The Weight of a Mustard Seed

A journalist examines the life of an Iraqi general to understand why good people serve evil regimes.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed By Wendell Steavenson HarperCollins, 288 pp., $24.99

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.”

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.”

Steavenson demonstrates an enduring interest in the human condition and its mysteries. In the case of Sachet, however, she is never able to give us more than glimpses of the man. We hear of him through his family and his colleagues – many of whom are now expats living in Damascus or Beirut – but we never really know him. And certainly the mystery of evil is not resolved through his story (any more than it ever has been through case studies of Hitler’s henchmen).

Steavenson does succeed in demonstrating that Saddam created a regime of terror and that he distorted the Iraqi consciousness with a corrupt psychology. She then points to studies that demonstrate that many good people crumble under bad authority. None of this, however, really satisfies.

Yet Steavenson’s reporting and her ambition are both plucky and admirable. And as we travel with her through both Iraq and the expat centers of the Middle East, we are privileged to witness unusual scenes and conversations.

We glimpse Iraq and the US invasion through the eyes of Sachet’s family. We see Sachet on the battlefield (captured on videos treasured by the Sachet family) and hear of his encounters with Saddam. We get a taste of the terror that forced cohesion onto Iraqi society.

But perhaps most interestingly, we meet with other men like Sachet – Iraqis once in high positions in the Saddam regime, now wrestling with their futures and their consciences.

Steavenson encounters them “sitting in cafes or hotel lobbies or on a thin pallet in a refugee hovel drinking ... glasses of tea or orange juice, or cans of warm Pepsi.” After awhile she has met so many that she jokes to her translator, “I could pick one out of a crowded cafe.”

Saddam’s former colleagues, she found, were generally friendly and affable, with wry senses of humor. “I liked them, I joked with them, I sympathized with them,” she writes. But she noted that all indulged in “varying shades of hypocrisy” and “not one ever looked [her] straight in the eye.”

The conversations in “The Weight of the Mustard Seed” do not exonerate these men. But they do serve to deepen our understanding of the complexity of their situations.
We would all like to believe that under similar circumstances we would have rejected evil unflinchingly.

But a book like this can sometimes be an uncomfortable read. As Steavenson points out, there is only one “original reason to tell stories in the first place,” and that is to learn to “understand ourselves in the other.”

“The Weight of a Mustard Seed” fails to take us all the way to understanding. But at least it dares to try. For readers hungry for the deeper “why” lingering behind the headlines, Steavenson will be a writer to watch.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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