Baathed in Blood
Chronicling the horror, and scope, of Saddam's tyranny.
May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
Le Livre noir de Saddam Hussein
IN A BRIGHT ROOM IN Baghdad, Saddam Hussein is on trial. In the din of America's public square, so is the invasion that overthrew him. An international stable of writers argue that the only evidence that matters, in both trials, is of Saddam's horrifying human rights violations. Nine years after the acclaimed Black Book of Communism appeared, another French publisher has issued a 701-page "black book of Saddam Hussein" that pushes to the background all talk of WMDs, skewed intelligence, terrorism, and democratization, and focuses our attention on the atrocities of a tyrant of historic proportions.
The book's editor, veteran French journalist Chris Kutschera, concludes that while "the American war may not have been the ideal way to put an end to Saddam Hussein's dictatorship," there was no better one, because overthrow was simply no longer possible from within a savagely repressed society. So: No invasion, more Saddam. And that was an outcome these authors--an array of Middle Eastern, European, and American journalists, academics, and activists--could not bear.
This hefty volume includes almost three dozen substantive chapters chronicling the rise and record of Iraq's Baath party, the operations of Saddam's secret police, his cult of personality, his sanguinary wars against Iran and Kuwait, and his international suppliers of arms and diplomatic support. They show that Saddam's quarter-century in power was a virtually uninterrupted exercise in bloodletting in nearly every direction.
Soon after becoming president, he massacred personal opponents in and outside of his ruling Baath party. For the next two decades, he would subject critics and adversaries to a steady stream of torture, assassination, and terror, including the rape rooms, prison horrors, and executions that were regularly reported by Amnesty International and others. Fellow Sunni Arabs were not exempt, but the main categories of victims were Iranians, Kuwaitis, and Iraq's Kurds and Shiites.
In 1980, Saddam launched a needless and bloody war against majority-Shiite Iran and terrorized Iraq's own Shiites to ensure their quiescence. As that war wound down, Saddam was freed to turn his attention to the Kurds whose loyalty was, indeed, questionable. In the 1988 "Anfal" campaigns, his henchmen killed 100,000 or more Kurds (including through poison gas) and forcibly resettled thousands more in desolate regions elsewhere in Iraq--events that Human Rights Watch declared "genocide."
Two years later, he invaded Kuwait and treated its civilians with notable brutality. When Operation Desert Storm shattered Saddam's army, both Kurds and southern Iraqi Shiites rose in revolt, and the regime maintained power through astonishing savagery, which filled mass graves across southern Iraq with an unknown number of Shiites--perhaps in the hundreds of thousands. The same images are evoked again and again: rapes, murder of children, forms of torture that make your eyes flinch from the page, and masses of victims buried in the night.
The book's marketing strategy prominently claims that Saddam's quarter-century claimed two million lives. That might overstate the tragedy. It's also premature; researchers simply can't settle on a persuasive number of victims until those mass graves are unearthed in the years to come. But what cannot be denied is the scope of Saddam's atrocities. Within his regime, Saddam ruled like Stalin: Everyone in the elite was a potential victim, and knew it. Outside the regime, he ruled more like Hitler: Since oil-rich Iraq didn't need Soviet-style slave labor, Saddam simply killed his adversaries.
In one of the most insightful essays, Hazem Saghieh, a prominent London-based Lebanese journalist, argues that comparisons to those totalitarian counterparts are not out of place. And in the preface, Bernard Kouchner, the human rights campaigner and founder of Doctors Without Borders, unabashedly calls Saddam "one of the worst tyrants in history."
The most unsettling chapters recount Baathist violations against Kurds and Shiites, as well as individual episodes like the 1960s persecution of Iraq's remaining Jews and the extermination of regime opponents like the Kurdish Barzani clan and the Shiite al-Hakim family. Details abound; Kutschera's chapter on the Kurds is a short book in its own right. Of course, even a book this size has omissions. Most obviously, it covers only sporadically the years from the first Gulf War to 2003, when the regime ruled by unconcealed gangsterism and reduced Iraqis to deepening penury.
But it also offers innovative contributions to the public debate. One section discusses Saddam's international supporters and suppliers, especially the Soviet Union and France. This could correct progressive commentators who seem to think that Saddam's closest ally was Donald Rumsfeld. A chapter describes how Arab regimes and intellectuals turned blind eyes and issued apologies. Others suggest how Saddam's policies sharpened the confessional and ethnic differences now so viciously on display in Iraqi politics.
For all that, Le Livre noir de Saddam Hussein represents an intellectual mystery. Journalists and authors have already extensively covered Saddam and his regime. It's true that this book provides some of the best discussions available on the persecution of the Marsh Arabs and the suppression of the 1991 Shiite uprising. But in the main, all these stories are familiar. And many of them are going to be dredged up in that Baghdad courtroom anyway. This borders on old news. It seems unnecessary to produce a Black Book about Saddam at all. Yet most of these writers have an urgent and indignant tone.
What gives? Kutschera, the editor, offers one answer: Many people, in fact, do not know the scope of Saddam's crimes, and many others don't know many details about them. Perhaps more important, Kutschera and his collaborators know that they live in a world in which some items are pushed out of people's moral imaginations, and off their moral agendas, with remarkable ease and speed. Specifically, they know they live in a world in which once the Holocaust has been addressed, moral blind spots about mass murder and abuse proliferate impressively.
The pattern is plain: Over and over again, perceived abuses by Western societies--colonialism, the Vietnam war--are revisited in conversation and thought until they are part of our mental furniture. What happens to the crimes of others is very different. Some of them get sucked down the memory hole. Those of us of a certain age remember that the very independent Idi Amin was far worse, but it is Joseph Mobutu--portrayed as a U.S. ally, if not puppet--who has emerged as the durable symbol of abusive African rule.
More often, crimes committed by non-Westerners are blamed on Westerners. As in: America provided Saddam with chemical weapons; Palestinians mimic Israeli brutality; the Khmer Rouge was driven to madness by U.S. bombing. It was Belgian colonialism that taught Rwandan Hutu génocidaires to be tribal and to kill. And the CIA created Osama bin Laden, while U.S. excesses created his followers.
The soft bigotry here is not of low expectations but of no expectations. This suggests that only Westerners have moral agency. To deny a person the capacity to initiate evil is to deny them the capacity to initiate good, or anything in between.
The result is a vicious cycle in which many educated people engage easily with the storylines they already know, and are unsure what to do with the unfamiliar. Most infamously, members of the world's intellectual and journalistic classes have a habit of not denying Communist atrocities but of knowing almost no details about them and never volunteering the topic.
Let's not even bother with the Great Terror and the Ukrainian famine and, instead, go straight to something recent. Ask yourself: When was the last time you saw, read, or heard anyone discussing the estimated one million civilians killed during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan during 1979-89? People old enough to have lived through that aren't reminded of it. And younger ones have almost no opportunity to learn about it. Such acts of forgetting are why the Black Book of Communism was still needed so many years after Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and why the tales it told were greeted as foreign all over again.
Iraq is not an exception. Intellectual imaginations immediately grasp the importance of the widely covered website "Iraq Body Count," tabulating Iraqi civilians reported killed after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam. But the researcher-activists who created that site don't run a similar count of Iraqis killed by Saddam before April 2003, or one of bodies as they emerge from his mass graves, and they can't even be bothered to link to neglected websites publicizing those graves, such as afhr.org and the austerely powerful (and graphic) massgraves.info.
In the same spirit, institutions as diverse as Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the University of California at Santa Cruz, Bryn Mawr and Amherst colleges, and Florida State University have already offered courses that discuss Abu Ghraib as a place where U.S. soldiers committed abuses, not as a place in which Saddam's secret police tortured thousands to death.
It's no coincidence that the Black Book of Saddam Hussein has been received with what Kutschera describes as a "chill" by the French commentariat, has been ignored by the reviewers in the leading French newspapers--Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Libération--and was reviewed only snidely by Le Monde Diplomatique.
This is the real virtue of the Black Book and other volumes like it. They offer the details that most news media and college classes won't. They memorialize those who otherwise might be forgotten. And they are the raw materials for an alternative storyline, one that takes all peoples seriously enough to say that they are moral agents, both for evil and for good.
Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.