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Big Men


In ancient Sumer, Iraq 5000 years ago, ruling councils sometimes sought a lugal (big man) to lead armed fight in times of crisis and danger. Scholars think eventually these big men became kings, and civil and military power merged. Saddam Hussein consciously copied the strongman style of Joseph Stalin and was pleased to be regarded as a brutal big man. Though he had himself painted astride a white horse like the Islamic warrior Saladin, he was more often shown brandishing a rifle. Leader photo poses are revealing.

The Grand Ayatollah Sistani (usually pictured serious and prayerful, usually speaking against violence) got Moktada al-Sadr’s followers to put down their rifles and weapons and separate from the holy shrine in Najaf. Sistani’s power was greater in the faceoff siege than that of weapon-brandishing rebels, threatening Iraqi police forces, and the most heavily armed military in the world-the US Marines.

Sistani today is regarded as the most powerful man in Iraq. He prefers to separate religion and politics and refuses roles in the government. When he called on Shia faithful to march with him to liberate Najaf he instructed followers to enter the shrine unarmed and called on the al-Sadr forces to lay down their arms and on the US to withdraw. He brought off what bluster and threatening and brutal destruction couldn’t-though the cynical argued that the shelling devastation, the reeking human and animal dead, the rubble-reduced buildings, the ruined economy, softened and set up the scene for him.

What is the difference between big men with a gun or a plane or a bomb or a peaceful idea? Rate Saddam, Stalin, Bush, Kim Jong-Il, bin Laden, Gandhi, Napoleon, Caesar, King, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Sistani.

Peace-loving Presidential candidates in the US fare badly according to political calculation. People want a lugal, a big man, an enforcer, someone to lead in times of crisis and danger. But big men are overrated and usually poor kings.

All times are crisis and danger. Everyone dies. The better leader lets you live.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:


DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:

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