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.Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean. Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler. We Meant Well is his first book.
Peter Van Buren On Writing We Meant Well
Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well, discusses his time in Iraq.Share This
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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.
We Meant Well
American Empire Project
Peter Van Buren
Henry Holt and Co.
"One diplomat's darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and State Department have done—or tried to do—since the invasion of Iraq. The title says...