Monday, February 23, 2009
The Weight of A Mustard Seed: An Iraqi General's Moral Journey During the Time of Saddam by Wendell Steavenson - 288 pgs
The Weight of A Mustard Seed attempts to chronicle the illustrious and often perilous military career of General Kamel Sachet, a man who was not only a decorated and respected Iraqi military leader, but was also a favorite of Saddam Hussien. In a series of informal interviews with his friends and colleagues, author Steavenson ventures to create a picture of a man torn between his morals and his duty, who struggled constantly to keep his integrity while still following his orders. What emerges from these interviews are not only snapshots of Sachet's life and service, but the hidden insights of men and women brutalized by their country's regime and their frightening egomaniacal leader. Amidst confusing shifts of loyalty, torture and imprisonment, the story reflects the horror that Kamel and others faced. With only their resiliency and determination to cling to in the storm of the extremism of Saddam's policies, they began to commit frightening and horrible crimes. In addition, the book explores the ramifications and repercussions of the Iran/Iraq war on the Iraqi people, examines the disastrous invasion of Kuwait, and explains the people's hostility to the military occupation of Iraq by American forces. In her investigation, the author repeatedly tries to understand how a man can resist while still colluding, how he and others like him can justify their complicity in the barbarous destruction of Iraq and it's people, and how each can live with the realities of their collaboration.
To be quite honest, I found this book to be quite contentious. While I appreciated what the author was trying to accomplish with her investigation into the life of Sachet, I felt that the actual book began to take a different turn very quickly. It ultimately became the author's quest to figure out why and how all these atrocities had taken place, and to question her subjects about their roles in the fiendishness of the regime. While investigating these questions, it began to seem that the author in some ways tacitly absolved these conspirators. Everywhere I looked, these men were trying to exonerate themselves of their responsibility. Many of the men said that that if they were just following their orders, and that they entertained no thoughts of resistance, that it was kill or be killed, that it was human nature, what could they do? Some of them committed truly awful crimes against their countrymen, from kidnapping, rape and extortion, to mass execution and torture. In fact, at times this book was nauseating to read. The description of these men's crimes were awful and soul searing, but the author seems to give them the easy out and agrees to let them downplay their roles in these crimes. She asks the tough questions but never requires the tough answers, and in the end it seems that she seems to acquit them of their crimes, allowing them to blame their leader and his policy instead of themselves as a group for following his orders. In fact, most of the men don't seem too shaken up about what they have done. Most of their concern centers on their own survival and their ability to emigrate out of Iraq, some even leaving their wives and children behind. Over and over again, these men refuse to take responsibility for their part in this horrible mess, hiding behind their orders and their fear and ignoring the fact that they perpetrated heinous crimes. They seemed to use every excuse in the book to justify their actions, never really convincing me that they were remorseful or penitent for what they had done.
The focus on Sachet's life was brief and scattered. I never really got a whole picture of the man as an officer, father or husband because it seemed that the author was so busy pursuing other areas that little actual information about the General was gleaned from her subjects. What I did find out about him was speculative, for the author acknowledges that most of her conversations were in the realm of hearsay or rumor. In the beginning of the book, she admits that she had to basically take one account and corroborate it with others, matching stories for accuracy and relevance. I believe this is because there is little to no documentation on the military service of Sachet and there were few people of authority willing to stick their necks our to talk to a foreign reporter. I found the sections regarding the General too scant to form a real opinion of him, other than the fact that he was very loyal to Saddam and eventually began having doubts about his loyalty and his complicity. In fact, he seemed a bit less heinous than the others interviewed, and that is what makes this story a bit frustrating because I felt I would have liked a more focused study on his ideas, behaviors and actions.
As far as the organization of the book and the writing thereof is concerned, I was extremely disappointed. The book was just plain messy. There were dizzying shifts in timeline and perspective. I often came across chaotic and confusing aspects of chronology that took me out of the flow of the story while I was attempting to understand just when all these events were taking place. The writing too was chaotic, filled with long pointless run-on sentences, improperly conjugated verbs and disjointed phrases. This writing style was perhaps the biggest negative about this book, as it was so hard to concentrate on what the author was trying to say that I became by turns frustrated and angry. A few times I had made up my mind to stop reading this book and throw it against the wall, but I felt that if I could persevere, the writing may even itself out and become more clear. Unfortunately it did not. I am really surprised that this book is being published in this form, as it appears to have never have been under an editor's eye. The whole structure came off as a rambling and ill thought out venture, a confusion of subject, ideas and conclusions. Once in awhile, a flash of brilliant prose would shine through, but that never lasted long. The effectiveness of the book, I feel, was hampered by the actual mechanics of the writing, which I felt was sloppy, unfocused and hurried.
I had great hopes for this book, and it failed to live up to even one. I don't think it is too harsh to say that with the timeliness of it's subject matter, this book could have been great, but it didn't make the cut. I spent most of my time in reading this book trying to follow the author's logic, trying to understand her sentiments, and trying to read and comprehend her words. In the end the most truthful thing I can say about this book is that it was trying. Unless you are very curious, and ready to deal with some frustrating ideas and writing, this book is one best avoided.