Through the grim travails of one of Saddam Hussein’s top generals, journalist Steavenson (Stories I Stole, 2003) examines the dictator’s edifice of totalitarianism and moral corruption.
Taking her title from a verse of the Koran promising to mete out justice even to the “weight of a mustard seed,” the author weaves a fascinating account of how good men went terribly wrong. Steavenson worked as a journalist in Baghdad in 2003–04 and continued her interviews of exiled Iraqis in London and elsewhere, probing deeply into the stories of former Baath Party officials. Through a high-level Iraqi doctor who had served in the medical corps during the course of four Iraqi wars, the author was put in touch with the surviving family of Kamel Sachet, a commander of the special forces and general in charge of the army in Kuwait City during the Gulf War. The general was shot as a traitor by order of the Iraqi president in 1998. Born to an illiterate family in 1947, Sachet became a policeman and then joined the special forces, rising through the ranks to major. He distinguished himself during the Iran-Iraq war, gaining Hussein’s trust but also his occasional ire, which led to prison and torture. Sachet led the assault into Kuwait, but with the retreat and subsequent scourge by the United States, he became disillusioned with the violence and bloodshed and retired as a devout Muslim. Steavenson ably explores his and others’ obedience in fulfilling the dictator’s grisly demands, echoing works by Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and Stanley Milgram.
A tenacious attempt to answer the question, “How do ordinary little human cogs make up a torture machine?”