Peter Van Buren, How the American Taxpayer Got Plucked in Iraq

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Today’s twisted treat for you is a slightly adapted chapter from Peter Van Buren’s new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.  I’m sure you remember Van Buren.  Last Tuesday, he wrote a vivid first-person piece for this site, perhaps the first by a government truth-teller, on what it’s like to be harried by the government you’ve served for 23 years.  It can be read by clicking here or you can catch him discussing it here.  (Or you can listen to him talk about his book and experience in Iraq on Fresh Air by clicking here.) 

Keep in mind that the offer I made then your own signed, personalized copy of Van Buren’s remarkable book in return for a $100 contribution to TomDispatch — is still open, and your contributions, believe me, are deeply appreciated!  To get your book or find out more, click here.  Those of you who already gave, please be patient.  There was such a run on the book that we weren’t able to get our expected shipment.  It will be in soon and I hope the books will be winging their way toward you by week’s end.   

What follows is a favorite excerpt of mine from Van Buren’s new book.  Like nothing else I’ve read, it catches the particular madness of the American occupation and “reconstruction” of Iraq.  And here’s a rarity at this site: I thought it made sense to ask Van Buren himself to introduce the excerpt and he’s done so in his own inimitable fashion.  Tom]

Who doesn’t like roasted chicken? Fresh, crispy with a little salt, it falls off the bone into your mouth. It’s a great thing, unless the price is $2.5 million of your tax dollars.

As a Foreign Service Officer with a 20-year career in the State Department, and as part of the George W. Obama global wars of terror, I was sent to play a small part in the largest nation-building project since the post-World War II Marshall Plan: the reconstruction of Iraq following the American invasion of 2003. My contractor colleagues and I were told to spend money, lots of money, to rebuild water and sewage systems, fix up schools, and most of all, create an economic base so wonderful that Iraqis would turn away from terrorism for a shot at capitalism. Shopping bags full of affirmation would displace suicide vests.

Through a process amply illustrated below, in my neck of rural Iraq all this lofty sounding idealism translated into putting millions of dollars into building a chicken-processing plant. It would, so the thinking went, push aside the live-chickens-in-the-marketplace system that Iraqis had used for 5,000 years, including 4,992 years without either the Americans or al-Qaeda around. It did not work, for all sorts of reasons illustrated in the story below.  We did have great ambitions, however, and even made a video to celebrate opening day. Don’t miss the sign at the very the beginning thanking us Americans for “the rehabilitation of [the] massacre of poultry.” We sure paid for the sign, but the quality of the proofreading gives you an idea of how much thought went into the whole affair.

If the old saying that there is nothing more frightening than ignorance in action is true, you should be terrified after reading this excerpt from my new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. And keep in mind that it all happened on your dime.  What follows catches my experience of what was blithely called “reconstruction” in post-invasion Iraq.  I can assure you of one thing: the State Department isn’t exactly thrilled with my version of their operations in Iraq — and they’ve acted accordingly when it comes to me (something you can read about by clicking here).  For this excerpt, I suggest adding only a little salt.  Peter Van Buren

Chickening Out in Iraq

Very few people outside the agricultural world know that if the rooster in a flock dies the hens will continue to produce fertile eggs for up to four weeks because “sperm nests,” located in the ovary ducts of hens, collect and store sperm as a survival mechanism to ensure fertile eggs even after the male is gone. I had to know this as part of my role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Like learning that Baghdad produced 8,000 tons of trash every day, who could have imagined when we invaded Iraq that such information would be important to the Global War on Terror? If I were to meet George W., I would tell him this by way of suggesting that he did not know what he was getting the country into.

I would also invite the former president along to visit a chicken-processing plant built with your tax dollars and overseen by my ePRT (embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team). We really bought into the chicken idea and spent like drunken sailors on shore leave to prove it. In this case, the price was $2.58 million for the facility.

The first indication this was all chicken shit was the smell as we arrived at the plant with a group of Embassy friends on a field trip. The odor that greeted us when we walked into what should have been the chicken-killing fields of Iraq was fresh paint. There was no evidence of chicken killing as we walked past a line of refrigerated coolers.

When we opened one fridge door, expecting to see chickens chilling, we found instead old buckets of paint. Our guide quickly noted that the plant had purchased 25 chickens that morning specifically to kill for us and to feature in a video on the glories of the new plant. This was good news, a 100% jump in productivity from previous days, when the plant killed no chickens at all.

Investing in a Tramway of Chicken Death

The first step in Iraqi chicken killing was remarkably old. The plant had a small window, actually the single window in the whole place, that faced toward a parking lot and, way beyond that, Mecca. A sad, skinny man pulled a chicken out of a wire cage, showed it the parking lot, and then cut off its head.

The man continued to grab, point, and cut 25 times. Soon 25 heads accumulated at his feet. The sharply bright red blood began to pool on the floor, floating the heads. It was enough to turn you vegan on the spot, swearing never to eat anything substantive enough to cast a shadow. The slasher did not appear to like or dislike his work. He looked bored. I kept expecting him to pull a carny sideshow grin or wave a chicken head at us, but he killed the chickens and then walked out. This appeared to be the extent of his job.

Once the executioner was done, the few other workers present started up the chicken-processing machinery, a long traveling belt with hooks to transport the chickens to and through the various processing stations, like the ultimate adventure ride. But instead of passing Cinderella’s castle and Tomorrowland, the tramway stopped at the boiler, the defeatherer, and the leg saw.

First, it paused in front of an employee who took a dead chicken and hung it by its feet on a hook, launching it on its journey to the next station, where it was sprayed with pressurized steam. This loosened the feathers before the belt transported the carcasses to spinning brushes, like a car wash, that knocked the feathers off. Fluff and chicken water flew everywhere.

One employee stood nearby picking up the birds knocked by the brushes to the floor. The man was showered with water and had feathers stuck to his beard. The tramway then guided the chickens up and over to the foot-cutting station, which generated a lot of bone dust, making breathing in the area unpleasant.

The feet continued on the tramway sans torso, ultimately to be plucked off and thrown away by another man who got out of bed knowing that was what he would do with his day. The carcass itself fell into a large stainless steel tub, where someone with a long knife gutted it, slid the entrails down a drain hole, and pushed the body over to the final station, where a worker wrapped it in plastic. The process overall sounded like something from Satan’s kitchen, grinding, squeaking, and squealing in a helluva racket.

According to our press release, the key to the project was “market research which indicated Iraqis would be willing to pay a premium for fresh, halal-certified chicken, a market distinct from the cheaper imported frozen chicken found on Iraqi store shelves.” The only problem was that no one actually did any market research.

In 2010, most Iraqis ate frozen chicken imported from Brazil. Those crafty Brazilians at least labeled the chicken as halal, and you could buy a kilo of the stuff for about 2,200 dinars ($1.88). Because Iraq did not grow whatever chickens ate, feed had to be imported, raising the price of local chicken. A live bird in the market went for about 3,000 dinars, while chicken from our plant, where we had to pay for the feed plus the workers and who knew what else, cost over 4,000 dinars, more than the already expensive live variety and almost double the price of cheap frozen imports.

With the fresh-chicken niche market satisfied by the live birds you killed yourself at home and our processed chicken too expensive, our poultry plant stayed idle; it could not afford to process any chicken. There was no unfulfilled market for the fresh halal birds we processed. Nobody seemed to have checked into this before we laid out our $2.58 million.

The US Department of Agriculture representative from Baghdad visiting the plant with us said the solution was to spend more money: $20,000 to pay a contractor to get license plates for the four Hyundai trucks outside in the parking lot facing Mecca. Our initial grant did not include licensing the vehicles we bought. The trucks, he hoped, would someday transport chicken to somewhere there might be an actual market.

Another Embassy colleague repeated the line that the plant was designed to create jobs in an area of chronic unemployment, which was good news for the chicken slasher but otherwise not much help. If employment was indeed the goal, why have an automated plant with the tramway of chicken death? Instead, 50 guys doing all the work by hand seemed like a better idea. A chubby third Embassy person who came to the plant for the day, huffing and puffing in body armor, said the goal was to put more protein into the food chain, which might have been an argument for a tofu factory or a White Castle.

A Poultry Field of Dreams in Iraq

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.

We measured the impact of our projects by their effect on us, not by their effect on the Iraqis. Output was the word missing from the vocabulary of developing Iraq. Everything was measured only by what we put in — dollars spent, hours committed, people engaged, press releases written.

The poultry plant had a “business plan,” but it did not mention where or how the chickens would be marketed, assuming blindly that if the plant produced chickens people would buy them — a poultry Field of Dreams. Without a focus on a measurable goal beyond a ribbon cutting, details such as how to sell cold-storage goods in an area without refrigeration fell through the cracks. We had failed to “form the base of a pyramid that creates the possibility of a top,” the point of successful development work.

The plant’s business plan also talked about “an aggressive advertising campaign” using TV and radio, with the modern mechanized chicken processing, not the products per se, as the focus. This was a terrific idea in a country where most people shopped at open-air roadside markets, bargaining for the day’s foodstuffs.

With a per capita income of only $2,000, Iraq was hardly a place where TV ads would be the way to sell luxury chicken priced at double the competition. In a college business class, this plan would get a C−.  (It was nicely typed.) Once someone told the professor that $2.58 million had already been spent on it, the grade might drop to a D.

I located a report on the poultry industry, dated from June 2008, by the Inma Agribusiness Program, part of the United States Agency for International Development (and so named for the Arabic word for “growth”). The report’s conclusion, available before we built our plant, was that several factors made investment in the Iraqi fresh-poultry industry a high-risk operation, including among other factors “Lack of a functional cold chain in order to sell fresh chicken meat rather than live chickens; prohibitive electricity costs; lack of data on consumer demand and preference for fresh chicken; lack of competitiveness vis-à-vis frozen imports from Brazil and USA.”

Despite the report’s worrying conclusion that “there are no data on the size of the market for fresh chicken,” the Army and the State Department went ahead and built the poultry-processing plant on the advice of Major Janice. The Major acknowledged that we could not compete on price but insisted that “we will win by offering a fresh, locally grown product… which our research shows has a select, ready market.”

A now defunct blog set up to publicize the project dubbed it “Operation Chicken Run” and included one farmer’s sincere statement, “I fought al-Qaeda with bullets before you Americans were here. Now I fight them with chickens.” An online commentator named Jenn of the Jungle added to the blog, proudly declaring: “This right here is what separates America from the swill that is everyone else. We are the only ones who don’t just go, fight a war, then say hasta la vista. We give fuzzy cute little baby chicks. I love my country.”

So, to sum up: USAID/Inma recommended against the plant in 2008, no marketing survey was done, Major Janice claimed marketing identified a niche, a business plan was crafted around the wish (not the data), $2.58 million was spent, no chickens were being processed, and, for the record, al Qaeda was still in business. With this in mind, and the plant devoid of dead chickens, we probably want to wish Major Janice the best with her new ventures.

Telemarketing? Refi sales? Nope. Major Janice left the Army and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Baghdad hired her. Her new passion was cattle insemination, and we learned from her blog, “You don’t just want semen from bulls whose parents had good dairy production. You may want good feet, good back conformation or a broad chest.” Just what you’d expect from a pile of bull.

War Tourism

Soon after my first chicken plant visit we played host to three Embassy war tourists. Unlike the minority who traveled out on real business, most people at the Embassy rarely, if ever, left the well-protected Green Zone in Baghdad during their one-year assignments to Iraq. They were quite content with that, happy to collect their war zone pay, and hardship pay, and hazardous duty pay while relaxing at the bar.

Some did, however, get curious and wanted to have a peek at this “Iraq” place they’d worked on for months, and so they ginned up an excuse to visit an ePRT. A successful visit meant allowing them to take the pictures that showed they were out in the field but making them miserable enough that they wouldn’t come back and annoy us again without a real reason.

One gang of fun lovers from the Embassy who wrote about water issues in Iraq decided to come out to “Indian Country.” At the ePRT we needed to check on some of the wells we were paying for — i.e., to see if there was a hole in the ground where we’d paid for one.  (We faced a constant struggle to determine if what we paid for even existed.)  So the opportunity seemed heaven sent. The bunch arrived fresh from the Green Zone, two women and a man.

The women still wore earrings — we knew the metal got hot and caught on the headsets — and had their hair pulled back with scrunchies.  (Anyone who had to live in the field cut it short.) The guy was dressed for a safari, with more belts and zippers than Michael Jackson and enough pockets and pouches to carry supplies for a weekend. Everyone’s shoes were clean. Some of the soldiers quietly called our guests “gear queers.”

Everywhere we stopped, we attracted a crowd of unemployed men and kids who thought we’d give them candy, so the war tourists got multiple photos of themselves in their chic getups standing next to Iraqis. They were happy. But because it was 110 degrees and the wells were located in distant dusty fields an hour away, after the first photo op or two the war tourists were quickly exhausted and filthy, meaning they were happy not to do it all again.

We took two more tourists back to the chicken plant: the Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission (who proclaimed the visit the best day he’d ever had in Iraq, suggesting he needed to get out more often) and a journalist friend of General Raymond Odierno, who was thus entitled to VIP treatment.

VIPs didn’t drive, they flew, and so tended to see even less than regular war tourists. Their visits were also more highly managed so that they would stay on message in their blogs and tweets. It turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV shows and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story.

Therefore, it was easy not to tell the journalist about the chicken plant problems. Instead, we had some chickens killed so the place looked busy. We had lunch at the slaughter plant — fresh roasted chicken bought at the market. The Iraqis slow roast their chickens like the Salvadoreans do and it was juicy, with crisp skin. Served lightly salted, it simply fell apart in your mouth. We dined well and, as a bonus, consumed the evidence of our fraud.

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. This essay is adapted from his new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). To read about the grilling he’s gotten from the State Department for his truth-telling click here. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses what a State Department roast is like click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Peter Van Buren

Excerpted from We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by Peter Van Buren, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Peter Van Buren. All rights reserved.