Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Peter Van Buren's "We Meant Well"

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

He applied “Page 99 Test” to his new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford said "Open a book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

The guy had a point. Page 99 of my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, is typical of what you’ll find on the other 287 pages. My writing hopes to evoke the scrappy, profane, lonely atmosphere of being assigned to a forward operating base in war-torn Iraq, and page 99 speaks to that. Haircuts were a requirement of military life, and the loneliness of being out in the desert, far from home, was expressed by the soldiers’ desire to believe that maybe, somehow, there might be some relief. My book is not for children, or people who prefer to pretend soldiers don’t curse, or miss home in all its forms, and that shows through on page 99 as well. Page 99 also shows that the book is funny, not hah hah funny, but maybe (in places) Catch-22 funny.

By the way, if you have never read Catch-22, go read that first. It’s better than my book.

Page 99 is a good page, and is reproduced in its entirety below for you to judge for yourself. More excerpts from the book are online at my blog:
The Iraqi barber on Forward Operating Base Falcon, like his barber brothers from Sri Lanka at other bases, had a vocabulary of about six English words, all synonyms for short. He favored the phrase too easy, meaning something you requested would be easy to deliver. “Can you cut my hair short?” “Too easy.” “Can you cut my hair quickly?” “Too easy.” Haircuts with this guy were indeed too easy because he seemed to deliver a shorter version of whatever your hair looked like, no matter what you asked for. It took only a few minutes given this efficient system, so this was the place to go when you were in a hurry. He also gave the closest shaves, scraping away with a single- edged razor blade he pinched between two fingers. Let a guy whose language you did not speak shave around your lips and up your neck with a single- edged piece of steel and you need never again prove your courage in any way.

At Forward Operating Base Hammer the Iraqi- run barbershop was endlessly rumored to be a front for prostitution. The deal was that you waited until the other customers were not listening, then asked the barber for a “special massage.” Having spoken the code, you were led to a back room for paid sexy-time fun. The barbershop operated out of a steel shipping container and so even the stupidest person knew there was no back room, or any room, absent the one you were sitting in. That time after time the barber would answer “no special massage here” just made the rumor more compelling, as not just anyone could order up a girl. The rumor would shift: sometimes it was only officers who could get a girl, or the girls would not service tall soldiers, or they would go only with civilians. But in fact no one could name a single person who ever got anything more than a mediocre haircut. I have no doubt that out there in the desert soldiers even today are convinced that sex is available for sale through that barber. You just want to believe.
(c) Copyright 2011, Peter Van Buren
Learn more about the book and author at the official We Meant Well website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue