The Unrepentant Baathists

George Packer reviews Wendell Steavenson's new book on Iraq. It focuses on former Saddam loyalists not taking responsibility for the crimes committed on their watch:

I interviewed many former Baathists and military officers in Iraq, and not a single one of them ever acknowledged any personal moral responsibility. Denunciations of Saddam came easily, but so did the kind of rationalisations that Steavenson heard again and again: they did what they did because they had to, out of fear, to protect their family, to eat and survive. When I asked about the gassing of Kurdish villagers, it was common to hear flat denials that it had ever happened.

This mental atmosphere of evasion and excuse was made worse by the fact that these same former officials and officers were now living under American power, which gave them an easy way to change the subject from committing old crimes to having new ones committed against them. They had been victims under Saddam, and now they were victims under the Americans: this was the extent of moral consciousness among most of the former ruling class in post-Saddam Iraq. The occupation and insurgency forestalled any chance for Iraqis to begin to reckon with their individual and collective roles as accomplices, as well as victims, during Saddam’s reign of terror. This is why the writer Kanan Makiya’s project for a memorial museum and archive in the centre of Baghdad, where the crossed swords of Saddam’s Victory Monument stand, had little chance of being established so soon after the fall of the regime, and indeed seemed to infuriate most Iraqis who knew about it.