Saddam Hussein and Capital’s Moral Defeat

Consider the scene in Firdos Square, Baghdad, April 9, 2003: A statue of Saddam Hussein is toppled by US Marines, among a throng of rejoicing Iraqis. The event is immediately construed by Western media as a symbol of the fall of his regime and a happy ending to the war. President Bush declared it ‘a historic moment.’

Shortly before it falls, the statue’s face is covered by an American flag—the very same Stars and Stripes that flew over the Pentagon when it was hit on September 11, 2001. The next day, 15,000 construction workers and firefighters—chanting USA! USA!—packed a noontime rally at ground zero, New York, in support of the war in Iraq, which, to many of them, began right there on September 11, 2001. The Stars and Stripes was quickly replaced by the tricolour Iraqi flag, but the symbolism remains. It embodied the belief prevalent among America’s civilian and military populations that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is a war against terrorism. It symbolized the completion of an emotional journey; that the dead of 9/11 have been avenged.

Why has this belief taken such a hold on America? Even supporters of the war, when pressed, concede that there is no credible evidence to implicate Saddam Hussein or the Ba’athist regime with the events of that day in New York, rural Pennsylvania and Washington. An obvious explanation is that the Bush administration engineered this pretext to conceal its actual material and strategic interests in Iraq. If a lie is repeated often enough, people may eventually come to believe it. True enough, but there is something more, something else about Bush and Blair’s rationale for this war that so far has evaded its numerous critiques.

Suffer Injury: Inflict Pain

There is indeed a link between ‘9/11’ and ‘Iraq,’ but it is not cognitive and empirical. It is the moral and emotive connection between suffering an injury and inflicting pain. This connection is felt, not thought; it involves all the body, not just the head.

The moral connection between suffering an injury and inflicting pain was made famous by Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ circa 1596. Bassanio, a Christian merchant, borrows money from Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, using his friend Antonio as his bond. The penalty for a breach of this contract is a pound of Antonio’s ‘fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me.’ When Bassanio defaults on the loan, Shylock refuses offers of financial compensation from third parties and insists on his pound of flesh. Why? Shylock refuses to answer this question—‘say it is my humour’—but it is because he wants the pleasure of inflicting suffering.

Shakespeare’s play is often interpreted as a conflict between a cruel Judaism and a merciful Christianity, but that misses its point. Shakespeare has a Jew invoke his right to this feeling of power because the moral logic of equivalence between suffering and cruelty is Judaic in origin. The Jewish diaspora’s traders and merchants dispersed this moral equivalence throughout Christendom. It became the moral glue of commercial contracts, which rest on its sanctity. There can be no exchange without promises and no promises without trust. A contract is a bond is a testament is a covenant. Judaism’s morality underwrote Christianity’s commerce.

A man’s body was his bond long before his word was. In the early days of merchant capitalism, to secure a loan it was not uncommon for a debtor to pledge his body, or that of his family or friends. Instead of accepting compensation in the form of money or land, the creditor was entitled to the satisfaction of subjecting the body of the defaulting debtor to various forms of physical abuse. This included cutting from it an amount commensurate to the debt. Shylock was acting within his rights. This penalty was written into a lawful contract, recognized by the Venetian State, a centre of trade between East and West.

Pleasure-in-cruelty has been a fact of Judeo-Christian life for centuries. It was evident in those festivals of cruelty, built around public punishment, the maiming, branding and executions, which shaped our current morality, but which we like to forget. We, in the West, no longer insist on our pound of flesh—the target of cruelty centuries ago shifted from the body to the soul, to psychic pain—but the morality behind the practice remains. This logic of equivalence is at the core of Judeo-Christian morality; it is the very soul of capital, and capital reached its highest expression in contemporary America. Those twin towers could not have been built without it. This morality is the prism through which the events of 9/11 were refracted by the religious conservatives running the American State.

Americaʼs Festival of Cruelty and Humiliation

The stunning destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and part of the Pentagon—let us leave aside, by whom—caused devastating symbolic damage to global capital and American military might. They lost their aura of invincibility. This, more than the deaths of 3,000 people, is what pained and angered the Bush administration. 9/11 triggered some fearsome Old Testament suffering among America’s estimated 90 million conservative Christians. This feeling was articulated and manipulated by one of their own, the President, and amplified by an abject news media.

Watching Bush on TV, one sensed that if the teleprompter broke he would not know what to say. He would, however, know what to feel. Politics involves bodily feelings as well as abstract reasoning; religious conservatives, such as Bush, understand this better than their secular critics. His emotive message regarding 9/11 was one of hurt innocence: ‘After all we have done for the world, how could they do this to us?’ Over Iraq, it is the reluctant avenger. Sheriff Bush, keeping Main Street, USA, safe for decent folk. ‘They refused when we asked them nicely to hand in their guns. They refused when we gave them 48 hours to get out of town. So we had to throw them out. They had it coming.’ This image of the reluctant lawman with the courage to act alone, converted Bush’s apparent weakness, a lack of international support, into a sign of moral strength.

America experienced great injury and loss of face and so, as an old-fashioned, born-again Christian, Bush felt morally entitled to inflict great pain and humiliation. This moral right and emotive need made superfluous any legal right. On whom? That was the problem. The presumed perpetrators of 9/11 were killed in the act. Modern Islamic militancy (‘Al Qaeda’) is too chaotic to be a satisfying target. For the moral logic of equivalence, however, ‘on whom?’ matters less than that the injury be expiated and honour restored. Shylock wanted a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body, but it was Bassanio who defaulted on the loan. Even if Saddam Hussein did not cause 9/11, he surely willed it. Iraq—a society brought to its knees by sanctions and rendered practically defenseless—will do, just fine.

It was not, you understand, necessary that Iraqis actually die or even feel physical pain, although of course that is unavoidable and so very regrettable, only that they be humiliated and made to feel fear—and that they can be seen doing so. At every opportunity, this armed morality humiliated Iraqis—whose own morality centres on honour and dignity—in retribution for the humiliation of the United States. The toppling of his statue in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003; Saddam down a hole; Saddam being medically inspected as if he were a vagrant; Saddam in his underpants. All of these events were staged-managed by the Americans for the ‘folks’ back home.

The purpose of this invasion was never to liberate or to disarm Iraq: it was to vent America’s malice; to experience the pleasure of doing ill in the name of doing good; to expiate fear of terrorism by anger toward Saddam Hussein. Modern munitions; medieval morality. The dirty secret of Judeo-Christian morality is that witnessing suffering feels good and inflicting suffering feels even better. Bush and Blair were no more willing to speak this truth than was Shylock. It was, however, the secret agenda of this invasion and occupation of Iraq.

What many find so objectionable about Bush is that his body gestures, facial expressions, his tone and timbre of voice revealed that he enjoyed the emotions of 9/11. He savoured his suspicions, grieved over what happened, brooded over what might happen, as if intoxicated on the heady brew of malice. Bush and Blair used 9/11, just as Obama uses it, as an emotional license to kill.

The invasion of Iraq was a great moral reckoning, a spectacular festival of cruelty that would shame the Middle Ages, the ‘Operation Iraq Freedom Show,’ scripted and staged like a Disney production.

It was cruel to subject Iraqis to stress by laying siege to their country for months and threatening them with the prospect of injury, maiming and death. The somatic cost of this psychological assault will be borne for generations.

It was diabolical to say one thing to Iraq while doing its opposite, as Blair and Bush did: to feign diplomacy knowing that come what may you will invade and occupy their country. ‘We beg you to disarm, so that we may better crush you.’ Had Iraqis handed in their knives and forks it would not have made any difference to Bush’s intent.

It was cruel to unleash the power of the most terrible military machine ever assembled on a proud people brought to their knees by twelve years of sanctions. They were bombed senseless. If this had been a boxing match, it never would have been allowed. It was, argued Pravda, like ‘the school bully picking on the weakest boy and setting upon him with a viciousness … as horrific as the savaging of a poodle puppy by a pack of famished and outraged Rottweilers.’

Those Americans traumatized by 9/11 undoubtedly enjoyed the Show, happy in the elevating feeling that America has vented its power against a contemptible enemy and a terrible injury has been healed.

Let us return to the multitude around the fallen idol in Firdos Square, Baghdad on April 9. Like the war itself—based on false pretexts, waged by a fictitious coalition—this was staged, a contrived photo-opportunity timed for prime-time American news. The tight TV camera angle gave the impression of a square full of Iraqis. A longer view reveals a small crowd of people, surrounded by empty space, then tanks, then more empty space, in a square cordoned off by US military.

According to then Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, ‘Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.’ It was celebrated in Western media as a ‘momentous event.’ There were hundreds of thousands in Berlin the evening of November 9, 1989. There were no more than a few dozen Iraqis in Firdos Square on April 9. There were more off-camera journalists than ‘liberated’ Iraqis in that square. Those delighted Iraqis, it turns out, were militiamen of the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi, who was flown into Iraq by the Pentagon because he was Rumsfeld’s choice to become Iraq’s next president. One of his aides can be clearly seen in stills of the TV footage.

This symbolic phony fall marked, not the end of the war—the deaths continued—but the beginning of the end of the Festival of Pain. It was not a case of ‘now they are free,’ but ‘we have seen enough suffering and feel better now.’

The Demonized and the Downtrodden

The fall-back position for apologists of the war against Iraq is that that at least it got rid of a ‘brutal dictator.’ It is a safe bet, however, that as many lies have been told about Saddam Hussein as there have about WMD. Aggressors always vilify their enemies, to legitimate their own aggression. The dead giveaway is that only a leader of real worth would warrant the volume of righteous defamation heaped upon him by Bush and Blair.

Arabs and Muslims, especially those in Iraq, are much better placed to evaluate Saddam’s actions than Westerners. Sustaining ‘our’ goodness, the moral validity of what ‘we’ have done to the people of Iraq, requires sustaining Saddam Hussein’s ‘evilness’. Seldom has one person been subjected to such an enormous campaign of vilification for such immoral ends.

According to T.E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’ fame—that British-born, but American-made hero), holding together the fragments out of which Iraq was created after World War One, will take a genius, a prophet, or a great criminal. Time will tell into which category belongs Hussein. Undoubtedly, he was a hard man, but Arabia is a land of hard truths and the British created a country which only a hard man could rule. Saddam Hussein was a product of Iraq’s bloody history. His will was the glue necessary to hold together these fragments. Only someone willfully blind to Iraq’s brutal history could regard him as its cause.

Saddam Hussein threatened Anglo-American interests, not because he possessed WMD or because he sponsored global terrorism—he did neither—but because he was unafraid of Israeli-Anglo-American military might and was the only Arab leader to risk courting its wrath by actively supporting the Palestinian cause. Like Iraq itself, he was unbowed and unbroken, despite the Gulf War and 12 years of blockade and bombing. Paradoxically, his very existence was a moral threat to Israeli-Anglo-American interests. That is why he had to be destroyed.

A demonized Saddam Hussein and a downtrodden Iraqi people are sides of the same racist sentiment. Neither are to be trusted. Hussein deceived and lied; he was cruel and ruthless. He had to be stopped. Iraqis are long-suffering and held-down, afraid and unable to act. They have to be saved.

So President Bush and Prime Minister Blair mobilized the most powerful and expensive force in the history of civilization and sent it half-way around the world to win freedom for Iraqis and to build them a democracy.

As if Iraqis were incapable of choosing and fighting for their own future. Perhaps they had chosen to live in an independent country with Saddam Hussein over living in subjugation under an occupying army.

As if present day British and American democracies are not products of revolutions and centuries of bloody struggle. As if these countries—which acted in flagrant disregard of international law—are models of democracy and freedom.

As if ‘giving’ Iraqis ‘freedom’ does not humiliate and insult them. Any fool knows that liberation comes from within and below, not from without and above. Rights which are bestowed seldom are worth having; meaningful rights usually have to be fought for.

Well, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis resisted this occupation and these Anglo-American democrats killed and maimed them. Every one, someone’s father, brother, son. As if the Iraqi army—woven out of family, clan and tribal bonds—could be separated from the people.

The racist sentiment behind the invasion attempts to explain away this resistance as being inspired by fear of Saddam Hussein. But the pragmatics of fear does not begin to explain the passion, tenacity and courage of Iraqis in the face of that merciless onslaught. To live, they had only to surrender. Yet the number of Iraqis who did so is negligible. No: they fought for themselves, their families, their tribe, their land, their country. And now they are dead. ‘Liberated.’

The Divinity of Capital and its Moral Defeat

Bush and Blair are right about one thing: this was and is a war about morality. Immediately following 9/11, in a rare unscripted moment, Bush announced a ‘crusade’ to punish the perpetrators. The word was quickly removed from his lexicon by his handlers, but it is precisely the right one to describe the assault on Iraq.

This was a crusade in the service of the divinity of capital, a vengeful, jealous god before which no other god may stand. Capital thrives in Christian countries, but it is rooted in Judaism’s moral logic of equivalence. That is why this crusade was blessed in Jerusalem, against the opposition of Rome, and why America unconditionally supports and funds Israel, the only Jewish State in the world: it is capital’s moral, spiritual home. Christianity emerged out of Judaism. Having travelled the globe in the service of commerce, this morality came home to assuage America’s pain and do battle with ‘evil.’

And what a miserable, sick and self-serving morality it is, that would destroy a country and inflict such suffering on innocent children, women and men, and have the gall to call it liberation. Bush and Blair are Janus-faces of Judeo-Christianity, the mother of all their motives: the vengeful Bush’s moralistic mendacity and the blessed Blair’s pious sincerity. Old and New Testaments. One imposes suffering and relishes it; the other imposes suffering and agonizes about it. A fine pair of Christian soldiers. It was never the evil in Iraq they should have worried about, it is their own ‘goodness.’

Ecce Homo: Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein’s staged and scripted trial and execution were intended as the concluding acts in this morality play. The court which tried him, the Iraqi High Tribunal, was neither independent of the occupying power nor was it impartial. Those privy to its inner workings know that the trial was run by American lawyers in the US Embassy in the fortified Green Zone. You need moral as well as legal authority to hang someone and this court had neither. Hussein made that plain. Like the Resistance, he was unbowed, defiantly spitting truths at the occupiers and their agents.

Forget the contrived fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue. Pay attention to Saddam Hussein’s actual death, for it is not often one witnesses the defeat of a morality. That’s what Saddam Hussein, feet shackled, hands tied, inflicted on the West, in those moments before he was hung, on the first day of Eid ul-Adha, 2006. Courtesy of digital technology, this extraordinary event was witnessed by millions around the world.

The execution of Saddam Hussein was the ‘justice’ to which he was brought. The stage was set for his final humiliation. To his credit, he refused to follow the script and turned the tables on those who brought him there. He denied them the pleasure of feeling morally superior.

Saddam Hussein’s life will be argued over for many years, but on this everyone can agree: Nothing reveals a man’s moral character so much as having his own death staring him in the face. Few among us will die on the gallows, but we must all face death alone. Nothing, no-one can help us. We must rely entirely on our inner resources.

How a person faces death reflects how they have lived their life. Dying, like living, is a skill requiring disciplined practice. Some fall apart, blame others and turn this way and that looking for an escape. Others grimly batten down the hatches, stare blankly ahead and let death overtake them. The exceptional ones go to meet it with equanimity.

Ponder for a moment how Blair and Straw, Bush and the White House Iraq Group—Rove, Hughes, Matalin, Card, Wilkinson, Calio, Rice, Hadley, Libby and Gerson—will behave when their own reckoning comes. As Saddam Hussein was bravely greeting his death, Tony Blair was safe in the arms of America, staying at the home of a celebrity, Robin Gibb, in Florida.

Knowing you are about to be hung by your enemies following a fraudulent trial, at the behest of foreign invaders who have destroyed your country, would tax the moral resources of a saint. Or, in this case, a martyr. Saddam Hussein demonstrated how to die with courage, honour and dignity.

Ordinarily, at an execution, the condemned man is hooded or blindfolded, to hide his shame, to spare him sight of his own death rushing towards him. But Saddam forewent this. He stood bare-faced, facing death, not hiding from it. His constrained body emphasized the expressions of his face. It showed no sign of fear, or submission to the power about to kill him. His eyes did not stare into the void. He listened attentively to what his executioner said to him. He is quick-witted to the end, rising above the verbal barbs of his tormentors.

It was his executioners who were hooded. They could see, but not be seen. Ostensibly, this was for fear of reprisals. And yet they stood and moved furtively, like guilty men. The arrangement of their bodies lacked order. They moved as if their hoods were to spare us the sight of their wretchedness.

If ever a death symbolized the spirit of resistance in Iraq, this was it. Saddam Hussein, surrounded by hostile men, about to be lynched, refused to be terrorized. America lifts up its skirts at the mere idea of danger and sees terror around every corner. It’s the old story about the American State: militarily strong, morally weak.

This was the death of a man of exceptionally strong will and courage. It was a death that shamed all those who slandered how he lived. Is this the behavior of a man who would hide in a hole in the ground to evade capture by the Americans? It gave the lie to that piece of propaganda.

The entire weight of that wave of Anglo-American moral superiority crashed down on Saddam Hussein and the whole world saw he did not flinch. That was the moral defeat of these forces, right there, staring us in the face.

There is a precedent. An occupying power hands over a man to his enemies who taunt, mock and then execute him. Where have we heard this before? Bush and Blair should know the answer—two thousand years ago in Roman-occupied Palestine. Jesus was sacrificed to atone for the sins of the guilty.

For what or whom was Saddam Hussein sacrificed? Certainly not for what he did to Iraqis—for that Bush and Blair would hang a hundred times over. He was hung because he was unafraid of the West’s military might and because his very existence was a moral threat to Anglo-Israeli-American interests.

But this gambit backfired. Saddam Hussein’s resistance broke that moral wave. The tide changed, returned to from whence it came, and is rising. Resistance too has come home, to every city in the West and the spirit of insurrection is growing. Those responsible for the carnage in Iraq face their own reckoning.

Let the last words be Saddam Hussein’s: Final Letter from President Saddam Hussein to the People of Iraq.

Dr.  Richard Marsden is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Integrated Studies at Athabasca University.


Ecce Homo [‘Behold the Man’], of course, is an allusion to the words attributed to Pontious Pilate with reference to Jesus; and also to Nietzsche’s ‘Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is’.