June 24, 2010

While Saddam Hussein was still ruling Iraq, he went to a village to award a new Kalashnikov rifle to a young boy. The boy had come to the tyrant’s attention after reporting the private conversations of his mother and father to the secret police. It seemed the parents had criticized the tyrant, whom the youngster had been taught in school was the beneficent father of all Iraqis. The boy received a Kalashnikov and praise from Saddam for his loyalty. His betrayal of family left him a ward of the greater family, the state as incarnated in Saddam Hussein.

Saddam’s substitution of family ties for loyalty to his person was one of the reasons that many of us despised his regime, lobbied for his indictment before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity, and gave what moral support we could to his democratic opponents. (This was when the US government supported Saddam to the extent of denying, along with other crimes, his murder of thousands of Kurds with poison gas in Hallabja in 1988.) I wondered what happened to that boy, who must be a middle-aged man now, when I read an Associated Press report from Baghdad about a young man who shot his father dead in Samarra on June 18. The father, Hameed al-Daraji, had worked as an interpreter for the American military. To the son and the cousin who helped him commit the murder, working for the hated American occupier was treason. In its way, executing the father was an honor killing.

On the opposite side, a man named Khudair Hamad al-Issawi denounced his two sons to the Iraqi government for joining an anti-government insurgent group, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Mr. Issawi, who lived in Fallujah, would have known what the treatment his sons could expect as “terrorists” in the custody of the Iraqi security forces. The documented cases of torture and murder by Iraqi police and troops are too numerous to have left the father in any doubt what his sons”€™ fate would be. He did not live to find out, because someone took revenge on him—killing not only Mr. Issawi, but also his wife and two other children.

“Not in the short space of a catastrophe will the nature of man be modified,” Rebecca West wrote in The Meaning of Treason, “so the human interests which profited by the system survive after it has crashed. So when the will and earth and fire and water set out to make a new system, it is bound to look like the old.” In Iraq, no one has done much to make the new system a focus of voluntary loyalty distinct from the previous regime. That is why rewards are still given “€“ by both the insurgents and the state—to those who betray their fathers and their sons. That fractures the state further, leaving the anarchy of violence and the rule of force.

“Iraq has yet to create a society where a son can be loyal to both his father and to his government.”

The scars that Saddam left on Iraqi society have yet to heal. The conflict between loyalty to the family and loyalty to the state persists, and neither the American occupiers nor the new Iraqi state have done anything to create a harmony of interests between family and state. Fathers betray sons and sons kill fathers. In the American Civil War, families were split and blood was shed. In Vichy France, many families had sons who stood by Maréchal Pétain’s collaborationist regime and others who fought for the Resistance. It was not unknown for people to denounce members of their own families to the police for “terrorist” acts against German troops and for helping to hide Jews from both the Nazis and the French version of the Gestapo, the Milice. These themes played themselves out in most of the post-war anti-colonial tragedies, when indigenous populations were divided between those who supported the colonial occupier and the rest who believed in liberation. Many Algerians fled to France after independence, because their neighbors could not tolerate them for having collaborated with the enemy. To this day, the Hmong in southeast Asia are punished for having fought beside the American occupier.

It is wrong, I believe, for the state to encourage disloyalty within the family. If the family is the microcosm and foundation of the larger social relations that constitute the body politic, its stability reinforces the coherence of the state itself. I remember a young boy who turned his parents into the police for smoking marijuana in the United States more than twenty years ago. President Ronald Reagan, then embarking on the country’s divisive and disastrous war on drugs, praised the boy. This is unhealthy, and I somehow doubt Reagan would have reported his own children to the police for smoking marijuana. A father has duties to his children, as children do to their parents. Sending your own youngsters to jail for a trivial offense violates an important trust. It is for that reason that Common Law does not require spouses to testify in court against each other. Familial bonds normally supersede duties to the state, because breaking those bonds means the dissolution of the state itself.

Rebecca West, whose book I recommend for its perceptive understanding of twentieth century treason as committed by Communists and Nazis against their own countries, wrote,

Children sometimes go away with strangers who offer them cakes and sweets; and the ending of that story is not usually happy… They know well that they have done wrong. A person should be loyal to his father and mother, to his brothers and sisters, to his friends, to his town or village, to his province, to his country; and a person should do nothing for a bribe, even if it takes the form a promise that he should live instead of die.

Iraq has yet to create a society where a son can be loyal to both his father and to his government. The government, despite elections, could not exist except by force of foreign arms. It has not created a credible structure over which the citizenry exert control, in which the money they pay in tax is not stolen by elected politicians and the basic services destroyed in Saddam Hussein’s three wars (against Iran once and America twice) and a dozen years of international sanctions have been restored. The money and the popular will are there to bring back the electricity supply, irrigation systems, water treatment and medical services. Instead, citizens must fight for the government, against the government, for the Americans, against the Americans, in the hope that one side or the other can set things right.

All that Iraqis know now is war, and in war it is every man for himself.


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