By JONATHAN STEELE
Sunday, March 22, 2009
OF A MUSTARD SEED
The Intimate Story of an Iraqi General and His Family During Thirty Years
By Wendell Steavenson
Collins. 288 pp. $24.99
In the ever-rising pile of Iraq books, Wendell Steavenson's work stands out for its strikingly different approach. She goes back to the decades before the U.S. invasion to uncover the fears and emotions of the men who worked for Saddam Hussein. At first sight, her aim -- writing the history of an era that we all know was appalling and that mercifully is gone -- may seem unfashionable, especially now that the succeeding period has produced insecurity and bloodletting that have touched every Iraqi family, not just the elite.
But the period immediately after a regime change, when fear subsides and memories remain vivid, is the best time to conduct oral research. Beginning in the summer of 2003, Steavenson spent four years tracking down former officials of the Baath Party and winning their confidence. Talking to Saddam's victims was easy, but candid talks with his henchmen were something else. The top potential interviewees -- the most-wanted men in the U.S. military's notorious "deck of cards" -- were and still are either in hiding or in prison. So Steavenson set her sights one rung lower. Starting in Baghdad and continuing in Amman, Damascus and Beirut, the half-British, half-American freelance journalist searched out members of Iraq's Sunni upper and middle class who had fled from kidnappings and sectarian killing.
The central character in the book is Kamel Sachet, a much-decorated general who fought heroically in the Iran-Iraq war, organized Iraq's efforts to hold on to Kuwait when U.S. troops came to liberate it in 1991 and later served as Saddam's governor in the overwhelmingly Shiite province of Maysan. But Steavenson spreads her net much wider. Her hunt for men who knew Sachet takes in a senior army psychiatrist, a general who commanded the Second Republican Guard Corps until the fall of Baghdad in 2003, a parachute officer who took part in the invasion of Kuwait, the former deputy governor of Abu Ghraib prison and many other leading Baathists.
Through their stories we gain insight into the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, when Iraqi commanders (though not Sachet) ordered absurdly risky offensives and routinely executed deserters. We are taken into the occupation of Kuwait in 1990, and we witness the bombing and gassing of Kurdish villages during the brutal "Anfal" campaign in the late 1980s.
The overriding question is why almost none of these men escaped or rebelled. The rewards of power were great, but the dangers were even greater. Promotion and demotion succeeded each other for no clear reason. Officials could be denounced for disloyalty at any time, and no one was sure whether the mercurial dictator would punish the accused or the accuser.
Steavenson takes the book's title from a Koranic verse that says that even the slightest act of goodness will be placed on the scales of justice on judgment day. She says that she used her interviews to search for "flickers of conscience," convinced that "this army, as instrument of the regime, did monstrous things but it was made up of ordinary men." Why did they not give up? How did they live with themselves?
In Kamel Sachet's case, the answer was an escape into religion, combined with personal discipline and decency to the men in his command and the people he served as a provincial governor. He became ultra-observant and, unlike most Iraqi Sunnis, a kind of fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslim. Did that help or hinder him? Halfway through Steavenson's narrative, I began to suspect that she would never meet her main subject. Sachet, it turns out, was summarily executed in Abu Ghraib prison in December 1998. There are numerous theories as to why, but Steavenson found no one who knew for sure. One rumor is that he refused to accept a position as deputy to Ali Hassan Al Majid, the notorious "Chemical Ali," and was condemned by the dictator's son, Qusay. Another is that while declining the promotion, he shouted at Saddam Hussein.
As well as being a first-class investigation, "The Weight of a Mustard Seed" is a book of self-discovery, almost a political coming-of-age. Steavenson admits that she initially supported the U.S. invasion: "I was naive then." Only later did she realize that the occupation was a national humiliation for Iraqis, one that led the sons of her hero-general to join the resistance, even though they had no affection for the dictator who killed their father. Steavenson also says that she came to realize the complexity of moral choices in a totalitarian system, where some element of collaboration is inevitable.
The book has its weak points. Steavenson had to use interpreters and worked with a notebook rather than a tape recorder. Inevitably, then, her accounts of battlefield dramas and the inner turmoil of her characters often smack of literary imagining or embellishment. The writing sometimes sinks into cliches -- "Saddam had overreached and now his hand was stuck in the cookie jar," she says of his invasion of Kuwait -- and occasionally explodes into meaninglessness: "Saddam had gathered all his might and swollen pride into a great wave that crashed, shattering its kinetic tumult into spurts and spray of white noise, fizz and confusion."
But overall Steavenson pieces together a quilt of hard reporting and intelligent speculation that tells the reader more about the tensions of living close to power in Saddam's dictatorship than almost any previous effort by a Western writer.
Jonathan Steele is a senior foreign correspondent for the Guardian and author of "Defeat: Losing Iraq and the Future of the Middle East."