The Weight of a Mustard Seed
A journalist examines the life of an Iraqi general to understand why good people serve evil regimes.
He was remembered by many as a brave, simple, upright man. He prayed to his God, showed compassion to the needy, and was a caring father and husband.
Yet Kamel Sachet was also a pillar of a corrupt and murderous regime. As a general in the Iraqi Army (and a major hero of the Iraq-Iran war), Sachet did Saddam Hussein’s bidding for 30 years, so loyally that Saddam once gushed, “The Iraqi soldier should be in every way like this...! Kamel Sachet is a commander I treasure.”
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Why does a man of character serve a tyrant? That was the question troubling journalist Wendell Steavenson. For it wasn’t just Sachet that she encountered but others like him. Men who seemed intelligent, just, and compassionate. They stood close enough to Saddam to see him clearly – and yet they did not leave.
“Why had they served such a regime? How had they accommodated their own morality...? How had they lived with themselves?”
These are the questions that Steavenson tackles in The Weight of a Mustard Seed (the title comes from the Koranic saying that, in the day of divine reckoning, “If there be the weight of a mustard seed and it were [hidden] in a rock ... God will bring it forth”), her scrappy attempt to explain through the life of one man: “How do ordinary human cogs make up a torture machine?”
Wendell Steavenson is a journalist in the mold of fabled Polish correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski. Like Kapuscinski, she has a taste for far-flung, uncomfortable assignments. She has lived in and reported from post-Soviet Georgia (about which she wrote “Stories I Stole”), Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. She stayed on in Iraq beyond what many would have considered the point of good sense, continuing to sheath her blond hair and go out on assignments, even after the kidnapping of her colleague, former Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll.
But as Steavenson explains, “Once a story is under your skin, time and distance become just more hurdles, along with sense and sensibility, that have to be reckoned with.”