Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well, discusses his time in Iraq.
Peter Van Buren has become one of the newest targets of the US Department of State. What did he do? He blogged. Van Buren posted a link to a publically available WikiLeaks diplomatic cable, but even after nearly a quarter of a century with the US government, they are opening up an investigation on him. Following the release of a new book from Van Buren, he talks to Lauren Lyster about what you can and can't say in the land of the free.
Where are you from?
Born in Staten Island, New York, grew up in Ohio. I have lived abroad nearly continuously since 1985 both as a student and with the Foreign Service. While I am residing for the time being in Northern Virginia, home is a backpack for me, not an address.
Who are your favorite writers?
William Styron, Michael Herr, Joseph Heller, Graham Greene, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Catch-22 and Dispatches. I am also influenced by the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
I build ship models for recreation. I enjoy reading, traveling and finding new restaurants.
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
Try to do extraordinary things. Don't settle for good.
What is your favorite quote?
From Animal House: "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life." Despite becoming almost corny from overuse, I still love the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V. I think the words of the Gettysburg Address are the most beautiful things ever written in English.
What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
Were you scared in Iraq? The answer is yes, and no. It was an odd thing to become adjusted to living with the possibility of sudden, violent death at any time. My base was often mortared and rocketed at night; the rounds would fall where they fell, and you could do nothing to protect yourself, a test of luck over courage. I would be scared for certain, but at the same time not particularly care, knowing it was out of my hands. I was never sure if that was a healthy thing, or whether my own casualness was something I should fear. You learn to live with many things.
What inspired you to write your first book?
In Iraq I almost immediately realized I was witnessing extraordinary events on a daily basis: people suffering from US war violence, parents trying to raise their children amongst the chaos, soldiers trying to find ways of dealing with the stresses and absurdities of the day, billions of dollars being spent on failing water and sewer projects with nary any accountability while having $25 cell phone card reimbursements denied for lack of a paper receipt, and so on and on and on. Despite having read deeply about the situation in Iraq, these very real parts of the war did not seem to appear in anything published. I wanted to tell people back home what I was seeing, to shout about what was happening in Iraq. I wanted to bring home with me a record of what America was doing in Iraq. I wanted to remember everything.
Where do you write?
This book was written entirely in Iraq; there is sand and dust and sweat on every page. I made notes while strapped in the back of armored vehicles, and typed on my laptop on helicopters and in bunkers while others used the light from my screen to play cards. I wanted to convey a sense of immediacy, I wanted the reader to feel as if s/he was there looking over my shoulder throughout my year in Mesopotamia.
That said, I am not a full-time writer. I was a participant in the war, making decisions and taking actions that changed in small ways the events around me. I lived, worked and ate with the men and women I wrote about; some became my friends, some were coworkers, some of them never had names to me. The writing was ancillary to the doing, and the living. I never set out to write a book, and I never did things or witnessed things so I could write about them. Quite the opposite—the book is a record of what Iraq presented to me, the smells, the actions, the places and so has a grounding in truth and reality I challenge other "writers" to achieve. This was my world, my life and my war for a year. You get to read about it.