It isn’t really insightful at this point to say that the war in Iraq is a clusterfuck. After a rapid, decisive invasion, American forces found that defeating the Iraqi military was nowhere near as difficult as the challenges presented by ongoing occupation. Faced with a population that silently resents their “liberators” at best, and at worst, openly battles them, true victory seems impossible, which leaves escape with a minimum of casualties as the only realistic goal. But what of the people left behind? In The Weight Of A Mustard Seed: The Intimate Story Of An Iraqi General And His Family During Thirty Years Of Tyranny, reporter Wendell Steavenson (Stories I Stole) discusses one of Saddam Hussein’s top generals through the eyes of the people who knew him. By doing so, she tries to paint a portrait of a population which has dealt with so much that even tyranny can be viewed with nostalgia.
Kamel Sachet first grew to fame as a major in the Iraq-Iran War, where his military victories earned Hussein’s favor. But that was as much a curse as a blessing, and Kamel, soon promoted to general, was unable to find similar success in the spectacularly ill-advised assault on Kuwait. As Hussein’s control of the country turned increasingly paranoiac, Kamel turned to religion as a way to find some stability and combat the moral decay of working for a murderous regime that dispensed slaughter and praise in equal measure. While Kamel worked to balance his life, the country changed, and those with the means fled arrest and its inevitable conclusion; Kamel wasn’t a fool, but his loyalty to his leader left him unable to avoid tragedy.
Steavenson gets her title from a Koran passage about the exactitude of God’s justice, and over the course of the book, she tries to find some measure of that exactitude in the Iraqis who worked to make Saddam’s rule last. She tells Kamel’s story through anecdotal evidence, and the resulting biography is fascinatingly incomplete; the general is often less the focus than the interviewees, their justifications of their past, and their frustration at the morass occupiers have made of their homeland. Steavenson’s attempts at moralizing can come off as naïve, and Weight works best when it sticks to describing without judgment. Like the war in Iraq, it’s a narrative that resists easy answers.