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Peter Van Buren: Joining The Whistleblowers' Club

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The world can be a luckless place, but every now and then serendipity just knocks you off a cliff. In what passed for my real life before TomDispatch intervened, I was (and remain, on a part-time basis) a book editor in mainstream publishing. The "slush pile" in a publishing house is normally the equivalent of an elephant's graveyard, the place prospective books go to die. It's made up of proposals or manuscripts arriving over the transom from potential authors who have no literary agents, no contacts, and normally -- whether they know it or not -- no hope.

The odds for getting published that way these days must fall into the miracle category (which is why successful books from the slush pile often make the news). Peter Van Buren's journey to publication -- and so to whistleblower status -- was among the more improbable slush-pile odysseys of our times.

In 2009-2010, he was a State Department official on a godforsaken forward operating base south of Baghdad, his mind boggled by what he was seeing of the grim farce of American "reconstruction" in Iraq. He was then sending emails home to his wife in the States that would, sooner or later, become part of his Iraq manuscript, and at night wandering the Web trying to learn more about the country and situation he had been plunged into. In that process, he stumbled upon TomDispatch, began following it, and noticed that, from time to time, authors writing for the site produced books that TD then highlighted.

In 2010, back in the States with a rough manuscript in hand, knowing no one in publishing nor anything about it, not even realizing I was a book editor, he sent an improbable email to the TomDispatch mail box that began: "I am a Foreign Service Officer just returned from a year in the field in Iraq (PRT leader) and I have a completed book draft. Would you be willing to read it as a possible title to publish, for a prepublication comment, and/or for a later excerpt on your site?"

As it happens, I do read everything that comes in to the TomDispatch "slush pile" (though sometimes, sadly, I'm too busy to answer), because I consider it the university of my later life. Along with much appreciated encouragement, and reasonable dollops of criticism and complaint, people from around the world write me about what matters to them or tell me about lives I might otherwise never have imagined. Who could resist?

Because of my busy life, I've nonetheless made TomDispatch a no-submissions site and normally I would simply have nixed Van Buren's requests, but something stopped me, maybe only the fact that he had only recently returned from service in Iraq. I wouldn't say I replied positively -- "chances are always slim" was my discouraging phrase -- but I did ask him to write me a description of his book and himself, and because I had no time just then, passed it on to Steve Fraser, my partner at our co-publishing venture at Metropolitan Books, the American Empire Project. A few days later, the phone rang. It was Steve, telling me that I really did need to read Van Buren's manuscript, that he was a natural, and it was the real McCoy.

In other words, the wildest sort of online slush-pile luck turned Steve into his editor and Van Buren into a published author and so dispatched him willy-nilly into the strange, embattled world of Obama-era governmental whistleblowers. As a group, they are, after all, just about the only people inside the National Security Complex who ever get in trouble for their acts. In our era, the illegal surveillers, the torturers, the kidnappers, those who launch and pursue undeclared and aggressive wars, and those who squander taxpayer dollars all run free. Later, if they were important enough, they write their memoirs for millions of dollars, peddle their speeches for hundreds of thousands more, and live the good life.

The only figures in the Complex regularly pursued as troublemakers and possible criminals turn out to be guilty of a single all-American crime: telling the citizenry what they should know about the operations of, and often enough the crimes of, the government they elected. Peter Van Buren did so with his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Now, he's a slush-pile criminal and, thanks to the whims of serendipity, I was the one who aided and abetted his "crime." (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses the present plight of the whistleblower, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

What We Lost in Iraq and Washington, 2009-2012 
By Peter Van Buren

People ask the question in various ways, sometimes hesitantly, often via a long digression, but my answer is always the same: no regrets.

In some 24 years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public's back. In most cases, the gap was filled with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just hid the mistakes and flaws of those anonymous functionaries.

What I saw while serving the State Department at a forward operating base in Iraq was, however, different. There, the space between what we were doing (the eye-watering waste and mismanagement), and what we were saying (the endless claims of success and progress), was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not scaredy-cat bureaucrats.

That was too much for even a well-seasoned cubicle warrior like me to ignore and so I wrote a book about it, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I was on the spot to see it all happen, leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in rural Iraq while taking part up close and personal in what the U.S. government was doing to, not for, Iraqis. Originally, I imagined that my book's subtitle would be "Lessons for Afghanistan," since I was hoping the same mistakes would not be endlessly repeated there. Sometimes being right doesn't solve a damn thing.

By the time I arrived in Iraq in 2009, I hardly expected to be welcomed as a liberator or greeted -- as the officials who launched the invasion of that country expected back in 2003 -- with a parade and flowers. But I never imagined Iraq for quite the American disaster it was either. Nor did I expect to be welcomed back by my employer, the State Department, as a hero in return for my book of loony stories and poignant moments that summed up how the United States wasted more than $44 billion in the reconstruction/deconstruction of Iraq. But I never imagined that State would retaliate against me.

In return for my book, a truthful account of my year in Iraq, my security clearance was taken away, I was sent home to sit on my hands for months, then temporarily allowed to return only as a disenfranchised teleworker and, as I write this, am drifting through the final steps toward termination.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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