My relationship with Saddam Hussein has taken a difficult turn – he was hanged at dawn five days ago.
We first met through the pages of TIME magazine in 1991. No, not a personal ad. He had just invaded Kuwait and by some trivial coincidence my own military career had just started. I was scurrying about, a very small and miserable mammal, in a dust-bowl artillery base near Potchefstroom, living by the commands of the capricious moribund apartheid military.
It is as an ordinary soldier that one can see most clearly just what a pathetic thing an army is; it is here that we unzip our fragile cultural suspensions and lose all manners. For it is simply not polite to kill someone else, whatever the excuse; worse still, to order someone else to do so. To accept the order is the greatest act of cowardice.
Armies: to defend ourselves, we say, from tyrannies, we create littler tyrannies within our societies, and take it for granted that some must accept them. During the second world war, it was discovered by careful application of scientific methodology, neutral as ever, that even when in mortal danger, nine out of ten American soldiers could not bring themselves to actually shoot their opponents. Generals were appalled by this revelation of inefficiency. To increase kill rates, new ingenuity in dehumanisation was required: but the US military has been equal to the task, more than, and has learned to effectively weaponise human mind and tissue. There is a trite lesson there, of course: to kill human beings, we have to first kill humanity.
Having done so, and helped others in emulating it, that same US military is, taken by itself, now the world’s biggest socialist state. To defeat – by looming – the former eastern bloc it became what it wished to destroy: a vast and ruthless command economy entirely devoid of market.
These were thoughts I could not convey to Saddam at the time: he was soon busy with ignominious retreat, sanctions, dismantling so it turned out his crueler armories, watching children die, the nitty-gritty itsy minutiae of modern tyranny. I watched his army’s desert scrabblings, burnings and dyings, and was glad I was someone else’s conscript.
Was he master of his destiny? Or is becoming dictator to throw away all hope of escaping a prison of fear: barred by terror: your own and others? Fear one is too scared to feel.
Could it be that with more and more power, there are fewer and fewer choices? That our hierarchical societies, however constructed, imprison those at the top? Who then revenge themselves on those who by ballot or default set them up?
More thoughts I never had a chance to share. The Kuwait thing was a debacle; but then, war always is. Saddam retreated behind a wall of propaganda and sanctions, he became the lynchpin of other’s righteousness, and so was more indispensable than ever. Indispensable, that is, till inadvertently revealed to be mostly bogey. Who now can fill his shoes, who can credibly carry our darkness?
We might not seem to have much in common, but I understand he did a little gardening in his last days, a distraction from the amusements of his trial, and I too know what it is like to anchor oneself against the void with seeds and soil and sunlight.
I should like to have exchanged notes on gardening in hot, dry, barren places – Baghdad, no doubt, much harsher, than the north slopes of Table Mountain in summer. Did he mulch? Recycle kitchen waste and grey water?
And if we had conversed, would my small gestures of ordinariness have taken root, or been washed away by cruelty, cynicism and fear? A shy man, with a limp handshake, one writer says. Probably he would have been most terrified by friendship.
Can one recycle a dictator? Surely it must be possible. Nurse aide, gardener, or if popular tastes demand it, sewerage maintenance technician. More elegant revenges suggest themselves: demanding he clean the blood and shit and filth of fear and death from every cell his torturers used, from Kirkuk to Basra to Tikrit: the penitence of imagination. No, more, let him hear out the rage and pain of every one of his victims. Execution – disposal without re-use – is dull, unjust and most unfashionable.
But – revealed to be a straw man, a constant reminder of the embarrassment of those had insisted he was so to be feared, he had to be dispatched. Swept incomplete off the workbench by those now needing – oh dear – another project to engage geopolitical hubris.
At his execution, someone shouted, ‘Go to hell!’ He replied: ‘The hell that is Iraq?’
Only at the end do we get to appreciate irony in dictators.
He was hanged in public. The skewed head and a large rope knot lit against the dark was seen by millions, thanks to the prurience of cameraphone and media. He had never attacked those who catalyzed his lynching, only taken their lead, after a cycle of seduction and abuse that must have echoed strangely for him whatever weird alchemy of learning and battering first made him deadly.
What is more evil, I wonder? A war prosecuted by those who fear a tyrant, or one prosecuted by the freely enlisted and deployed by the will or lazy acquiescence of the people?
We have mostly abandoned cock-fighting, bear-baiting, goat-scaping and turned to tormenting tyrants – but since all peoples are more indivisible than they may seem, this new pleasure demands tormenting entire nations. Denied our older tortures, we have turned the vast leverage of democracy and proxy to killing, maiming and ever-so gently persecuting on a scale we never managed when pitting brute against beast in little circus.
Now the world is the circus. There is no escape. We are all in the arena, shuffling ignominiously behind each other.
Rest in peace, Saddam, for a moment. I will see you again soon. At present, we insist on it.
(c) David Le Page 2007