I read quite a lot of books. So I’d like to talk about the one which I consider most influential upon my worldview. This wasn’t Smith nor Marx, not the Bible nor Quran. It wasn’t particularly well written, nor did it contain groundbreaking ideas. I don’t even remember the title or author. The book which has remained lodged in my mind is the biography of Saddam Hussein which I read in high school.
The year was 2002. The relative tranquility of the 90s had been shattered by 9/11, and after an immediate response in Afghanistan, America and its allies were laying the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq. At age 14, I was quite confused by this – what had Iraq ever done to us? Why were the media campaigning for Australian soldiers to go and fight some country half way across the world?
As an inquiring young mind, I took the opportunity offered by an open school project to study the first Gulf War. The internet was a thing, but it was patchy and not to be trusted for serious research. So instead I went to the most trusted resource for any teenager – the school library. For an Australian school in the early 2000s, history mostly meant British or colonial era explorers and well intentioned but skin-deep discussion of Aboriginal cultures. So I can understand why the Middle Eastern section had very little to offer, though the nature of the historical record may have had some influence as well. But I needed something to base my assignment upon, so I grabbed what they had – the biography of Saddam Hussein.
I haven’t been able to track down this particular book under the weight of Saddam biographies released in the wake of the Iraq War. Those all followed the US line – that he was a tyrannical despot who needed to be removed. But as I’ve mentioned, my school library wasn’t well resourced. So my Saddam Hussein biography dated from the time of the Iran-Iraq war. It followed the US line as well, but the US line of the 1980s – that Saddam was a charismatic leader who had done great things for his country and certainly should be supported. Why, the Iranians even had the gall to frame Saddam for their own chemical weapon attacks!
I was already pre-disposed against the Iraq War by the paper thin justifications and flimsy evidence presented by its public cheerleaders. But this hagiography showed me that not only was the war unjustified, but Saddam’s regime was actually a beacon of progress in the Middle East. The enemy of my enemy was, in fact, my friend. The most objective source in the world, a book from my school library, told me that the Iraqi regime was good. So I became a proto-tankie, defending Saddam and his brave resistance against American imperialism.
As time went on I gradually came to the realisation that although the Iraq war was indeed an unjustifiable act of American imperialism, Saddam was also a tyrant. The enemy of my enemy was actually also bad. But in the process I learned more about critical thinking than I was ever formally taught at school.
Authority means nothing. A book from the school library, the most authoritative source I could imagine, was full of bullshit. So even now, when I hear an argument from a professor, scholar or reporter, I don’t give a damn about their qualifications. I care about the idea – does it hold up under logical scrutiny, is it supported by evidence, how would the world look if it were true? Or is supposed expertise being used as a Trojan horse for bad ideas?
There is no such thing as objectivity. The weapons experts claiming Saddam had WMDs and the biographer who framed his heroic story both had one thing in common – a claim to be objective and unbiased. Everyone brings their own perspective and biases – we can strive to account for them but can never escape our realities.
Reductive binaries are stupid. Just because the American invasion was bad didn’t mean that Saddam was good. The real world is nuanced and complex, anybody who tells you otherwise is spinning a fairy tale. This goes for any reductive binary, whether that be good/evil or any of the others which we fall prey to.
Be especially critical of ideas you are disposed to support. I wanted to find that a war would be a bad idea. So I was less critical towards this biography because if Saddam was good, then the war was bad. One must always strive to maintain that critical perspective, and remain on guard against their own biases.
Always be sceptical of easy narratives. The very same Saddam who was being portrayed contemporarily as a threat to the West and democracy had been shown in the biography as a heroic defender of his people. Neither was true. Just like the Kim regime in Korea now, Saddam was just another dictator among many. Nothing more, nothing less. We are suckers for a good story, but the truth isn’t so simple to package into a news bulletin.
I didn’t get the education on Iraqi history that a good book would have provided, but the Saddam Hussein biography taught me much more about critical thinking. Though I don’t recall its name, whenever I read a thinkpiece I remember how readily I was hoodwinked. I remember what uncritical acceptance leads to. And I redouble my commitment to engaging with ideas, not with supposed expertise.
This post about the unnamed Saddam Hussein biography would have been much easier had I been able to identify the book’s title or author. Nonetheless, it is still part of the Book Nook series.