The Weight of a Mustard Seed, By Wendell Steavenson

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The Independent Culture

Charting the moral corruption of an individual by a totalitarian state in order to analyse what drives men to do evil has, of course, been a tool used by writers in the past. Gita Sereny's biography of Albert Speer and Hannah Arendt's study of Albert Eichmann, in attempting to explain the Third Reich, are well-known cases. Wendell Steavenson acknowledges both works in undertaking a similar mission with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The man she has chosen in order to deconstruct what went on there is Kamel Suchet, devout family man, pious Muslim, brave soldier, and a henchman of the regime.

Suchet's rise, fall and death, a secret execution at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, is tied to the turbulent history of his country – the Ba'ath coming to power, the rule of Saddam, the long years of war with Iran and the catastrophic decision to invade Kuwait. Suchet ascends from being a junior policeman to a general in the special forces and the governor of a province.

He is not a blind adherent of Saddam but someone vocal in his criticism of the leader during the Kuwait misadventure. His public life is not a smooth upward trajectory. He is imprisoned and then released, promoted and dismissed, brought back and then disposed of with his body, dressed in the black shroud of a traitor, stuffed into a broken-down refrigerator.

This was not a unique career path in Iraq. As Steavenson points out, Saddam preferred a policy of "rod and reward" to show he had the absolute power to reduce people and to redeem them, making his victims his creatures. As reward following a bout of punishment, Suchet is given a farm.

All he wants to do is live the simple life, put on his dishdash, and tend his date trees. However, when the call comes he is quick to return from retirement to take over the post of the governor of Maysan province in the south. Refusal would have been seen as a sign of disloyalty, with all the inherent danger that brought.

The one problem with using the life and death of Suchet as the device to understand the time and place is that there are large gaps in the knowledge of his role in the worst excesses of the regime. Steavenson acknowledges, "I don't know what Kamal Suchet did in Mosul and where he was over the previous months of the intifada is disputed". Mosul was the centre of a brutal drive against the Kurds. The intifada, in which the southern Shias were encouraged to revolt and then abandoned by the Americans and British, was put down with particular savagery.

We do know that Suchet became increasingly zealous in his religious beliefs, ordering the men under him to pray five times a day, refusing to have women on his staff, closing down bars in Maysan, imposing the hijab on his wife, destroying family photographs in which Western clothes had been worn.

Steavenson muses whether this piety was Suchet's attempts to cleanse himself of guilt. We do not know. But if it is, then it also became a path of self-destruction. For it was these public acts of embracing fundamentalism that led to increasing friction with the more secular minded Ba'athists around Saddam and probably led to his downfall.

Steavenson's interviews with others who served the regime elicits responses of "I was only following orders" and "the system was to blame" types. There is an element of truth in that. Iraq under Saddam was a regimented society where official diktats were followed without question. As journalists, we had to hand over large sums to the information ministry in Baghdad for the privilege of working there. The serial number of each dollar note – the currency of choice – was painstakingly written into a yellowing ledger.

I remember asking Rashid, an intelligent young ministry official, the reason for this time-consuming and pointless chore. He shrugged that he did not know, but there was no question of disobeying instructions, nodding towards an adjoining transaction in which the hand taking down the details had all the fingernails missing.

Steavenson comes to the conclusion that "at the back of my mind, in every interview I ever conducted with Iraqis, was the knowledge that duplicity was as much a part of being Iraqi as excessive pride, excessive hospitality and love of the kebab". Surely, this is not a peculiarly Iraqi trait but something found in any society in conflict.

I am writing this review at Garmsir in Helmand, another frontline in the "war on terror". A few days ago, during a military operation, an Afghan farmer told the British troops that he was very glad to see them because his community was being preyed on by the Taliban. Later he told me - non-white, non-soldier - that, although he disliked the Taliban, he was also against the presence of foreign forces because this was contributing to the violence. No doubt he expressed another set of views when talking to the Talibs.

This is not so much duplicity as a matter of survival. And one of the messages which comes powerfully out of this book is that in an unnatural society, normal rules of behaviour cannot apply. Truth and justice are abstract concepts, and the overwhelming human condition is one of living in fear.