundreds of Americans who work there would never be safe without them. (Note: a few days later it was announced that the Embassy is indeed being cut way back.)
Van Buren and his colleagues faced an endless pressure for results. Their mission was to make Iraqis happy and prosperous, in order that they would not be tempted to become insurgents. (Oddly, the Bush Administration took a real New Deal type of approach in Iraq and towards the whole Middle East: employed and happy people, they seemed to think, don't make revolutions.) But they couldn't do this, even though, as Van Buren shows again and again, Americans have spread untold millions of American dollars around Iraq--maybe more. He himself was involved in various economic projects, including a chicken processing plant and an attempt to turn widows (one of the few things, he notes, not in short supply in Iraq) into beekeepers. Virtually every project assumed a commercial and transportation infrastructure that Iraq does not have. A project for a chicken hatchery failed for want of electricity (a problem we have never fixed) to refrigerate them. Virtually every food product we tried to grow was easily undercut by cheap imports from Brazil. We never knew who really could do necessary jobs and who couldn't. Iraq has evidently been getting more and more backward economically ever since the first Gulf War, and we haven't stopped the downward spiral. Indeed, we made it much worse.
We easily forget that two million Iraqis, including most of the Christian community and many of the most educated, fled to Syria or Jordan in the period following the war. Another two million have been internally displaced. This has had many ironic consequences. Iraq has a population of wild pigs, and the Christians used to hunt and eat them. Now they are gone and the pigs are multiplying. This is not the only way in which the occupation was a setback for the values we claim to defend. Saddam had decreed co-education in Iraqi public schools, but the new government has resegregated the sexes. The result is that Iraqi children are on what we called in the 1950s double sessions, and both have to kill time for half the day.
I could go on a long time about this book, which is short, but not an easy read. Van Buren is back home now and he began blogging to publicize the book some time ago, and this got him into trouble with his superiors who accused him, it would seem on a very narrow basis, of leaking classified information. It's not clear how much of a future he still has in the foreign service. (You can read more about these issues by googling him.) But it's clear that we have had very little positive impact--although plenty of total impact--in Iraq, and we will have just as little, I am pretty sure, in Afghanistan. There will be o dramatic collapse, probably, like that of 1975 in Vietnam, and the effect on our society will be much less because we have a relatively small professional army now instead of a very large draftee one. (That is not to deny the enormous impact on surviving veterans, however.) The problem is not with our soldiers: it's with the decision to try to use American military to transform two societies with which we have virtually nothing in common. We never had a chance.Van Buren's book is interesting, because I don't think I have ever read a book on Vietnam whose tone was comparably cynical. It really reads like All Quiet on the Western Front, even though death is nothing like such a constant presence. As such it is a validation of generational theory: the Lost generation that fought the First World War were nomads, as Van Buren probably is. Boomers went to Vietnam with idealism, at least at first, and returned disillusioned; Van Buren was already a skeptic and returned much more of one. Tragically, George Bush took all the unity that emerged after 9/11 and poured it into useless, costly adventures that have increased cynicism about American institutions. This was terrible for America, but the Republicans are still trying to turn it into good politics for themselves.