Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Weight of a Mustard Seed

Wendell Steavenson admits right up front that Saddam Hussein would have been unable to sustain his brutal dictatorship of Iraq without the help of those willing to carry out the horrible atrocities he directed. Be it war against neighboring countries, massacre of fellow Iraqis or torture prisons filled with those seen by Saddam to be a threat to his regime, he could not have managed it alone. Steavenson is not a naïve woman; she fully understands that her many interviews with former Iraqi Army officers have to be filtered through the eyes of a skeptic because those with whom she spoke were more interested in spinning a story that would justify what they personally did during the Saddam years than they were in telling the truth.

Despite her skepticism, Steavenson decided that the men deserved to be heard and the result is The Weight of a Mustard Seed: An Iraqi General’s Moral Journey during the Time of Saddam. Not surprisingly, along with claiming to have never felt fear in battle, each of those interviewed claims to have always tried to limit the brutality of Saddam’s orders as best he could despite the danger to the lives of himself and his family for having done so. Iraqi military men, much as the Germans did after Hitler, have orally rewritten their history to the point that Saddam was the only bad person there and everyone else was, to varying degrees, one of his victims. Of course, that is a lie – and Steavenson does not pretend otherwise.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed focuses on General Kamel Sachet, a man eventually executed upon the orders of Saddam despite the fact that he was a Saddam favorite for most of his military career. Steavenson came to believe from all the interviews she conducted with Sachet’s fellow officers that he might have indeed had cleaner (though not clean) hands than most. However, she reminds the reader that she reached this conclusion by speaking with Iraqis, all the time fully aware that the art of duplicity is part of being an Iraqi, and that survival under the Saddam reign of terror required Iraqis to develop multiple personalities from which they could choose to fit the occasion.

What emerges from The Weight of a Mustard Seed is an inside look at the men who made it possible for Saddam to brutalize Iraq for so many years. Despite their attempts to hide the truth, and to make themselves look better than they were, the interviews reveal interesting detail about the military, the prisons, the purges and the tribal rivalries that made it all so easy for Saddam to surround himself with men as brutal as him. It is necessary to read between the lines and to compare the stories of different speakers, but one does come away with a sense of how Saddam was able to make Iraq into his personal playground for so many years.

Rated at: 4.0

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