Heart of darkness

Saddam Hussein’s hanging, carried out in the darkness of a run-down execution chamber, immediately became global property – as if the execution had been carried out in a public square while the whole world watched. The Iraqi executioner who recorded it on his cell phone video created the dominant image of America’s misadventure in Iraq. The grainy video – which displayed the humiliating behavior of the guards and witnesses at the hanging, and the serious and dignified way in which the dictator faced death – became for this war what Francis Ford Coppola’s «Apocalypse Now» was for Vietnam – the myth at the core of America’s tragic failing. Both works draw on the truth that illuminated Joseph Conrad’s novella «Heart of Darkness» in 1898 – that when the Westerner, the white man, sets out to «civilize» and exploit the natives, in his arrogance and, having broken from bonds of society, he slips quickly into barbarism, like Kurtz, the Belgian company’s agent deep in Conrad’s Congo. The message of the video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, with its cannibalistic atmosphere, is that no matter what motives President George W. Bush might have had in invading Iraq (whether to disarm it of weapons of mass destruction or to plant the seeds of democracy in the Middle East), the image that will dominate is that of a lynching. The Americans managed to turn the bloodstained tyrant into a victim. No matter how much Washington may now try to distance itself from the execution, the Americans created the conditions for it. What matters is not what the Americans intended or how they would have done things; what matters is what the whole world saw. And this image is so strong as to erase much of what had come before. In this, they did Saddam a favor and incalculable harm to themselves. Before the deluge of the American invasion, Iraq was like a spiderweb that produced death in every way. Omnipresent, in the center of every aspect of life and death, was Saddam Hussein – from the giant portraits that were everywhere, in town and country, to his portraits on every banknote and on every newspaper’s front page every day. Right after the first Gulf War in 1991, I had the opportunity to spend four months in northern Iraq, the Kurdish area, on assignment for an international news agency. Saddam’s bloody fingerprints were everywhere. From the now looted police stations and prisons with their machinery of terror and death, to almost daily news of executions in Iraqi-held territory. A huge swath of land – stretching from Syria in the west, along the Turkish border and up to Iran in the east – had been stripped of its inhabitants. Every village and almost every town in this Kurdish area had been reduced to rubble and the countryside mined. Mass graves had not been excavated yet. Widows and orphans lived in the wreckage of a ravaged land. In this wasteland, Saddam built huge palace complexes for himself. There was not a family that had not lost someone to the war with Iran in 1980-88 and to the dictatorship. The orange Volkswagen Passats that had been given to families as compensation for men lost in the war (known as «Brazils» because that’s where they were made) were everywhere. This was in the north. Similar tragedies ruled the rest of Iraq. And yet, this was one of the richest countries in the world, sitting on huge oil reserves. To be sure, Iraq was way ahead of its neighbors and almost all other Arab countries as regards women’s rights and even minority rights. There was a Kurdish-language university in Iraq when Turkey still pretended that there was no such thing as a Kurd. Armenians lived in the north when, just across the border, the few who remained in southeastern Turkey hid their identity. Christians still worshipped freely in Iraqi churches, some of which had been established in the first years of Christianity. The state and religion were separate, until Saddam Hussein’s foolish invasion of Kuwait prompted him to play (without success) the role of leader of the Muslim world in order to face the wrath of the international community. The cruel irony was that this modicum of civil society was based upon a most brutal reign of terror, where people would disappear without a trace. The most basic human right – the right to life – was lacking. This was what needed fixing, not a collapse into anarchy, dismemberment and a free-for-all for power and resources. Iraq – sunlit, beautiful and so rich in history and resources – was the prisoner of horror and unmitigated sorrow. The arrogance and stupidity of the current invaders managed only to deepen the horror, the sorrow, the despair.

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