Culture: We're bombarded by Iraq war stories

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The Independent Culture

Is the conflict in Iraq the most written-about war in history? It seems like every journalist who was embedded with a detachment of troops has ended up with a book deal. Scarcely a week passes without another author emerging from the battlefield brandishing his manuscript, most of them hoping to be acclaimed as the next Anthony Swofford.

So far, the most successful book about the subject has been Generation Kill, a grunt's-eye view written by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright. It has been turned into a TV series by David Simon and Ed Burns, the same team responsible for The Wire, which debuts on British screens on 25 January on FX.

Another book that may break out of the pack is The Weight of a Mustard Seed by Wendell Steavenson, which has just been published by Atlantic. One of the few books in Iraq to be written by a woman, it eschews blood-and-guts war reporting in favour of a probing investigation into the long-term psychological effects of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror. In particular, Steavenson is interested in how much damage Saddam's misdeeds did to the personalities of those who consented to them, whether tacitly or explicitly.

"Each had their own permutation of indignation, explanation, rationalization," she writes. "It seemed easy enough to blame Saddam, mad monster, instead of admitting that it took thousands of individuals to enforce his will."

The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a little like Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen's book that argued ordinary Germans had to bear a share of the responsibility for the Holocaust – except that Steavenson is less interested in the effects of Saddam's crimes on ordinary Iraqis than on the regime's elite. To that end, she focuses on the life of one man — Kamel Sachet, one of Saddam's top generals, who was placed in charge of Kuwait City after the 1990 invasion and executed for treason in 1999. By documenting the impact of Saddam's regime on this man – who started out as an honest, hard-working soldier, devoted to his nine children – Steavenson shows the insidious effect the Iraqi leader had on the whole country.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a powerful account of the moral disintegration of the Iraqi people that deserves to be widely read.

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