The House of Saddam: HBO’s disgrace

Brian Brivati is a visiting professor of human rights at Kingston University in London. Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia. Professors Brivati and Alexander have sent us the following commentary on the HBO/BBC mini-series that concluded last night:

HBO just finished presenting “The House of Saddam,” a four-hour mini-series and joint production with the BBC, on successive Sundays, and managed to pull off a remarkable feat. The series shows Saddam Hussein as a naive diplomat trying to defend his country from the aggression of others, a leader who misread signs and pursued wars which he lost but then declared that he had won. It shows him as a tough politician capable of murdering his best friend with his own hand to demonstrate his will to power. It managed to portray him as a man whose only demand was complete loyalty and whose only concern was for his family and his country – though it also showed him as an unfaithful husband living a life of material luxury while his people suffered from sanctions.

In sum, it presented Saddam as a cross between a beleaguered CEO trying to keep his ship of state afloat in a stormy world and Michael Corleone just taking care of business (the opening sequences of episode one is even an homage to the first “Godfather” movie).

But while that isn’t a sympathetic portrayal, it nonetheless whitewashes Saddam and his regime, adding to the anti-war mythology that the Iraqis were in some sense better off before the change of regime, and insulting the millions who died as a result of his genocidal projects, sustained suppression of political opponents and the bloody wars that he instigated.

The Will to Power

Here are just a few examples of the movie’s attempt to humanize Saddam’s personality and minimize his crimes. The mini-series begins in 1979 – a third of the way through Saddam’s career – and implies that Saddam seized absolute power that year because he properly understood the threat of rising fundamentalism in neighboring Iran. It therefore does not offer viewers the context of Saddam’s earlier rise through the ranks of the Ba’athist Party, a rise distinguished by his violence and even sadism. More important, the movie does not explain that the Iranian revolution represented a threat only because it might have inspired Iraq’s Shia to overthrow their shackles.

This is because the movie offers no serious description of the ethnic politics of Iraq. It does not make clear that Saddam governed as leader of minority ethnic group that consciously and aggressively repressed the majority. This failure to establish the ethnic-sectarian foundation of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime means that each of the main dimensions of Saddam’s genocidal projects is ignored. The Iran-Iraq war is not shown to be an ethnicized conflict in which Saddam forced Shia to fight Shia. In the aftermath of that war, Saddam ordered the Anfal campaign aimed at destroying the Kurdish nation in northern Iraq, but this is mentioned in the movie only in an opaque, passing remark over lunch. The withdrawal of the Republican Guard from Kuwait in 1991 is presented as an attempt to defend Baghdad from foreign troops and does not mention that they were in fact used to mass-murder Iraqi Shia who rose against Saddam’s abuses.

Most perversely, the movie repeatedly portrays Saddam asking how “the people” feel toward his regime, when we know from the regime’s internal documents that the Saddamite leadership perceived entire categories of men, women, and children – Kurds, Shias, and even many Sunnis – as internal enemies who were best addressed through terror, not good governance. In sum, Saddam’s regime is presented as being run by gangsters who kill individuals who prove disloyal. But bad as that is, it constitutes a white-wash of a fully genocidal regime that proceeded on the basis of sustained assault on and destruction of entire ethnic groups, including large swathes of Iraq’s Kurdish, Marsh Arab, and Shia communities.

The naive nationalist diplomat

If you took this film as a text on international history you would walk away thinking that Saddam based his foreign policy on defending his country. The movie sequences events in a way that frames each story in a very particular way. The first mention of Iran has the Ayatollah Khomeini threatening Iraq. Baghdad then suffers unexplained bombings by a group loyal to Khomeini. The clear impression is that Iraq is under not just threat but low-intensity attack. Only then do we see Iraq attack Iran, as though Saddam is responding to attack rather than initiating it. When Iraq loses that war, Saddam then declared a victory and, having ruined his country, went after Kuwait. Again, the first mention of Kuwait has that country forcing down the price of oil and thereby ruining Saddam’s attempt to rebuild his country.

Saddam promises in one subsequent scene to “feed his people,” as though his motivation for the attack on Kuwait was in some sense (nationalistically) humanitarian. The presentation of the diplomacy also implies that having asked the opinion in one meeting of one diplomat (American Ambassador April Glasspie), Saddam had performed some kind of due diligence for the invasion of another country. It practically becomes the fault of the U.S. for not stopping Saddam from doing the most natural thing in the world when faced with an economic problem: invading a neighbour. A great deal is then made of the 30 nations that line up against Iraq to throw them out of Kuwait, failing to mention that these nations included almost all of the Arab world. The reality is that within ten years Saddam invaded two neighbouring countries in unvarnished wars of aggression.

These inconvenient truths of the Saddam regime do not fit the picture that this HBO/BBC special tried to paint. They even present the secret police as beginning mass murders only after an attempt on Saddam’s life rather than as a consistent feature of the regime which only intensified over time. And the presentation of the torturing of victims invites direct comparisons between actions by Saddam’s thugs with those of U.S. troops during the final search for a fugitive Saddam. In fact, the first and only mention of Abu Ghraib is as an American detention center, not as a prison in which Saddam tortured and murdered tens of thousands.

HBO’s disgrace

There is much more that could be said. But let us sum up: HBO and the BBC want us to see Saddam as a family man, a tyrant at home, a dictator at work, who became this way because his stepfather beat him. He was, in this version, an ordinary kind of dictator and this was an ordinary kind of Middle Eastern authoritarian regime run as a family business. The trouble is it was not. Saddam was uniquely brutal in his rise through the Ba’athist Party. His regime sought to eliminate entire groups from the nation. He launched two aggressive wars against neighbouring states. This was not a normal authoritarian regime, nor even a bad one. Saddam was a genocidal dictator who terrorized his own people. This attempt to normalize him is a disgrace.

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