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 US$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 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.
How the American taxpayer got plucked
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 severe 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
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
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
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-a-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 US
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
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, ie 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